Monday, February 05, 2007

English as a Second First Language

I remember, a few years ago, that I got invited by an MIT graduate student to participate in an interview she's conducting for her dissertation. She was doing a study on South East Asian Languages... and Tagalog (my forte, or I'd like to think so at least) is part of it. She just wanted to ask me some questions about it. Being the broke university student that I was, I eagerly replied YES to her email to me. I agreed to meet her in this coffee shop I frequented in Harvard Square. For $12 an hour, why not???

When I met her, I found her to be this really sweet cannot-harm-a-fly Caucasian girl with smart wits. I decided that I liked her. We ordered some tea and proceeded down to business. She was a linguistics major and wished to work for the UN. She was doing her study on South East Asian languages because she found it to be interesting... though unfortunately, she can speak none of it. Hence, the need for me to answer her questions.

Now... I grew up bilingual. Of course, growing up, I was more comfortable speaking in Tagalog though I could understand and speak English fluently. It was only in high school when I met my best friend, Bear, that I only started speaking English fully. She's 100% Filipino who grew up majority of her life in the Philippines (born in the US) -- and she happens to be really bad at Tagalog. Up until this day, I have no idea why. So, our conversations had to be in English which I didn't mind... and I actually have her to thank because it was through her that I really polished up on it.

Anyway, I digress. Back to tea...

You know when you acquire a language while growing up... you don't really question why things are such? I mean, I never really questioned why the English language has a few million tenses and why we don't pronounce all the letters in a word. It's just how it is! This girl really made me think of my native tongue. I know, for a start, it sounds really funny to the foreign ear... but she just kept on asking why words were patterned a certain way and why.

I don't fuckin' have a clue.

The funny thing is, I realized that in Tagalog, just add or omit a syllable and the meaning becomes completely distorted. For instance:

"Umulan na." -- It already rained.

"Umuulan na." -- It has already started to rain. / It's raining already.

"Uulan na." -- It's going to rain soon.

??? Hello ???

I never really thought about this before since I've always used all the abovemention sentences. But really, just one letter or one syllable makes all the difference in the world.

And then she asked, "How do you say 'It rained on the beach?'"

I answered, "Umulan sa tabing dagat."

She frowned, "Well, see, in my notes, it said "Naulanan yung tabing dagat."

Then it was my turn to frown, "That means the beach accidentally got rained on."

Oh sweet bejeezus... I should have asked for more than $12 an hour.

The second time we met, she took along her professor that was guiding her throughout this research period. He looked like a cross between Nanook of the North and Santa Claus with a nest of blonde curls sitting on his head. He had a cherry nose and chubby cheeks. Apparently, he spoke perfect Tagalog as he spent three years in the Philippines and took up the language for two years in Cornell.

He greeted me and talked to me in DEEEEEEEEEEP Tagalog. I was agog. I had to ask him which part of the Philippines exactly he spent time in. Because circa 2000, they stopped using some of the words that he was still using. Apart from Filipino literature that I had to study back in grade school and high school.

I breathed a sigh of relief when he confirmed that he didn't spend time in Manila. He lived with a family in some nearby province where they all spoke Tagalog. Perhaps those bloody Americans just Westernized and urbanized Manila a little too well... because people in my generation (shame, shame) tend to speak in Taglish -- a mixture of English and Tagalog.


It was during this time when I realized that my language is beautiful. And I love the fact that not a lot of people can speak it (only people in the Philippines). It's like some sort of secret language, really. And people have told me that I'm actually more animated whenever I speak in Tagalog. Perhaps it's true... because so much emotions and meanings get lost in translation. Not just Tagalog but any language, I'm sure.

Whenever I travel to a country that doesn't utilize English as much, I always find myself appreciating the fact that a) I know another language (albeit on its way to dying; thanks to colonization) and b) I can be snooty about it too because not everyone can understand it (ahem, the French).

This is the reason why I dislike those Filipino-Americans that I met in the US who claim that their parents don't want them to learn Tagalog because it will mess up their accents. Puh-lease... someone pick up my eyeballs as they popped out of my sockets already from rolling them too much. Truly, they don't know what they're missing.

I reckon that knowing one's language is practically knowing one's culture already. And I would rather die than live in shame... if I don't know my own culture.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have an odd one. I grew up knowing my parents language, and only that language - not anything in English, but as I live in England, I started learning English in school - I was able to start understanding English from about age 6-7 I think.

Now I pretty much only know English, from around my mid-teens. I never progressed much further with my 'native' tongue - I think I'm able to speak as much as a 6-7 year old could speak. I find it odd how I appear to be incapable of knowing more than one language at a time.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Kaitlyn said...

I never had a native language to learn besides English, and learning to talk on Italian and Icelandic American bases means I have a generic American accent. (Touch of southern, 12 years here)

However, I love languages. I took French for 2 years in high school, and they offered French 3 and 4 to us in May of 2005, and a few of us signed up, yay, more French! The Friday before school starts, they call and say, no French for you, pick another class now. I stalled a week with 2 study halls before settling on Spanish 1, taught by the same teacher. That class was so easy, and it was fun being a senior in a class full of sophomores.

I don't like to speak French, I fear my accent is horrible. But I love conjugating verbs, I love learning the gender of words, I love it all, and I picked it up so fast.

I hope I can find a career in foreign languages, besides teaching. The University of Memphis only has 'foreign languages' listed as a major, so that's what I checked off.

I'm curious about everything, and pretty good at most subjects, but languages are what I love.

And yes, English is one messed up tongue.

10:25 PM  

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