Language begins with my mother. In a country like the Philippines, dotted with islands, each with unique food and language, it is rare to hear someone say, “I’m Chavacana.” Filipinos identify each other by locating his or her island (or province) of origin. The roots of one’s name begins and ends a conversation.
My father hails from Oas, Albay, and my mother, from Zamboanga. Oas is the home of the letter R of the infamous Claveria Decree, and Zamboanga of a Spanish creole called “chavacano,” truly the only existing Spanish-language mix in the Philippines, where Spanish was relegated to the corridors of Church, but not in the classroom. So when people ask, how come after 333 years of Spanish colonization the country doesn’t speak Spanish. Oh well, it’s because the Friars didn’t teach us. Simple, really. However, in Zamboanga, a fort watching over the Islamic Mindanao, a Spanish language was born in Chavacano. That was my mother’s first language. Her second is Cebuano, her third, Tagalog, her fourth, Bicolano (because of my father), her fifth, English. My mother is the polyglot, fluent in major languages of the Philippines.
My Polyglot Household
Because of the English language, most Filipinos are at least bilingual. Some are lucky to have intermarried with natives of other islands and learned new ones (like my mother). In my household, all the languages written above were spoken. Because my father was from Oas, Albay, and our house in Manila was ever occupied by Bicolanos, my father’s language dominated our linguistic world. Being in Manila, my siblings and I spoke Tagalog and studied English. Thus, Tagalog is native to the three of us and not to our parents. English was the common thread among us five, the only language not truly native, but rather, learned. At any given day, five languages were spoken, thought in, and dreamt about. What does that do to the psyche?
Filipinos don’t think about such things–multilingualism, multiculturalism, multi-whatever, linguistic psyches. We are born to such mergings and separations of archipelagic and colonial by-products. Language, for us, is fun. Tagalog, at any given day, becomes Taglish, thanks to the colegialias who boast self-esteem by flaunting English prowess. We make fun of each other’s accents. Visayans, the middle island people, are such victims. Those who can’t pronounce F and H are forever the butt of jokes. And English doesn’t help. Everyone is a victim of the non-fluency in English. English, the king of the Philippines, determines class, education, and just about anything that will put one on the pedestal. I remember being so intimidated by the very young Lea Salonga’s American accent. I always wondered how she learned to speak so well. And of course, thanks to her ever threatening language ability, she had her own TV show as a kid.
The Polyglot (in me)
This week, at the University of Miami’s Department of English (program here), I am to switch on the polyglot in me and speak about what it means to be multilingual.
Speaking about things that are natural perplexes me a lot. I often get invited to events that highlight the other. Talk about being Gay. Talk about being Gay and Asian. Talk about being an immigrant. Talk about being a published writer in the U.S. among Filipinos who don’t read books. Talk about being a polyglot.
Honestly, I had to google the word. I initially invoked the spirits of my multilingual tongue and dissected the word into syllables. Poly, I knew. But I couldn’t figure out what glot meant. Of course now I know, it’s a sexy word for multilingual.
Unlike my parents, the other languages that I speak are learned (studied). My curiosity about Chavacano, its origin and purpose, had me studying Spanish for a lifetime. What I speak now is not the chavacano of my mother, but rather a language first acquired from the chavacano blood and then refined in a few Spanish grammar classes and through cultural immersion in Latin America, where I have lived and studied at different periods of my life in the past 2o years. I speak languages in this order on a daily basis: English, Spanish, Tagalog (with my family). I think/process/do-everything in American English, I must say. English is natural to me now. Tagalog, my native language, is a weekly event. It happens within the confines of my family home in Jersey City. Spanish is the language of acquaintances, dreams, and voyages. Spanish is the language of my heart. Brazilian Portuguese is my fourth, one that I will have to study forever. I have gone back to Brazil more than the Philippines.
( A polyglot, I think, is defined as someone who speaks, writes, and reads in many languages, and may not include those who were raised in other languages they might not be able to speak, but more or less understand. Those for me are the languages of my parents.)
It’s the end of Semana Santa, and I must confess that I always have two sins. I oversimplify and I exagerrate. At. Times. (Nature of the literary beast prone to poetic license).
But, today, the former. Language-made-simple. Sans politics.
I married the Spanish language for a reason. I speak English for a larger reason. One I chose (Spanish), the other I did not (English). In the Philippines, such linguistic barriers are easily broken by pathways of travel and marriage. That’s how my family came about. English was a colonial language, and the language of the Overseas Foreign Workers (10% of Philippine population work abroad). For me, Spanish is a language I must learn and speak if I were to ever understand the Spanish colonial experience in the Philippines–all the 333 years of it. Studying, living, and loving in Latin America taught me many things about the nature of the Filipino as a Spanish bastard. I own the word as a self-descriptor — latinazo.
In my little head, languages are a dance. They are secret tongues, keys, hearts, surprises, and possibilities. They are countries, islands, foods, and music. They are people, buildings, places, and songs. There is more to this topic that I can ever blog here. As a politicized writer, the word multingual has many other bends in the road, especially in the racialized America.
In literature, language is everything. In the world of letters, the polyglot has a natural weapon. In America, “land of immigrants”, it could be as mighty as a sword. But I will save that topic for public speaking.