Language and the American-Filipina

Patricio N. Abinales

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

Language and the American-Filipina
'Youthful insecurity towards learning to speak Filipino is ironically reinforced by the way the language is being taught'

(This essay continues reflecting on the pilgrimage of American-Filipina Jeannice Aguilar and her search for an identity she would be proud of.) 

Searching for identity always begins with language. In her February 6 blog, Jeannice decided to take Filipino classes at the University of Hawai`i-Manoa’s Language Department to prepare for her planned next step – visiting the country of her parents 

Like many Filipinas born in the United States, she admitted difficulty in learning Tagalog (Filipino). The diction, pronunciation, meanings of words, phrases and sentences often make learning stressful, but more worrying is the contradiction of being able to understand what was said to you and what you can say back. One grows up hearing the former constantly: parents nagging, uncles and aunts from the Philippines chattering during family picnics, and of course, The Filipino Channel. But the flow of conversation is specific only to the elder generation and rarely are children asked to join in the adult exchanges. 

For why should they? They’re already Americans!

So for the children, English is the lingua franca that their parents demanded they use when talking to them. Much like many of us promdis who were penalized in elementary and high school for not speaking in English, one can imagine an American-Filipina like Jeannice gently being prodded to ignore Filipino and stick to English. School, television, and cohort group completed this estrangement and prevented her from forcing herself into the Filipino-driven adult conversations. 

Youthful insecurity towards learning to speak Filipino is ironically reinforced by the way the language is being taught. I have no doubt my colleagues in the Filipino and Ilocano programs are exceptional teachers; the high enrollment in their classes attests to that. But learning the language in the classroom and the laboratory is one thing; engaging it with all its jargons, idioms, and constantly shifting metaphors is an entirely different matter.

To be able to do this entails heading to the Philippines and living for a good amount of time there. But the daughter does not have the money to support this travel while the financial sponsors – the parents – brush off the plan. Solving this issue will thus take a longer time.  

In the meantime, the Filipino-American talks like a Cebuano or an Ilocano forced to learn Tagalog –  formalistic and stodgy and made more funny sounding by her American accent.  But she needs not be insecure for the American Filipina will find a strong sympathizer from us, non-Tagalog speakers. We too were introduced to the national language in school where it was taught through a rote system. As expected, we learned very little in the 10 years of Tagalog instruction. They always sounded like robots when ordered to recite in Filipino in class and in public occasions like the school anniversary. Until the end of high school, I understood but could not speak formal Tagalog. It was Joseph Estrada and Fernando Poe, Jr who saved me from becoming a hopeless case. The Tagalog I learned from their movies was radically different from that taught in the schools, but it was the most convenient version once I moved to the imperial capital for college. Manileños, in turned out, were more comfortable talking like Erap or Da King.

Many a Filipino would quietly smile (the nastier ones would snicker) at the American Filipina way of speaking Tagalog. The hilarity is not simply over the accent. See, for example, this YouTube sensation Travis Kraft in his early years:


It is also about how academic sounding and punctiliously protocollary it sounds. There is also a third reason for the impish grin, and this is in praise of the American-Filipina’s laudable effort to utter the language of her parents. 

Jeannice was, early on, aware of linguistic insecurities. Together with a growing curiosity about “where my parents came from” and what sorts of people her relations back home were, she decided that only by immersing herself in the country that she would be able to converse in “decent” Tagalog. But even before that she also moved to Hawai`i in part because she believed that there are a number of distinct features of the American-Filipino societies there that she could not find in the West Coast. 

The second part of her blog, therefore, are reflections about her impending visit, the generational divide between her and younger American-Filipinos when it came to language training. She took Tagalog lessons more seriously because of her growing interest in things Philippines while her younger classmates saw the class as simply a way to easily fulfill their language requirements. The tensions are palpable but she appears to have handled it well. 

Jeannice would stay in the Philippines for 3 months, and along the way pick up a lot of the local variations of Tagalog by simply hanging out with a variety of people. She also went back to Hawai`i fully aware of what exactly she was: an American of Filipino lineage. – 

Patricio N. Abinales is an overseas Filipino worker

Add a comment

Sort by

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

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!