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.
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 – sometimes, even pretty damn good – 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.
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. (Yehey! Bano rin ako katulad ‘nyo! At tatahimik na ako bago pa ako magkamali!)
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. – Rappler.com