overseas Filipinos

[OPINION] The ones who broke English

Irene Sarmiento

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[OPINION] The ones who broke English
'Seeing your kababayan and saying something in your mother tongue is like a momentary oasis for the mind. It’s more about feeling warm and homey than insular or clannish.'

The underdog’s victories bear repeating. This story took place once upon a time, not so long ago, in a kingdom far away from the islands of my childhood. 

The year was 2012, shortly after I moved to Texas from the Philippines. Word on the street among OFWs was that a group of Filipino nurses in California had filed a native language discrimination complaint against their employer. It wasn’t so shocking that something blatantly racist had happened to our own; the surprise was that the nurses won, meaning we won — for the most part.   

It makes my heart ache, still, to consider that this discrimination was inflicted on a population with whom I intimately identify: Filipinos, migrants, and healthcare workers. The Pinoys were singled out, ordered to speak English only, even when on break, in the cafeteria, when walking through the hallways, and even when their native language did not interfere with job performance. Those who violated the discriminatory policy were threatened with suspension or termination. Management instructed housekeeping staff and security guards to keep an eye on the Filipino employees and to act as snitches. One nurse had said that they were hushed and chided to speak English, even when they were already speaking English, but with accents overlayed by Tagalog or one of the many Philippine dialects. As anyone could imagine, it created an atmosphere of hostility, intimidation, and humiliation for those targeted. 

And so it goes, the triumphs of the underdog are typically incomplete. The Filipino nurses won close to a $1-million settlement, but the hospital did not admit to wrongdoing, stating that the reward simply made “financial sense.”

I grew up speaking mostly English, so one might think that I was spared from remarks about my elocution while living in the States, though one would be wrong. I have been told that I don’t speak English “good.” Other micro-aggressive comments have pointed out my accent, more often noting my lack thereof.

When your mother tongue exerts influence on the dominant language, you can develop what is reductively referred to as an “accent,” though, technically, anyone who talks has one. An accent, in this case, does not emerge from the inability to speak English “good,” it comes from speaking more than just English. Speaking a second language is linked to maintaining integrity in the brain’s white matter, which connects different parts of the brain and tends to deteriorate with age. The value of multilingualism — and its associated cognitive reserve — is priceless if you are trying to stay sharp throughout your life. Still, if you have experienced racism, a stranger questioning your accent’s origin can seem like an implicit estimation of your worth in the larger social order. A study demonstrated such an effect, in which prejudiced individuals rated homegrown accents as qualitatively superior to accents of immigrants.  Ultimately, when someone asks you where your accent is from, you can simply answer, “my brain.” 

My mother had told me that there was a time, back when I was learning to talk, that I spoke more Tagalog. A snooty friend of hers said that I “sounded like the help,” which made my mom take corrective action, ensuring that I was exposed primarily to English media and conversation, meaning spending less time with my yaya. It became apparent to me at an early age that English was a signifier of wealth, and that class was of greater value than culture. 

In my teens, still in Manila, while sifting through my old belongings, I saw the toll taken by failing to develop Tagalog. I discovered my first-grade report card from Catholic school. Subjects that were taught in Tagalog, like Filipino and Araling Panlipunan, were all marked N.I. – Needs Improvement. 

To be fair, my Tagalog, which would forever carry a grade of N.I., is still functional. During my occupational therapy internship at the Philippine General Hospital, a patient’s father asked me where I grew up. I told him, Quezon City. 

Sa Pilipinas?” he clarified. 

Opo,” I answered.

 He explained that he was just curious because it seemed like I was straining to speak to him in Tagalog. I laughed, admitting it was hard for me to go back and forth between languages, in the same way native Tagalog-speakers say “nosebleed” to describe the brain hemorrhaging sensation triggered by code-switching to English. 

The man ended our chitchat with, “Thank you sa lahat.” 

At that moment, instead of being a pedestal, English was a bridge.    

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Years later, I worked at a hospital in Dallas with a high ratio of foreign-born personnel; the staff spoke Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, Swahili, Arabic, all sorts of languages other than English. I often crossed paths with other Filipinos, and we would exchange greetings in Tagalog. 

When nurses who emigrated from the same region were around one another, speaking in their mother tongue, I would note the excitement in their voices, sometimes marked with joy, or irritation — perhaps venting. I asked myself whether it was rude or exclusive of them to use lingo that I clearly did not understand, even though I was within an earshot. I always concluded that it was not, in part because I did the same thing with my Filipino colleagues. I knew that their conversation — their shared culture and kinship — had nothing to do with me.  

For instance, while I was making small talk with a dialysis nurse, a guy from another department greeted her in Farsi. She acknowledged him with a few words before turning back to me. 

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It feels so good when I speak my language.” 

I told her there was no need to apologize. “I get it.” 

It’s hard being an immigrant in health care — a profession where your heart is constantly switched on. Seeing your kababayan and saying something in your mother tongue is like a momentary oasis for the mind. It’s more about feeling warm and homey than insular or clannish.  

The standards of etiquette change, as do the standards of language — even in a mostly monolingual nation. The battle to speak one’s native language has been won. It happened once upon a time, not so long ago, when group of Filipino nurses in California pushed back against their English-only policy. They did something to English that was better than perfecting it — they mastered it. – Rappler.com

Irene Carolina Sarmiento is the author of two illustrated children’s books, Spinning and Tabon Girl, both published by Anvil. Her stories have won awards from The Palanca Memorial Foundation, Philippines Free Press, Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards, and Stories to Change the World.  She is an occupational therapist with a master’s degree in Applied Cognition and Neuroscience.

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