Where Do We Need to Go From Here?



On sociolinguistic fragility, language vitality, and changing patterns of multilingualism: The linguistic landscape of Babuyan Claro

This week on the ELAR Blog, ELDP Grantee Kristina Gallego writes about the linguistic landscape of Babuyan Claro. Kristina’s ELAR Collection ‘Consequences of contact: Documenting Ibatan within the multilingual landscape of Babuyan Claro’ can be accessed here.

By Kristina Gallego

Babuyan Claro is an island community in the far north of the Philippines, and it is the home of the Ibatans, a small group of people with a complex contact history. The community is characterized by an extremely dynamic linguistic landscape which directly influences the vitality of their languages.

Fig 1: Boats moored as Babuyan Claro prepares for an incoming typhoon (Photo credit: Kristina Gallego)

The Ibatans are multilingual in at least three languages: Ibatan, the local language and the smallest of the three, Ilokano, the regional lingua franca of northern Luzon which is one of the three main islands of the Philippines, and Filipino, the national language of the country. Ibatan, a Batanic language along with Ivatan, Itbayaten, and Tao, is used by about 2500 to 3000 first-language and second-language users, and it is characterized by striking contact-induced features arising from its long-standing relationship with Ilokano, a Cordilleran language which belongs to a different subgroup of Philippine languages. How the language came to be what it is today is the aggregated outcome of not only linguistic, but also social, political, and cultural changes.

The location of Ibatan

The founding families of Babuyan Claro, who first came to the island in 1869, trace their ancestry from either Batanic-speaking or Ilokano-speaking backgrounds. This reflects a series of migrations within the region during the Spanish colonial period following reducciones, or the relocation of populations into settlements modeled after Spanish towns or plazas. The harsh conditions on the island, such as the extreme monsoon season, meant that families relied on each other and so maintained social connections. However, ethnographic evidence shows that the initial families kept ethnolinguistic lines separate to a certain degree. That is, people would tend to marry within their own linguistic group. This must have favoured a type of multilingualism which prevented people from completely shifting to Ilokano, the first-language of the majority of the founding families. The social interaction that existed in the community, moreover, must have facilitated the contact-induced language change seen in Ibatan today.

As the Babuyan Claro community became more integrated into the larger nation state, however, this kind of multilingualism shifted to a hierarchical one. Ilokano became the socially dominant in the region as the language of religion, education, and politics on the island and beyond. This led to the endangerment of Ibatan during 1970s.

In the 1980s, Rundell and Judith Maree of the Summer Institute of Linguistics came to Babuyan Claro to document the Ibatan language with the main purpose of Bible translation. Their help in empowering the community enabled the Ibatans to establish of a rural health unit, a school that caters up to senior high school, a church where Ibatan is used as the main language, the production of literacy materials in the Ibatan language, and most importantly, the granting of their Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title which grants them collective rights to the resources on and around the island, and these have all contributed to the renewed vitality of Ibatan.

These socio-political changes that directly affect language vitality reveal the sociolinguistic fragility that is at the very core of the linguistic landscape of Babuyan Claro (cf. Childs, Good, and Mitchell 2014). The changing patterns of multilingualism reflect the changing ideologies of the language users, which in turn are shaped by the socio-political history of the community. At present, Ibatan is classified as a threatened language on the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale, which means that while the language is still used for everyday communication, a decreasing number of children are learning it (Ebarhard, Simons, and Fennig 2020). Language choices and uses among the first-language and second-language users of Ibatan reflect different networks of interaction across the community. That is, speakers who belong to particular social networks show greater affinity towards Ibatan, while speakers from other networks tend to associate more with Ilokano. People within each of these different social networks tend to have different experiences, histories, exposure, and attitudes towards the different languages in their repertoire, and so report differences in language proficiencies and choices.

The Ibatans helping pull a boat to the shore after a fishing trip (Photo credit: Kristina Gallego)

Babuyan Claro is a dynamic community that has witnessed change in all directions, reflecting its sociolinguistic fragility. This means that the viability of Ibatan in the future is not certain. Ongoing socio-political changes continue to affect the language ecology on the island, especially since it is not simply Ilokano but also Filipino that competes with Ibatan now that the community has become more integrated and engaged within the larger national scene.

Understanding the interplay of linguistic, social, political, and cultural factors allows us to investigate processes of language emergence, contact, continuity and change. Babuyan Claro is a clear example of how a small multilingual community exists within the broader nation state, thus displaying a complex and dynamic linguistic landscape. This makes it necessary to document the language while it remains in its viable state, as its vitality could change within a generation.

The volcano Chinteb a Wasay ‘cut of the axe (literal)’ seen from the sitio ‘hamlet’ of Rakwaksong (Photo credit: Kristina Gallego)

The documentation of Ibatan is an ongoing project funded by the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme under the Individual Graduate Scholarship (IGS0359). Data for the project, which includes audio and video recordings, photographs, among others, are archived with PARADISEC and ELAR.

This article is a shorter version of the paper Ibatan of Babuyan Claro (Philippines) – Language Contexts, published in Language Documentation and Description 17.


Childs, Tucker, Jeff Good & Alice Mitchell. 2014. Beyond the ancestral code: Towards a model for sociolinguistic language documentation. Language Documentation and Conservation 8, 168-191.

Ebarhard, David, Gary Simons & Charles Fennig (eds.) 2020. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Twenty-third edition. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics International. http://ethnologue.com. (accessed 2020-05-24).

Gallego, Maria Kristina. 2020. Ibatan of Babuyan Claro (Philippines) – Language Contexts. Language Documentation and Description 17, 87-110.