Language — we use it everyday, but we never really take into account just how much it affects our lives, even down to how it conditions our identities. My entire life story has been a journey surrounding language on multiple levels. I am a half British/half Filipina that is a native American English speaker, conversationally fluent in Japanese, yet barely has any knowledge of Tagalog and Visayan. This sounds strange and confusing, right? Let me take you on my winding journey with language, and show you where it has taken me so far in shaping my identity.
When I was a young child, I was spoken to in a multitude of languages. My father spoke to me in English, my mother spoke to me in Tagalog and English, and my grandmother spoke to me in Dabawenyo, Visayan (both southern Filipino dialects), and English. Apparently, I used to be a very talkative baby until this sudden mixture of languages came along and eventually made me mute. So my mother took me to the doctor, worried that I had become permanently mute.
“Well, how many languages are you speaking to her?” the doctor asked my mother.
“Maybe around four or five languages,” she replied.
“Well slow down and take it one language at a time! No wonder she doesn’t talk anymore!” was the diagnosis.
My grandmother, being the dedicated retired teacher that she is, would not give up on raising a child in a multicultural family. So I started receiving a formal education from her at around three years old. This also included teaching me my ABC’s, 123’s, and some nursery songs in Tagalog. However, once I started kindergarten, this would more or less continue to be my language proficiency level to this day. This was not for lack of trying though; it was impossible to find a Tagalog tutor in Arizona. However, it was because of this lack of knowledge in my own culture that I sought out another language I had interest in learning — Japanese.
My middle school and high school years were filled with listening to Japanese music, watching anime, learning some Japanese here and there from one of my best friends, and the internet. It was due to my friend’s influence that I sought a formal education in Japanese when I went to college. This was probably my renaissance period when I was pursuing my minor degree in Japanese. I met so many friends, underwent an intensive language program, and went on vacation there when my friends went back to Japan for winter and summer breaks. It felt invigorating traveling to another country and being able to improve my conversation skills in everyday situations. Taking this a step further, I felt like I understood this culture better than my own because my friends also put my language learning into a cultural context. Japanese had become part of my identity. After graduating college, Japanese would continue to be the reason for my professional career through today. However, despite having this existing “Japanese” cultural identity, I still yearn to close this cultural rift between the Filipina and American identities I have within myself.
This cultural rift I have within myself is not a rare occurrence in my generation and younger Filipino/a Americans; it is actually quite a common one. A lot of Philippine immigrants were more than encouraged to assimilate their children into American culture instead of integrating them. Assimilating one’s child into a culture they will be experiencing for a good part of their life can more or less mean their essential well-being and safety depending on where they live. (Yes, language is that powerful.) But it is also this overprotective mindset that can also play as a double-edged sword. When we go back to the Philippines, we go back expecting to feel like it is supposed to be our “home away from home”, our true roots. Instead, it confirms that cultural rift and our insecurities because we are treated as Americans, not fellow countrymen. But can we really blame our relatives for treating us as such when the whole situation is an amalgamation of external influences? Not really, because there is no one cause to blame, nor any malicious intent behind the situation. So when the inevitable happens, what do you do, and to whom do you turn to for the next course of action? Trust the struggle; it will take you where you need and want to be in your own winding and wandering journey of life. In this case, my answer was in front of me the whole time — start learning Tagalog with my family.
Language is a two-way street; you need another person to communicate with to make it work. I started with the first person that always comes to mind when it comes to my roots, my mother. It began with a few shy questions, lots of independent study, and my mom trying her best to explain grammar and sentence structure in Tagalog with me. If it is anything I have learned while studying foreign languages, it is that you will always bring people closer together through it. I am still nowhere near fluent, but it has started to sew together and mend my inner cultural conflict. A little communication goes a long way, regardless of which language you speak. Eventually, communicating with one person turns into communicating with many people. A few words makes you that much closer to understanding a whole nation, and ultimately yourself.