Language as a Sense of Self

By Alexandra Ysabelle A. Amolar

For many people, language is something they use to connect with other people in any situation and any culture. Language can be transpired and cultivated anywhere, even in yourself. It can be used to navigate not just other people’s ideas but also a person’s idea of themselves. My personal experience with language has always been alienation from the people and environment around me.

It’s the beginning of my primary school day, and I’m being dragged by my feet into the classroom by my teacher while screaming for dear life. I was doing well into my last year in preschool, but in the latter half, there was a daily tantrum. I refused to let go of my mother, exhausting myself, her, my teachers, and my classmates.

Of course, my teachers would always win in bringing me into the classroom, and I was left to watch my mother wave at me through the looking glass and walk away. Before I can unleash my second tantrum, I am rushed to meet my peers. I said hello to Kate and the South Korean girl whom I had stupidly asked if she was from the North or South. Since they were my friends, I eventually calmed down throughout the day.

But the bell rings, and I am all too aware that they will leave me again. I wave my goodbyes and say I will see them again, and I return to feeling alone once more.

I didn’t understand this feeling at the time, let alone have a name for it. It felt like a ghost on my shoulder, one that I did not enjoy the company of. It stayed with me from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep. It never left me alone, even if I was with my friends, acting like an unreachable gap between two parties.

This heavy ghost of loneliness was something I detested, right down to my bones. But I did not need to worry about it, not anymore. After begging my mother, I was to be homeschooled after preschool. I didn’t want to be alone, and at home, I was never alone. The choice was easy, I chose to learn in a place where I was never alone.

Now comes the golden-tinted days of homeschooling. It was one of the best phases of my life, one I sometimes wish I could return to. I studied earnestly, and I learned at my own pace. My teachers were my mother and grandmother, who patiently helped me when I struggled, even when I cried. My core subjects were taught to me in only English as a medium. This focus on English as my first language, even in learning, had gotten as far as learning the history of other countries rather than my own.

Due to my grandmother being an English teacher, the English subject was put on a higher priority compared to Filipino. Additionally, I was much more advanced in speaking, writing, and reading English due to both watching English CDs repeatedly in Manila and reading Western children’s literature. My father insisted I watch English shows and media only, and I was left to read English books left at home, which catastrophically led to me responding to Filipino statements in English with the most American accent. Even if I spoke in my native language, the accent would still prevail, ruling over my tongue.

Despite this, my family knew that this disadvantage could be seen and used as an advantage. My father called me smart because my English was much better than his when he was my age. My grandfather and mother spoke with a certain flare that I could become a lawyer when I grew up. My grandmother praised me when I wrote short essays and inflated my ego by telling me that I need not study English too much if ever I returned to normal school.

With all this emphasis on English, my tongue in Filipino was neglected. I struggled with everything. Filipino was death, I concluded. The pronunciation and tones drowned in my tongue. I felt embarrassed if I even tried to speak in Filipino, compared to how proud I would be if I spoke in English.

And so, I gave up.

I was good enough as it is in English, why would I need to try in Filipino?

So, with that misconception rooted in my mind, I continued to struggle with Filipino, only with the comfort that at least I knew how to speak English. I could survive in the world with that.

Time leaps forward, it is the first day of school. I am in grade five, and I am so nervous I could throw up my entire heart. I am, after so many years, in normal school. I will have to wake up early to go to a classroom that is not my house, and I am nervous.

My days in elementary school went by smoothly, due to it being a private school, everyone knew English, and I communicated with everyone with ease. One would think that my feelings of alienation were gone, but it was not. It was not as prevalent as it was in preschool, but it was like a ghost on my shoulder. I still felt different, but I couldn’t understand why or how.

But before I could find out why that was, I was thrown into high school.

I’ve graduated from elementary school, and I’ve passed the U.P. High School Entrance Exam, miraculously. I am as nervous as I was on my first day of grade five, but I know I will make it through the year, somehow. As long as I socialized as I did before in my childhood, I would make it.

I barely made it through the year.

When I tried to make friends, the ghost of alienation weighed heavy on my chest.

And, within the first month of grade seven, I knew exactly what it was.

I did not speak the language native to here, but they did. I did know the culture native to here, but they did. I did not belong here, but they did.

I did not know what to do with myself after that realization.

I felt like a fraud, a mockery of the Filipino girl. How could I call myself a Filipino when I could not even speak Filipino or Hiligaynon fluently? Due to having spoken English my entire life, it seems as if my links to my own country, including the language, were ripped to shreds. I did not speak the language, I did not eat our food, I did not understand anything about being Filipino.

But if I was not a Filipino, then what was I? I could not say I was from America. I might have spoken like a true American, but I was not American. My accent and choice of language tricked people into believing that I was Filipino-American, but I was not. I was wholly Filipino. My Filipino features weighed heavily on my face, from the flatness of my nose to the darkness of my hair. I was too Filipino to be foreign, and I was too foreign to be Filipino.

At that moment, I knew that knowing Filipino was essential to being one.

But where was I supposed to begin with learning, or in other words, relearning it? My family did not bother to teach me anymore, and my younger siblings, mirroring my childhood, spoke in straight English. Again, I found myself alone.

And so, after the pandemic, I observed my friends and classmates. I tried to mirror their mannerisms in speaking and their tones so that I could find myself in my culture once more. I am still in the process of this, it’s a difficult journey, but the reward of finally finding peace in my own culture is too tempting to pass off.

I know now that it is important to speak my native language in this day and age. I do not want to not know how to speak Filipino despite being from the country itself. I do not want to be like Robin Swift, a character from a book I’ve recently read, who felt out of place in his homeland.

I want to, at the very least, be able to converse comfortably in my native language at the end of my life. My language is a major factor in what makes a Filipino, thus its importance. I was born a Filipino, and even if I had rejected my blood and language for many years, I would die a Filipino.

Reflecting on my personal experience with language, I now know that language can not only affect my sense of self but also define it wholly. It mirrors my core identity as an individual, the way I socialize with others, and feel accepted and belong by them as well. The sense of alienation is not something that goes away forever, it will always remain so long as there are different languages in place. It’s not always a bad thing, although the experiences with it can be, it is just the right push to find yourself in the power of language.

Alexandra Ysabelle A. Amolar is a student from U.P. High School in Iloilo and is currently enrolled in the course “Komunikasyon at Pananaliksik sa Wika at Kulturang Filipino” under the supervision of Prof. Noel Galon de Leon. This essay is a class assignment reflecting on the importance and power of language in their personal experiences.