In the shadow of Pinatubo: José Navarro on Kapampangan

Kapampangan is spoken in Central Luzon, on the main Philippine island of Luzon, north of Manila (see map below).  It is the seventh largest language of the Philippines, with about 2.5 million native speakers.  According to the Philippine Constitution, regional languages have "auxiliary official" status in the regions, but, despite being the main language of Pampanga Province and one of the two main languages of Tarlac Province, Kapampangan does not have official status, and is not taught in schools.

According to the 1987 Constitution, the official languages of the Philippines are English and Filipino.  Filipino was originally conceived of as a national language that would be "developed and enriched on the basis of existing Philippine and other languages", but in practice this has not happened; nowadays it is usually described as a "standardized form" or a "prestige register" of the Tagalog language (Tagalog is the most widely spoken indigenous language on the islands and the traditional language of the capital city, Manila).  Many speakers of regional languages in the Philippines view Filipino and Tagalog as one and the same.  It appears that Google does as well; the Google search interface was available as far back as 2000 in "Tagalog", but if you browse the Internet Archive, you'll find that sometime in 2004 it was renamed "Filipino".

In any case, the promotion of Filipino has taken its toll on the use of Kapampangan and the other indigenous languages of the Philippines.  If you look at the Indigenous Tweets pages for Philippine languages like Ilocano, Waray-Waray, or Kapampangan, you'll notice that the percentage of tweets "in language" is on average quite low, reflecting the fact that many speakers of these languages are more accustomed to using Tagalog or English online.

This linguistic landscape is in some ways similar to the ones found in multilingual African countries like Malawi, Tanzania, or Ghana, where one indigenous language is promoted as a national language and is taught in schools alongside English, while smaller indigenous languages are used primarily at home and in local communities.  Comparisons can also be made with other multilingual states, such as Spain, Switzerland, Canada, etc., each offering a different model of regional and linguistic autonomy.

José Navarro is a writer, editor, and researcher who has written a number of articles on language revival, focusing particularly on Kapampangan, for online discussion groups, local publications, and Wikipedia.  He agreed to talk with us about the current state of the language, both online and offline.
Map by Christopher Sundita, CC-BY-SA

KPS: What opportunities are there to use Kapampangan online?  Is internet connectivity or access to computers an issue for your community?

JN: Online, Kapampangan is used on several Kapampangan-language discussion groups, whether connected with Pampanga, Tarlac or towns or cities in these provinces, or with websites or discussion groups catering in general to Kapampangan speakers.  Often, in general Philippine sites, where there are many Kapampangan speakers, the language is often used. With respect to Internet connectivity, there is connectivity in major towns and cities, although availability is still limited in small towns and rural areas. Unfortunately, software and other resources such as web browsers, office software, and online dictionaries are still generally nonexistent.

Google, the search engine, is unavailable for Kapampangan, but the Tagalog version has been made the default engine for the Philippines, reinforcing among Kapampangans contempt or a low regard for their native language, and at the same time magnifying their admiration for Tagalog, an attitude which has been encouraged by government and the schools ever since the late American regime and the Japanese Occupation, when it was first enforced in the schools.

KPS: Many speakers of indigenous and minority languages are reluctant to use their languages online, for a number of reasons. What is the general attitude toward using Kapampangan online?

JN: Sometimes, the lack of a standard, generally accepted orthography is a problem, since the older generation used a Spanish-based spelling, while young people today, who were educated in Tagalog, are more comfortable with a Tagalog-based script.  However, this is often not a problem, and if they decide to use Kapampangan, they use the orthography with which they are most comfortable.  In discussion groups, however, where the audience is general Philippine rather than specifically Kapampangan, they would opt to use a more widely used language, such as English or Tagalog, since they would be ashamed to use their language when non-Kapampangans are present, something which also happens in real life (that is, not online). Sometimes, these non-Kapampangans are unusually assertive in forcing their language even in the Kapampangan sites. For instance, in a Kapampangan-language discussion group (in which Kapampangan was the usual medium), there was a Tagalog who, because he was unable to speak Kapampangan, asked a question in Tagalog.  When he was requested to speak to the group in English instead, he said that in mixed company, he expected Kapampangans to use Tagalog.  Unfortunately, this is applied more forcefully in some discussion groups.  I've encountered groups where Tagalog and/or English are enforced, in effect discriminating against non-speakers of English or Tagalog or against non-Tagalogs.

KPS: You've been actively involved with the Kapampangan Wikipedia. Can you comment on the importance of that work, both in terms of its usefulness as a source of native language information for Kapampangans and in terms of raising the profile of the language online?

JN: As you know, Wikipedia has become the most popular encyclopedia in the age of the Internet, one whose reach has truly become prodigious. It has become everybody's encyclopedia, one of the ten most visited sites on the Net.  There's no question that it has gone a long way in raising the profile of the language online, and especially among young Kapampangans in general. This is very important, because the advent of the Internet has intensified overt or covert suppression of Kapampangan and the domination of Tagalog, the basis of the national language, and the only language, besides English, taught in Philippine schools. Google, as well as the major social networking or blogging media and online translators have made Tagalog their default language, making Kapampangans look down on their own language more strongly than before. This neo-colonial setup has worsened over the years, with Tagalog tending to monopolize mass media
and the schools, and this now extends to the Internet.

The existence of a Kapampangan Wikipedia has a valuable role in countering this. In addition, the proposed use of the mother tongue, at least for beginning schooling, in the early grades (after decades of using exclusively Tagalog and English) will also provide a readily available reference in the language, which students can easily consult. It will also help standardize the spelling and equivalents of English terms, things which were previously available only in Tagalog.
Church in Pampanga; photo by Shubert Ciencia (CC-BY)

KPS: I mentioned above that many indigenous languages lack computing terminology.  Is this an issue for your language?  How is/was terminology developed?  Is there a "language board" or are terms developed naturally by the community?  If there are official terms, how are they communicated to the community?

JN: This is usually not regarded as a problem.  English terms are usually borrowed where a Kapampangan term is unavailable.  Unfortunately, there is no official language board.  In effect, the closest thing to this would be online discussion groups, or the Kapampangan Wikipedia.  For the most part, few Kapampangan terms have been developed.  Examples include "Aptas" for "Internet" and "ikuldas" for "download."

KPS: Are there other special challenges your community faces in terms of developing technology for the language and/or communicating online?

JN: One problem is the lack of a standard, generally-accepted orthography or spelling system, which I have mentioned.  However, I do not see this as a problem in the long term, since young people, who form the bulk of the online Kapampangan community, are converging on an orthography similar to Tagalog, which is also the one supported by the government, which may use it if the plan to use Kapampangan in schools is implemented.  A more serious setback is the lack of interest from the dominant software vendors or players.  Google, in particular (and now Facebook and Blogspot) has shown a bias for Tagalog in the Philippines, making Tagalog the default medium in the country, even if Tagalog computer terminology is not uniform or standard, and hence would be more difficult to understand than English, above all by non-Tagalogs.  This Google bias is even more galling if one considers the fact that two non-Tagalog languages, the second and third biggest in the Philippines, Cebuano and Ilocano, have submitted interfaces for their languages to Google, which has, as far as I know, ignored them completely, not even bothering to send an acknowledgement.  If bigger languages have met this kind of response, I can easily imagine the response Kapampangan would get.

KPS: Are young people using the language online?  Do you think social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are helping encourage language use by younger speakers?

JN: Young people do use the language online, including on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.  I would hope these sites encourage the language, but the existence of the medium alone does not assure that.  I've been constantly monitoring Kapampangan tweets, and have come across encouraging ones, like the following (with English translations):

"Hannggang eni byasa ku pa din mag capampangan. Kung capampangan ya ing casabi mu mag capampangan bang masanting. Mag praktis ku para e mawala" [Even now, I can still speak Kapampangan. Whenever I speak with people who are Kapampangans, I use the language, so it's better/more advantageous. I keep practicing the language so that I do not forget it.]

"kasanting byasa ka pa mu rin kapampangan :)" [It's good to know that you can still speak Kapampangan.]

I would like to think that Indigenous Tweets, and particularly Kapampangan Indigenous Tweets, has something to do with this increased pride in the language, which can help bring about a renewed revival. This is of course a continuing process... but the fact that the members of the Kapampangan Indigenous Tweets are growing is also something to celebrate.

KPS: How is the government's support of Tagalog impacting the use of Kapampangan and other Philippine languages, online and offline?

JN: There is, unfortunately, a language shift to Tagalog among younger people, which is accelerating due to the exclusive use of Tagalog by government (the only Philippine language taught and encouraged by Philippine authorities), and the domination of this tongue in the media. Even worse, the use of Kapampangan is, in many cases, prohibited by schools, which instead force them to use Tagalog (or English), on pain of a fine. Placed on top of the dominance of Tagalog in the media and the increasing social pressure to move towards this more prestigious language, the effect on the native tongue is truly devastating, indeed, and is proving to be fatal in more and more places.  Something has to be done to arrest this destructive attitude, and it will have to involve changing government policy and offering the language in the schools. There has to be an energetic effort to promote the language, but unfortunately, Google, Facebook, Blogspot, and the rest are helping the government push Kapampangan and other oppressed languages further toward the brink, and at a much more rapid rate. Something should be done by concerned technical (and, one hopes, influential) people in a position to do something to oppose [this].

Mt. Pinatubo in 1991

KPS: The Kapampangan people were particularly hard hit by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991.  Was there a direct impact in terms of language shift because of the eruption?

JCN: Yes, in many ways, and on several levels. For one, people did move away from the area affected by the eruption. For example, I know of people who moved from Bacolor (a town nearly buried by lahar or "mudflows" (actually more similar to sand - the word originated in Javanese, and has entered scientific usage) whe ended up in Cavite (south of Manila). This was repeated for thousands of people.  Many of them ended in up in Mindanao, the southern island of the Philippines. Needless to say, their children ended up speaking not Kapampangan but Tagalog, or the languages of the areas to which they transferred.

For many who remained, the weakened state of the language aggravated the on-going shift to Tagalog, which began with the increasing use of Tagalog in schools, the media and society both as an inter-ethnic medium and as a language of instruction and formal discourse.  On the other hand, among many Kapampangans, there was something of a backlash, with a good number reasserting their culture and identity in response to the eruption. The aftermath of the catastrophe led to the revival of Kapampangan festivals and culture in general, of Kapampangan publications, and of government support. One of the important things which happened was the founding of the Center for Kapampangan Studies by a leading university in Angeles City, which has become a center for revival of the language.

KPS: What is your vision for your language in ten years, both in general terms and in terms of software/online use?

JN: I want my mother tongue to be fully available online and in software, and to be able to utilize it, or for it to be utilized, in the modern digital media available to bigger or more powerful languages.  (As it is, the new media have, in many cases, become additional factors for oppression and denigration, instead of fulfilling their potential as equalizers).  Search engines, translators, computer/online games, and social media should be available in Kapampangan versions, so the language would then be able to hold its own and compete on equal terms with other languages, including those which have become the agents of its persecution and elimination in its native country.


  1. Greetings from Wales. These interviews have been fascinating - thanks.

    The issue of support from web-based services like Twitter, Google, Facebook and so on is becoming a common theme in the small languages.

    I wonder if there is a way we can unite the language communities that have an interest in digital media. I can think of three things straightaway.

    1. united 'lobbying' of companies to show them the importance and value of supporting small languages and best practice (how to structure strings to be translated, why flags should not be used to denote languages, etc.) - I'm sure that in aggregate we can represent millions of people.

    2. perhaps a commonly maintained list of contacts and/or how-tos for translating various web services

    3. A what-can-I-do-now list, perhaps aimed at the casual observer who is interested in contributing to translation and localisation efforts in their language, e.g. go to GlotPress and help WordPress code to be translated into your language

    Regarding 3 I think that working on open source software can be a huge step for the speakers of the language, for deciding on terms etc and can actually sometimes influence the proprietary services to adopt your language.

    Any thoughts on the above?

  2. Hi Carl, glad you're enjoying the interviews and thanks for the comments above. A lot of food for thought here.

    Regarding points 2 and 3... I've been planning a blog post with a kind of "what-can-I-do-now" list of high impact open source software projects and a quick HOWTO on localisation. I wrote a paper a bit like this for the (Native American) Indigenous Language Institute a few years ago (PDF). And my friend Friedel Wolff from translate.org.za has a newish l10n guide with more concrete advice and less philosophizing, here.

    Regarding point 1, I'd be excited to try and make some kind of lobbying effort a reality. There are dozens of language groups simultaneously trying to "get in" with Google and Facebook, and only a small number have had any luck. Let me start by putting together some statistics on the languages not currently supported by Google for starters and I'll post those here (or maybe in a separate blog post).

    Out of frustration with this situation, I've been pondering the idea of moving the localization process out of the hands of Google/Facebook, etc. entirely, and creating client-side addons which will translate web content "live". Since very few of our languages have machine translation (none of it very good), the idea would be to use crowd-sourced translation memories, maintained independently from the web sites themselves. My student Michael Schade posted some of these ideas on his blog.

  3. Yes, I agree with Kevin. We had a quick exchange off site where I suggested just that, a more long-term solution to localisation.

    My main concern is that we'll be forever behind the big boys and pestering this giant or that giant to do something for a subset of languages. And when Google goes the way of AltaVista and Facebook is the new VHS, we'll have to start all over.

    I just floated ideas at Kevin, I didn't realise my suggestion of some sort of external interface localisation might actually work.

    I'd personally rather we pool sources and manpower to get a long-term solution like that off the ground rather than reinforce the ratrace. And who knows, if we do come up with a workable solution, some of the big boys may eventually come round to help integrate such a solution better with their software.

  4. Hi José,

    Would you be interested in adding Kapampangan to the Three Monks Project? We already have Tagalog and Sinugboanon (Cebuano), and just recently the promise of Tagbanua and Cuyunon:


    Dennis King

  5. I just took a look at population figures for Google's 140+ interface languages, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_number_of_native_speakers and Ethnologue for the smaller languages.

    About 4.6 billion people are native speakers of some Google interface language. Even if we assume some of these speaker numbers are out-of-date and underestimate the actual populations, I'd say there are at least 1-2 billion people who can't use Google in their native language. Even taking just the 50 biggest "missing" languages from the Wikipedia page above, that's 700 million people unable to use Google.

    I'd say this is a powerful argument to make to a company whose stated philosophy is "to facilitate access to information for the entire world, and in every language" (my emphasis).

  6. Facebook has a simularly meaningless statement Join our community of translators and make Facebook available in your language.

    Of course I'm game to try but I suspect that those statements about "in your language" are just grand words.