Navigating Linguistic Norms

By James Mejia

I was born to a multicultural family; my father is from Capiz, while my mother hails from Quezon City and knows how to speak Tagalog. Kag ako, ginpadako nila nga Inglesero, paano ini natabo? How did someone of that background grow up to speak English as his only language for several years of his life?

When I was still young, I didn’t fully understand what my parents and the people around me were saying. When I spoke, English was the language that came out of my mouth. My understanding of the Filipino language was basic, even after I learned Hiligaynon and Filipino. Despite that, I still primarily communicate in English. My parents started speaking to me in Hiligaynon, but the result of this was: nagsama ang akon Ingles kag Hiligaynon, amid confusion about which language to use, Mama talks to me in Tagalog. Now, I don’t know what to do, daw mabuang ako.

The only people I made friends with in elementary school were my fellow English speakers, and even in high school, my friend group was mostly composed of English speakers. However, what I notice is that some of them are perfectly bilingual; they can easily switch from English to Hiligaynon well, unlike me. Sometimes I feel ashamed that I am not fluent in my mother tongue, kahuluya nga bisan isa ka tinaga sa Hiligaynon wala gid ako makahibalo. Is it my fault for subscribing myself to speak the language of our former imperialist captors? Why am I even critical of imperialism even when I’m speaking the language of oppressors? Daw nagalingin ang ulo ko kon amo ni ang topiko, and it feels like giving up is the only thing I know how to do when I’m bothered by these issues.

Our compatriots did not die just for us to speak English, but when I think about it more, Rizal was bilingual, yet he wrote his two famous novels in Spanish. That made me realize, can we weaponize the language of imperialism against the imperialists? And, most importantly, all government documents are written in English. The subjects in schools are all taught in English. Is everyone proficient in English? Indi! Most of them sometimes do not understand the English language. Their comprehension of the English language is more akin to basic English. They sometimes cannot construct basic sentences in English, and it is due to this that they struggle with their studies. This is because of our flawed education system and they do not understand a thing!

Our teachers just need to speak in Bicolano, Waray, Hiligaynon, and other native languages so that our youth can understand. Do I want to live in a reality where education is not taught in the native language? My answer is yes. Yes, so that our children may finally be able to speak and be educated in their native language. That is what I call restoration.

Why did I mention restoration? It is the restoration of our culture, intended solely for us Filipinos. Before the arrival of the Spanish, we were thriving—our culture, our trade networks—despite being fractured. But then the Spanish came, erased our culture, burned our previous idols, and forced us to convert to Christianity or face 1000 lashes. Nag-abot ang mga Amerikano! They said, “We will bring you freedom and democracy,” and then they tried to make us their “little brown brothers” so that we were subservient to the white race. How did they do that? They brought the Thomasites and taught us the English language because English is the language of freedom, they said. But in reality, they were trying to control us and turn us into another bastion of the American nation.

I grew up with media and entertainment from the United States. My grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins live here, and they send us balikbayan boxes filled with DVDs of shows like Barney, Thomas and Friends, etc. On Cartoon Network, the programs are in English. Because of this, English had a significant influence on me, and even today, most of the content I watch is in English. Recently, I watched a new animated pilot on YouTube, and to my surprise, it was in Filipino! Due to my location in the Philippines, the dubbing was in Tagalog. All I can say is kudos to the talented voice actors. I realized that the dubbing industry is essential as they bring popular media and dub it into Filipino for a wider audience to enjoy.

It was there that I realized the importance of language. Many of our fellow countrymen grew up with Tagalog-dubbed versions of popular anime like Dragon Ball Z, Slam Dunk, and Voltes V, which became popular because of Tagalog dubbing. Now, many Filipinos have nostalgia for these anime. Language is a powerful tool, used for both good and bad. Our media is mostly Filipino, but more recently, there has been an increase in the use of Taglish to make our news accessible to the younger generation. However, English is still prevalent. CNN Philippines reports in English even though they have Filipino newscasts, ANC primarily uses English, with occasional Taglish. The point is, that while our language is used, English still dominates the media in the Philippines.

I feel saddened for the current generation of Filipinos. Why? Most of my young cousins only speak English, as I previously did. Then, I heard my sibling’s classmates who struggle to read in English. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to my mother tongue. It makes me concerned whether they will ever grasp the language. I am part of that group due to my frequent code-switching. This is why I do not want the same thing to happen to the future generation.

We need to showcase the beauty of the Filipino language, highlight talented writers, directors, and playwrights, or feature the skilled writers of native languages to reveal the beauty that God has given us. Rizal and Bonifacio did not sacrifice their lives just for us to speak English. We should fight against the dominance of other languages to decolonize ourselves and break free from imperialism.

That underscores the importance of our language. It serves as a key to an educated population, a catalyst for cultural development, and a vital aspect of our identity. Filipinos, we should never be ashamed if we can’t speak Tagalog; there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Despite not being very fluent in my language, I am attempting to write this essay. That is what is important, and that is the significance of language.

James Mejia 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.