Hanunoo Mangyan Project: Saving languages through technology

Committing to provide access to inclusive and culture-based education for every indigenous learner in the country, then Department of Education (DepEd) Secretary Br. Armin Luistro FSC implemented in 2015 the Indigenous Peoples (IPs) Education Program by enhancing the learning modules of public schools. DepEd has released an education policy framework for IPs aimed at making the Philippine educational system inclusive and respectful of the diversity of learners.

Luistro asked different higher educational institutions to adopt different indigenous languages to help preserve and revitalize their culture. The University decided to focus on the languages of the Mangyan people in Mindoro, primarily because of the two La Salle advisory schools in Mindoro that were part of former DLSU President Dr. Carmelita Quebengco’s research on the country’s indigenous education. Three Mangyan communities are served by these schools: Umabang, Bailan, and Amindang.

In response to Luistro’s call, the Hanunoo Mangyan Documentation Project—a glossary software application that documents linguistic data—was developed by Dr. Rochelle Irene Lucas of the Department of English and Applied Linguistics, Dr. Joel Ilao of the Computer Technology Department, and Dr. Melvin Jabar of the Behavioral Sciences Department, with funding from the National Research Council of the Philippines. 

Preserving culture

With two components, specifically the ethnolinguistic vitality study and the electronic dictionary, the Hanunoo Mangyan Documentation Project responds to the threat of language endangerment of the Mangyans. 

Evaluating ethnolinguistic vitality, as facilitated by Jabar, involves determining whether a given language is dying, developing, or in danger of extinction based on the users’ language attitudes, including the perceived importance of that language and willingness to use it. Furthermore, the e-dictionary application—developed by Beatris Mariell Choo (III, MSCS), Robee Khyra Mae Te (MSCS, ‘19), and Jan Kristoffer Cheng (MSCS, ‘18) under the mentorship of Dr. Ethel Ong of the Software Technology Department—aids the preservation of the language’s writing system. 

They found that Hanunoo, the language of the Mangyan group, was not yet dying; however, what was alarming was the literacy rate of the young children—the future of the community—as the younger generation no longer knew how to write in Hanunoo script. Only the middle-aged members of their community were still familiar with their indigenous writing system. As such, the researchers focused on developing strategies on preserving the language, particularly the written form, and ensuring that the young members of the community would be taught for the continuity of their culture. 

“[The] software is capable of capturing any writing system,” explains Choo, who also shares that the application has over 1000 words gathered through “rapid word collection”, which can be translated to English, Tagalog, or Hanunoo. 

This was developed through the aid of Summer Institute of Linguistics-trained Mangyan elders, who listed down words and their semantic domains or meanings. Possessing the ability to show the sacred Baybayin script of the Mangyans in a digitized manner, the application allows the community to see and use the components of their language, carrying a critical part of their culture into the contemporary era.

Treading forward

“There are 174 [more] indigenous languages in the Philippines; they can apply [the software] to the other languages,” claims Lucas, sharing the project team’s plans of collecting the other six Mangyan languages in the area. 

According to the professor, the e-dictionary was “developed to be modular,” allowing the same software to be used for other languages. Lucas furthers, “For future projects, the only thing left to do is collect the data and put it in the software.”

She explains, however, that realizing this vision is expected to take time as the other communities are hesitant in sharing their culture and language to outsiders. Nevertheless, Lucas expresses hope that they will see the gravitas of the project’s purpose in helping preserve the different indigenous cultures in the country. 

“We have an obligation—because we have the expertise, it is our responsibility to not let this [Hanunoo] language die…or any language,” adds Lucas. “If you allow a language to die, the culture dies with it.”

In support of the project, the Social Development and Research Center sponsored 10 tablets, one of which was given to DepEd to facilitate the training of other teachers. The nine other tables are being used by teachers of the communities to teach kindergarten to Grade 3 students; these teachers are non-Hanunoo speakers and the tablets carrying the developed e-dictionary facilitate more effective communication between the students and the teacher. 

Though the community was initially “hesitant” in helping the researchers, Choo shares that when they saw the implementation of the project, the community became more open and enthusiastic. The collaboration of Anthropology, Linguistics, and Technology made the project possible, with Ong emphasizing that the community was “involved from start to finish” in the development of the project. 

“Our engagement with them was very personal,” Lucas appends, sharing that the Mangyan community were not mere test subjects, but rather “partners and co-owners” of the research itself.

With reports from Denise Nicole Uy

Oliver Barrios

By Oliver Barrios

One reply on “Hanunoo Mangyan Project: Saving languages through technology”

Hello! How can we also develop our own e-dictionary to be given for free to students/native speakers in our province? Thanks for any help that you may extend.

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