A nation of polyglots

Patricio N. Abinales
A nation of polyglots
Filipinos who speak several languages are not anymore coming from the academe, but from ordinary folks who have worked abroad; not anymore just city folks but those from rural areas

This is the second part of an airport story and the focus remains that of language. (READ the first part, Manila airport arrivals, Doña Victorinas, the ‘box out’ strategy)

Thirty years ago, if you fly into NAIA (back when it was nicer and the sewers not exploding), you would hear, aside from the Tagalog and Visayan that were all over, two kinds of English.

There was the usual Filipino English that you heard on television, in the universities, or when the stewardesses of Philippine Airlines explained in-flight safety measures. The other English you would hear was the one uttered by Filipinos who had stayed for a bit in the United States, acquiring the accent as they became embedded in their new country. Their children perfected the way of talking. You would see parent and child in the immigration line conversing in this manner. 

These days, it is not just Tagalog, Visayan, or other any other Filipino language as well the above types of English that you hear at the airport. Instead, a virtual Tower of Babel erupts in the immigration line. You hear a mestizo kid turn to his Mom and speak in French, inquiring about where the bathroom is. In another line, a teenage mestizo exclaims in Italian how hot her mother’s country is. In yet another line, a child looks like a Filipino-American, but when she opens her mouth, it’s Queen’s English through and through. 

I once asked a fellow Bisayan how long he had been in Saudi Arabia, and he said he was going into this tenth year. I quipped that with the length of time he must be fluent in Arabic already, and he replied, humbly, “Gamay gamay lang, pero di na mabaligya!” (I speak a little [Arabic], but I can’t be fooled.)

I asked the same question to a lady while traveling to Singapore, and she blurted out a couple of lines in Arabic that, she said, was part curse but also part greeting. And I was pleasantly surprised when a group belting out Thai songs in a river restaurant in Bangkok took a break and started chatting in Ilocano. 

Nine years ago, social workers told me they were worried about how to receive young people who were adopted by European parents and who spoke only the language of their adoptive parents. These “kids” had returned to look for their birth mothers through the local DSWD office. The social workers hoped the department would start organizing courses in French, Norwegian, German, and Italian, so they could talk to the children not in English but in their respective foreign languages.

This is probably one of the few positive outcomes of sending Filipinos abroad because the country cannot offer them jobs at home – we have become a nation of polyglots.

We leave our families (and sometimes return to broken ones), spend more time talking to them in Skype or Facetime and only get to chat with them in person once every two years. Abroad, we are exposed to a new strange world and are forced to adjust to it so that we could overcome some of our alienation. 

We have to deal with our bosses, our superiors whose English may not be that good or non-existent at all. They would feel more comfortable if they hear us talk in their languages. So we learn them and the longer we stay there, the more fluent we become. And in a few years we are versed in Spanish, French, German, Arabic, etc. Some of us even win awards for being good with their Mandarin in China! 

In Japan, Filipinas study Japanese so that they could talk to their husbands. Those working in the bars do it in the hope of getting a big tip. (The one fascinating thing about these Pinays’ Japanese is that it is male Japanese, and so every time you line up at the PAL counter in Kansai airport and close your eyes, you hear these Filipinas’ wonderful gruffly male Japanese voices telling their husbands to be careful with the balikbayan box.)

What makes this doubly wonderful for me is that the polyglots are not anymore coming from the academe, but from ordinary folks who speak their new argot with admirable acuity. The cosmopolitanism is not anymore the proprietorship of city folks; it is palpable among those who come from the villages and the rural peripheries.

I think this bodes well for us as Filipinos. We have – through the sheer force of globalization – become a people of the world. What this will do to our future and to us is something worth giving some serious thought, especially when it comes to the issue of language. Will we just force Tagalog down our children’s throat? (Yes, it is coercive; you can be failed if you do not take studying the “national language” [sic!] seriously.) Or do we embrace this multi-vocality that will enhance our identity as a people? – Rappler.com 


Patricio N. Abinales works in the middle of nowhere to send money to his family in Ozamiz. 



Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.