Philippine languages

[OPINION] The guilt of being born and raised Filipino, but having English as your first language

Marguerite de Leon

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[OPINION] The guilt of being born and raised Filipino, but having English as your first language
'English is my first language, the one I hear in my head when I think, the one that just rolls right out of me when I need to convey something, anything. And the thing is, the Filipino language doesn't come naturally to a lot of other Filipinos, either.'

I was born and raised in Metro Manila, to fully Filipino parents, in a fully Filipino household, and had never based myself outside of the country. But if you told me to hold a conversation or write an essay in the Filipino language right now, you would be subjecting me to a daunting, maybe even frightening, task.

I’m poor at Filipino. This is not to say that I’m illiterate in the language – if I had to, I can have a casual, clear conversation with someone in Filipino, and have just enough of a vocabulary to write a decent essay (maybe even with a figure of speech or two, if I’m feeling feisty).

By poor, I mean that my supposed mother tongue does not come as naturally to me as it should. English is my first language, the one I hear in my head when I think, the one that just rolls right out of me when I need to convey something, anything. And the thing is, the Filipino language doesn’t come naturally to a lot of other Filipinos, either.

I, and many others, grew up in an English-speaking household and studied in a private school that favored speaking in English. Consequently, I wasn’t exposed to Filipino as much. Because of that, probably in the same way that musicians are best bred at an early age, I missed out on that precious sliver of time when Filipino could have been ingrained into me more organically. To belabor the comparison, Filipino became a sheet of piano music I could technically read, but whose tune I couldn’t play out in my head.

Before I go on, I’d like to warn the reader that this is not an essay on regionalism and the controversy behind having a Tagalog-centric tongue as the “official” one. I am not a linguist, or a sociologist (or even patriotic, honestly, but that’s an entirely different essay), and as much as I find this topic fascinating and important, it is not why I chose to write this.

Guilt tripping

What I want to process is the guilt I’ve always felt for not being as comfortable in Filipino as I am in English. And I suppose it’s a guilt borne out of being middle class, of living in a dimension balanced precariously between the predominantly Filipino-speaking lower classes, and the predominantly English-speaking higher classes (at least in Metro Manila, anyway).

Maybe being in the middle makes me feel that I should be equally proficient in both tongues? That I should not be favoring one over the other when I am from neither social camp?

But I might be overreading this.

All I know is that it was bizarre to be a student, sitting in a regular Filipino class (as opposed to Filipino as Foreign Language class, which was the realm of rich, far more sheltered schoolmates) in a top university in which I was a financial scholar (which I guess meant I was technically not a moron), scared shitless of being called for recitation because, even though I knew the answer in its English form, I wasn’t confident I could say it out loud in Filipino without messing up my grammar or pronunciation.

The bizarreness persists to this day. My job involves going through a ton of writing submissions, and whenever I do get a piece in Filipino (more so now that it is Buwan ng Wika), I need to coordinate with fellow editors to make sure that what we put out is well-written, which I sometimes have a hard time identifying. Sometimes, I think a piece reads perfectly fine, only to be advised later on that it is actually quite messy or amateur.

Here I am, a person I’d like to think is very competent at what she does, only to have this proficiency threatened by a simple Word document in the official language of the country she has been in her entire life.

Attitude adjustment

To some degree, I know that it isn’t my fault, nor anyone else’s. I know that behind my angst is an entire dissertation on post-colonial something-or-other, that my little life is just a partial reflection of what this country has, by so many increments, become.

But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t act on the guilt that I’ve been feeling, and in fact, I would like to think that I’ve already been trying.

I’m fairly sure my written and spoken Filipino is much better now than when I was in college. Not only have I consciously exposed myself to more Filipino literature and media, but over the course of just living and getting older, I’ve simply gotten more opportunities to use Filipino out of necessity – I’ve gotten to know a wider range of people, and have been exposed to more new experiences, and instead of stubbornly sticking to the way I’m used to communicating, I try (operative word: try) to use more Filipino instead.

This piece may come off as laughable to some. (Woe is me; I am so, like, Inglishera!) And I don’t blame them, because we continue, as a people, to hastily categorize each other between rich and poor, and hardly acknowledge the Frankenstein’s monster that is the middle class, the confused fusion of neither/nor and either/or that stumbles through its life not really knowing what it is.

That said, I know some people out there can relate to this piece, and I hope they feel some sort of relief knowing they are not alone in their guilt.

I know that the topic of language can, ironically, be hard or scary to talk about, because language is such a powerful ingredient in one’s culture, and thus, will never just be about a bunch of words and how they’re strung together. But it’s important that more people from more backgrounds talk about it openly, especially if it becomes a point of fear and frustration, because I’d like to believe that language should not bog its speakers down, but should, instead, free them. –

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Marguerite de Leon

Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon heads Rappler’s Life and Style, Entertainment, and Opinion sections. She has been with Rappler since 2013, and also served as its social media producer for six years. She is also a fictionist.