Utak muna ang gamitin mo, bago ang puso mo. (Use your head before your heart.) Lalabas na ang tunay na kulay mo! (Your true colors are beginning to show!)
Hayop ka! (You’re an animal!)
The expressions above (picked up from forays into the living room as my parents watch their teleseryes), random insults, the lyrics to this ‘70s gem, and phrases from daily conversation - these constitute my pathetic, hacked-up version of Tagalog.
Rachelle Ocampo, our UniPro President, says, “Every time I meet new Pilipinos and they ask if I understand Tagalog, I greet them with ‘Hindi ako marunong magsalita ng Tagalog pero nakakaintindi ako.’ They are immediately impressed, and encourage me that it is not too late to learn. My goal for this year is to take a Tagalog course and push myself to learn more phrases.”
Like Rachelle, I can’t speak Tagalog, but I can understand it. It’s a result of growing up in a household where my parents spoke enough Tagalog that my brother Marc and I knew when it was time to eat dinner and when we were in trouble, but enough English that it was still our first language. As a proud Filipina-American and cultural enthusiast of my roots, my inability to speak the native tongue of my ancestors is my scarlet letter, a shameful burden, an embarrassing thorn in my side that tears at my flesh each time my family speaks to me in Tagalog and I am forced to respond in English. As Marc puts it, “Identifying so closely with a certain culture and not speaking the language is like being that kid who wore vans but never skateboarded. At least that’s what I feel like: A big. fat. poser.”
"...my inability to speak the native tongue of my ancestors is my scarlet letter, a shameful burden, an embarrassing thorn in my side that tears at my flesh each time my family speaks to me in Tagalog and I am forced to respond in English. "
My ability to understand prompts many people to declare, “Well if you can understand Tagalog, then you speak it.” To which I respond emphatically, “It’s not that easy!” When I hear Tagalog, there’s no internal attempt to translate it. I just know what it means, even if it’s difficult to explain it in English. ("Ang kapal ng mukha" comes to mind.) But when I try to speak Tagalog - that’s another story. With no knowledge of any grammar rules, including tenses and pronoun usage, I grasp desperately at the few words in my vocabulary bank, taking ages to sputter out a few broken and laughable sentences. Unfortunately, “Lalabas na ang tunay na kulay mo!” is not an appropriate response in every conversation.
Some immigrant parents purposely don’t teach their children their native language so they’ll grow up Americanized, sparing them from the difficulties of learning English as a second language and having an accent. The thought process behind my parents’ decision to refrain from teaching me Tagalog didn’t go that far. In fact, there didn’t seem to be a decision at all. It simply didn’t happen. This has spawned eternal resentment from my end and the occasional tirade to my parents (“I could’ve been bilingual. Instead, I’m paying to learn a language I should already know!”), who respond to my tired complaints by rolling their eyes.
My best friend for the next few weeks.
"Language is the unique expression of a culture through sounds, words and the strange idioms and melodic inflections those sounds and words compose."
I can keep griping or I can do something to fill this linguistic void, which is why I’m currently taking a Tagalog class. Thanks to The Filipino School of NY & NJ, I’m enrolled in a five-week conversational course. It’s unrealistic to think I’ll be a pro in five weeks, but it’s a solid start. Again, like Rachelle, one of my life goals is to learn Tagalog, to converse fluently with my relatives, to speak confidently to strangers while getting around in the Philippines and to feel closer to my culture. Language is the unique expression of a culture through sounds, words, and the strange idioms and melodic inflections those sounds and words compose. To know another language is to have a gift, a skill, a key to another way of life through its lovely and complex verbal structures. In other words, it automatically makes you cooler.
It will take a lot of work, but I will learn Tagalog, despite the shame and struggle. Now excuse me while I do my homework and practice that simultaneously wretched and awesome “nga” sound.