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Language Lessons

Language and culture cannot be separated. Language is vital to understanding our unique cultural perspectives. Language is a tool that is used to explore and experience our cultures and the perspectives that are embedded in our cultures.

Buffy Sainte-Marie, speaking at the Mashantucket Language Conference February, 2006.

Almost every time I go back to visit family in Vancouver, and absolutely every time I go “back home” to the Philippines to visit family, I miss out. Jokes, conversations, reminiscences between titas (aunts) and titos (uncles), my mother and my cousins that I have never understood and many more that I will never understand. I stand there mute, while my eyes and ears search for signs of humor, anger, or disdain and then wait for the brief summary from my English speaking cousins.

Every time I go “back home” I’m asked if I understand Ilonggo (my mother’s dialect), “No”.

“Tagalog?” (the national dialect, some prefer it to be called Filipino). “No, just the bad words”, I respond, which is immediately met with laughter.

I’m not sure why my mom never taught me either of the dialects; she’s said it was hard as my father didn’t speak it either. The last time we discussed this she told me that speaking English, even among the upper middle class and wealthy families, was the latest popular signifier of class and privilege (the Filipino class system is, to be brief, a funhouse mirror version of the American class system). I remember a time when having braces was the best way that one did this.

In Toronto, when I mention the workshops I’ve participated in with Carlos Bulosan Theatre to other Filipinos I meet for the first time, my identity is questioned and I have to make reference to how I’m named after my Lolo (grandfather) to prove, “REALLY, TRULY, I AM FILIPINO TOO, SEE?” In recent years I have a fantasy where I reply in Tagalog and the person once suspicious of my claims opens their eyes wide, and we segue into a detailed conversation about the best place to get halo halo in Toronto.


Source: Teach Thought

This fantasizing isn’t the only reason I want to learn the language – I’ve tried and it’s not easy. My Lola (grandmother) just turned 84 and her searches for the right word in English take longer or require assistance from someone nearby. There are still so many stories I need to hear from her and I’m afraid that the next time we speak, I won’t be able to understand them.

Every time I go back home, I wish I could speak my mother’s mother tongue.