By Ana Maria Villanueva-Lykes
“Labhan ang damit nang mabuti”, says a sticky note on the washing machine door. By the light switch, a sign says, “Patayin ang ilaw.” All over the house are little notes that serve as a reviewer. In the background, Sa Ugoy ng Duyan plays softly as my one-year-old naps. It’s all part of my campaign to make sure that my son grows up fluent in Tagalog and that my American husband is not alienated.
My Pinoy immigrant friends ask why that it is so necessary. It seems like they do not see the value in teaching their kids the native tongue when they can hardly use it on foreign soil. I can understand that to some degree, but it’s disheartening to know that many kababayans believe that their children can get ahead only if they are fluent in English alone.
Once during a visit to Manila, I asked my 6-year-old nephew a question in Tagalog. He looked at me quizzically and said, “Please speak English. I don’t understand.” It was interesting that a little boy could silence me. My brother explained that they’ve been conversing with the boy in English since birth. Even the maids do. Apparently, the maids were getting reeducated too. He admitted that it is turning into a disadvantage, because the child is now experiencing difficulty in his Filipino classes. So does countless other kids in the Philippines whose parents think that their children will be achievers if they make English their first language in a country that’s generally non-English speaking.
I grew up with these kids, classmates who were made fun of because they couldn’t speak straight Filipino. Is it their fault that their parents trained them that way? They were always behind in our Araling Panlipunan classes, and I do not judge them, because I too barely passed these subjects. Truth be told, I can write better in English. And I am not proud of that.
I grew up speaking Ilonggo at home. But the TV certainly talked to me in English. And so did my teachers and classmates four days a week. Mondays to Thursdays, we were obliged to converse in English only. Fridays were Filipino days. They must have figured that we did not need to practice Filipino more when we are after all living in a Filipino speaking country. Even our instructional language for major subjects like Science was English. I have to admit it’s practical that way. Try explaining E=MC2 in Filipino.
Even in addresses, streets are streets, not kalye. Similarly, majority of our advertisements, signs, and directions are in English. It’s not the case in many non-English speaking countries. If you can’t find your way around Korea or Vietnam, you would more than likely get lost in translation. I learned this the hard way, thinking that English would serve me well. When I got lost in the streets of Hanoi, I was greeted with quizzical stares when I asked for directions. Few Vietnamese know basic English and they don’t make apologies for it, because it does not make them lesser individuals, and inversely, to be fluent in English does not make them superior or royalty. How many Miss Universe hopefuls have taken the crown with only the help of a translator?
I can’t argue with the fact that there are advantages to being fluent in what is supposedly the universal language. Statistics show that English speaking countries are responsible for about 40% of the world’s GNP. That says a lot. But then it makes me wonder: why is Japan, largely a non-English speaking country, still way ahead of us in terms of technology and economy? I guess language alone does not make a country, but language still speaks plenty.
Is this another case of colonial mentality? Should we blame it on the 48 years of American reign and the many borrowed words (tren for “train” for instance)? Have we fooled ourselves into thinking that to make the peso stronger, we need to speak the green dollar language?
The fact is, we’ve come upon times when it’s more convenient to say things in English rather than Tagalog. Thus the birth of “taglish” code switching. Unconsciously, when I converse in Tagalog, I would revert to an English word simply because it’s easier. Maybe it’s because there are more syllables to Filipino words. For me, it also sounds more fluid compared to the hard syllables of Tagalog. “Ang sweet” is easier and shorter than “ang lambing”.
Even the tambay will more than likely say “wow sexy” instead of “wow kaakit-akit”. I had difficulty looking up “sexy” in the English-Tagalog dictionary. A website came up with mainam and balingkinitan, and they still don’t sound right. I looked up my English-Tagalog dictionary by Leo James English and came up with nothing.
Yes, I brought my L. English dictionaries with me to the states even though they were about a kilo combined. I could have relied on the internet, but L. English is the recommended dictionary of the literati. I had to take it with me no matter the cost (of excess baggage). The act was almost metaphorical. I was afraid that if I left that weight, I would completely lose my native tongue. I brought it along with several other materials like work books and OPM CDs all in the effort of making sure my boys learn the language.
Maybe we are not to blame for the decline of the use of our own language, but we are definitely responsible for teaching our kids to exercise their native tongue. So when my friends ask why, I tell them that bilingual children are better thinkers. They’re more flexible and divergent in their thought processes. They become proud of their self-identity, knowing that they are a culture bridge. And perhaps more importantly, I tell them that although my son has an Irish name and strong Irish-American roots, part of him will always be Finnegan the Filipino.
(The author maintains a travel blog – http://anaviajera.com).