Buwan ng Wika: Filipino scholar analyzes SB19 Ken Suson, P-Pop as multilingual genre
P-pop sensation SB19
Buwan ng Wika: Filipino scholar analyzes SB19 Ken Suson, P-Pop as multilingual genre
(Philstar.com) - August 28, 2020 - 12:27pm

MANILA, Philippines — Can current Pinoy Pop (P-Pop) evolve into music in all languages in the Philippines? Can we normalize multilingualism in the country? 

The shape of intercultural exchanges inside the SB19 fandom shows us how it is possible.

Bisaya is not a dialect, Philippine languages are not dialects

Recently, one of the fans of SB19 tweeted: “Unpopular opinion: Gaganda ng songs ni Ken pero underrated kase Bisaya…” (The songs of Ken Suson, one of the members of the phenomenal Pinoy group, are good but they are underrated because they are in Bisaya) (@jahllergies).

This statement could imply that the writer was criticizing Ken’s use of Bisaya in his songs, and they are of less value precisely because they are written in a ‘local’ Philippine language.
The giveaway, however, is the word “underrated,” which is used to describe something or someone of great value but is not recognized as such. In other words, the tweet in fact recognizes that songs are great but is making a social commentary on why they are not valued as much as they should be. 

Nevertheless, the feelings of those who were hurt – those who may have thought that the tweet was devaluing the songs because they were in Bisaya – could not be easily invalidated. Raymund Williams uses the term “structure of feeling” to describe how our deep-seated personal feelings have been shaped by history and are shared by others in our community or society.

Since the time of Spanish and American colonizations, Philippine languages have been devalued and mocked in favor of colonial languages. We have been punished for using our own languages in school because they should not get in the way of learning Spanish or English. We have been taught that to be “modern” and “enlightened” Filipinos, we should forget (or stop using) our local languages. While I was growing up in Aklan, we were barred from “speaking the vernacular” in school and we were fined for doing so. 

This is one reason why our Philippine languages have historically been named “dialects” instead of languages. In the process, we have experienced internal colonization which continues until now.  Even if we have a sympathetic view of our Philippine languages, we still refer to them as “dialects.” 

But Bisaya is not a dialect. My own language, Aklanon, is not a dialect. My wife is from Pangasinan and she speaks Ilocano, a language not a dialect. 

In linguistic terms, a dialect is a variant or variety of a language. So if Aklanon is a dialect, what is it a variant of? And what is Bisaya a variant of? Of course, the politics of language around the world differs from one society to another. In many cases, some dialects are called separate languages because of political reasons. Thus, what I am describing here is specific to how we as Filipinos continue to participate in the marginalization (and even the mockery) of our own languages by referring to them as “dialects.” 

The impact of this has been to devalue accomplishments, writings and music in Philippine languages. Many of us continue to associate vernacular languages with backwardness or lack of education. Just name characters in movies and television dramas who speak local or regional languages. What roles are usually assigned to them? Which socioeconomic class do they belong to? In fact, many policy-makers, leaders and even educators today continue to claim that linguistic diversity or multilingualism is a problem.  

But to use today’s language, let us normalize thinking that English, Filipino and all other Philippine languages are of equal value. Let us start by calling them languages, not dialects. Let us then normalize using all languages without fear of being judged or mocked. 

Multilingualism is the norm

This is why Ken Suson’s unapologetic use of Bisaya in his songs – “Para hindi lang tagalog, English kanta namin,” he said in an Instagram response to a fan – is significant and must be viewed positively. 

Recently, he has also dropped an original poem, “Palangga,” in Bisaya. I say unapologetic because he makes it appear that his use of Bisaya is part of his daily communicative routine. No apologies for using it because his linguistic repertoire is, in fact, translingual where he uses overlapping languages to say what he wants to say. 

Majority of Filipinos are translingual, shifting between and mixing dialects and languages simultaneously to communicate, except that some would rather highlight their competence in English (and Filipino) and devalue (or even apologize for their use of) their mother tongues and regional languages. 

But is speaking in many languages a disadvantage? Will it cause disunity among the people if speaking in many languages is encouraged? 

Very recently, Ken dropped on Twitter a screencap of a conversation he had with his dad who works and lives in Malaysia with Ken’s mom.  At the time of writing, it has generated 15.3K likes and 1.9K comments, and has been shared 7.3K times.

Ken introduces it in English: “This kind of conversation with your father”:

Ken: Bitaw pa no
         Taga bukid ra biya

Dad: Unsa man diay?..huna hunaa gani kon unsa ta ka pobre atong gamay paka 
         nagsakay tag habal habal nga napaso ko...lisod tag palit ug ginanggang..

Ken: Kahinumdum jud ko atong natumba ka HAHAHAH
         na shoot ta sa kanal hahaha
         Gamaya pa nako ato oy HAHAH

Dad: Na kon imong imaginon daw gahapon lang pero wala nato damha nga 
       naabot naka sa top of the world…hahaha..

Ken: Di pa na top of the world pa uyyy
         sa future papa
         i top of the world tana

Ken did not provide the translation and, instead, allowed the criss-crossing exchanges to flow organically and effortlessly. It is obvious that majority of those who participated in the exchanges did not understand the conversation, but one senses that the so-called “language barrier” was not an insurmountable barrier at all. 

Many politely asked for translation, others said they would wait until someone dropped a translation “sa gedli” (“sa gilid” or “in the corner”), while others sought help from those they knew could understand or speak Bisaya: “ipapa translate ko ito kay mama mamaya” (@sejunienase); “Asked mom to translate, and I’m literally in tears now” (@_Lei1530).

Some went to Google and tried to get the gist of it: “…lumapit ako kay google translate hahah. Grabe it melts my heart.” 

Many came up with their individual translations, although these translations further evolved into cultural exchanges as there were shades of meaning that needed to be threshed out.

Apparently, there was a need to explain what “habal-habal” and “ginanggang” are because they are specific to particular places in the Philippines: “Hindi po pala siya [ginanggang] herbal medicine ano po ata siya saging daw sabi ng iba hehehe cebuana kasi si mama kaya may mga term na di kami magkapareha” (@Cute-kay14). Thus, some explanations were accompanied by pictures of these cultural icons.       

Some drew on their knowledge of other Philippine languages to navigate the meanings in the conversation: “Di ako marunong magbisaya (may similar words yung Bisaya and waray since I’m fond of speaking waray) pero naiintindihan ko yung convo nila)” (@jah447798). Here is one exchange that led to an invitation to visit Aklan:

AnneStell: Sweet pud kayo murag mga reminiscing convo with parents.
Nessyl: Teka xanne bisaya ka?
AnneStell: Aklanon ate pero kasabot kog gamay na Bisaya then know man mag Hiligaynon
Nessyl: as in…galing! Yung language niyo hirap aralin…
AnneStell: Yes yes mahirap talaga ang Aklanon dialect [sic] ness ???? sana makapunta ka rin dito ???? maganda ang Aklan…Pag okay na ang lahat. DM mo tapos ako Nes”) Maganda ang Boracay at Buruanga.

What these intercultural and multilingual exchanges show us is that meaning-making is a group effort. There was a genuine desire from everyone to navigate the message of the conversation between Ken and his dad. There was no hate or disappointment over the use of a language which many did not understand. Instead, there was mutual support to translate and recreate the meaning of the conversation. 

The language used by Ken, in other words, did not serve as a barrier to communication; in fact, it opened up conversations about languages, dialects and establishing personal relationships. The presence of many languages and dialects in the exchanges did not become a liability but, in fact, it facilitated exchanges of meanings and cultures. In the end, what started as mutual struggle to understand because of the initial challenge of language led to conversations about Ken and his dad and how the story connected with the stories and lives of others. The languages we speak are resources through which we can strengthen our bonds with each other. We do not need to choose one and mock a hundred others.

P-Pop in Philippine languages

Sejun, Justin, Ken, Stell and Josh sing in Korean, and they do so with beautiful melodies and stories. Why not SB19 songs in multiple languages? I do not simply mean Ken singing in Bisaya.

Josh or Stell can also choose to sing in Bisaya, which Maris Racal speaks. We have more than one hundred languages from which we can learn different cultural practices and local histories. One song need not be in one language only, and it does not need to exclude English, Filipino or any other language for that matter. 

This is a generation of young people who transcend languages in order to appreciate music. During the times I spend in different fandoms, especially that of SB19, I see and read fans talk about and debate on music without hating the use of particular languages. I do acknowledge the presence of internal colonization – for example, in the use of “dialects” to refer to Philippine languages. The reason that Ken’s songs in Bisaya are underappreciated or underrated could precisely be because of hidden bias against our local languages.

But if there is something to learn from Ken’s conversation with his dad, and the exchanges that followed, it is that languages are not the real reason why we cannot understand each other. It is that usually we refuse to spend time figuring out how to understand each other. I go for Aklanon for Sejun, Chavacano for Ken, Tausug for Justin, Bikol for Josh, and Ivatan for Stell, or a mix of all these languages in a song. 

Or better yet, I go for all languages spoken in the Philippines for P-Pop. Let us normalize creating music in these different languages, not simply because it is aesthetic or sexy to do so (I read some tweets saying this), but especially because it could put a spotlight on the country’s rich local musical traditions and practices. This is one way P-Pop can take on a unique identity of its own. Let P-Pop be a multilingual genre.

About the writer

Ruanni Tupas lives with his wife and three kids in London. He is a leading Filipino scholar of English language and multilingualism who lectures at the Department of Communication, Culture and Media, Institute of Education, University College London. 

He is an Associate Editor of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language, sole editor of “Unequal Englishes: The Politics of Englishes Today” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), and co-editor of several volumes, including “Language, education and nation-building: Assimilation and shift in Southeast Asia” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014). Upon reading his earlier articles about SB19, his daughter reminded him that he is not the only A’Tin in the family.

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