Australian National University
Describing the preeminent Filipino national hero Dr. Jose Rizal as a linguist is a little like referring to Thomas Jefferson as a horticulturalist. The statement may be true, but the many other talents that Rizal developed in his short life have tended to overshadow his extraordinary flair for language. After all, it was not for his linguistic achievements that his statue stands in every town plaza of the Philippines, nor was it the motive for his execution at the hands of Spanish authorities in 1896. Rizal is renowned as a legendary defender of civil and democratic rights, and parenthetically as a political scientist, historian, novelist, poet, sculptor, journalist, linguist and eye surgeon. It is for this last accomplishment that he is always conventionally known as Doctor Jose Rizal (a distinction he shares with another great civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King).
Born in 1861 to wealthy Tagalog-speaking parents in Calamba, a town situated 50 kilometres south of Manila, Rizal was to be educated in Spanish—a language that less than ten percent of native Filipinos would have access to in his lifetime. In fact, it was only as late as 1863 that a royal decree mandated the establishment of a universal primary school system with Spanish as the sole medium of instruction. In the linguistically diverse Philippines it was the policy of Spanish missionaries to communicate in the language of the region in which they were stationed. Educational reforms issuing from the motherland were ignored, resisted or poorly implemented since universal literacy and linguistic competence in Spanish threatened the mediating role of the friar orders. For this reason, among others, the Spanish language was never to diffuse widely across the Filipino population in the same way that it did in Latin America.