WHEN I first arrived in the Philippines and journeyed north to my new home, La Union, the first thing I noticed was how many people inhabited this country. The road north from Manila exhibited a near continuous line of sari-sari stores, food stalls, local government halls, churches, and many other buildings, all overlooking a road teeming with children, animals, trucks, buses, farmers, and people sitting wayside to observe the activity. In Canada, journeys between cities are much more desolate, and the transition between wilderness and settlement is abrupt. Here, the activity and people lent a sensation of being perpetually on the outskirts of Manila, and just as I thought to be leaving civilization, another town plaza would appear. Given that my country has a third the population of the Philippines in 30 times the area, the difference in density is expected. But there was something even more shocking that I was not prepared for. In just 6 hours, my new office friends had noted passing four realms of languages. As we crossed into Pampanga from Bulacan, my escort and soon-to-be officemate mentioned, “Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is from here. They speak Kapampangan.”

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“Kampan…Kampandunkin?” I repeated woefully inaccurately, the word having gone by too fast. “Do they actually use it or do you mean historically?”

“No, they actually use it,” he said.

How cool! My eyes drifted to the window, amazed by the fact that the endless line of seemingly identical sari-sari stores and general humanity did in fact harbor great variety. It soon became a game in which, whenever we crossed into a new province, I would ask, “What language do they speak here?” To which my officemates would reply something new. In Pampanga, it was Kapampangan; in Tarlac, mostly Tagalog; in Pangasinan, the Pangasinan language, and finally in La Union, Ilokano. My initial judgement of everything being the same was based—rather naively—on appearance. The Philippines has in fact much greater diversity than the cosmetic differences I was looking for, a fact I have gradually come to appreciate more and more. In Canada, one can travel 1000 km and not even detect a difference in accent. While the scenery is many-hued, people are for the most part talking the same way, eating the same things, and interacting with each other in similarly predictable ways. Of course there are immigrant communities, class differences, and some regional variations, but the country’s young age ensures these differences are small, and further dulled by the overriding imprint of American culture from the south.

I came to Northern Luzon originally thinking I would learn Tagalog, but when I heard other languages (especially Ilokano) being spoken everywhere in the streets, the markets, and indeed our office in the San Fernando City Government, I decided I would try out Ilokano. I am glad to have made that choice, for it has prompted many an intriguing conversation. When I ask people for the meaning of a certain word, they often tell me the Tagalog one, assuming that is the language I wish to learn. Many regard me quaintly for wanting to learn a local language, and others have even been hostile about it. “Why aren’t you learning the national language?” they say. “You must learn it.” These interactions exposed me to a deep set of issues regarding language that I probably would have overlooked had I passively learned Tagalog as per common advice. It has prompted me to learn more about how Filipinos view linguistic diversity, mother tongues, and education, the history of language planning in the Philippines, and the current government attitudes surrounding it. Finally, it has lead to the inescapable conclusion that huge linguistic and cultural transformations are taking place in this country, which is affecting everyone—whether you speak Ibaloi, Pangasinan, Ilokano, or even Tagalog. Please join me on this 10-part series to explore these transformations from an outsider’s perspective. What is happening in the world of Filipino languages and why? Are there questions we should be asking? Should the country’s current language trends be redirected somehow? If so, how? See you next week!

(Firth MacKenzie McEachern is a Canadian who graduated from Harvard University. He is currently employed in the San Fernando City Government as a representative of Sustainable Cities, a think-tank and do-tank for sustainability based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His interests include languages, scuba diving, singing, ballroom dancing, photography, nature, meeting new people, learning about new cultures, swimming- ed).