The gift of (foreign) gab

Sunday, July 8, 2007

I was in a big hardware store near our home in Sydney with my son Mio to buy paint for some school projects he had to do, and he was remarking about the slow service in the store. He’s been buying his aerosols from there and he always has to wait a while for someone to attend to him.

The surprising thing was how in the middle of the conversation, he automatically switched to Tagalog the moment we were within hearing distance of non-Filipinos who were working in the store. From where we were, all we could see were white Aussies who tended the different counters.

I pointed out to him how advantageous it was for us to be able to switch from one language to another when the need arose. As Filipinos, we take this gift of bilingualism for granted. Actually, many of us may even be trilingual since we not only speak English and Tagalog but also a regional language, like Capampangan, Cebuano, Ilocano, etc. And on top of that, if you happen to be an OFW in a non-English speaking region and have learned to speak to the natives fluently, that makes you quadrilingual! Whew!

Speaking in many languages fluently is not only a matter of being able to translate words and sentences. Every language carries with it a unique world view. While we may seem to be able to describe things objectively in two or more tongues, there is a different take on how we perceive the world whenever we switch from one language to another.

Language is borne out of the reality experienced by its users. Eskimos, for example, may have no words for grass or desert sand, but they have more than 30 words for snow. They have precise words to describe snow when it is, say, in mid-air, or freshly fallen, or melting; whether it is afternoon snow, icy snow, dirty snow, etc. The phenomenon of snow is, after all, such a big part of their everyday life that they had to develop more specific words to describe it in its many nuances.

We Pinoys are as extravagant with our many words for rice. Americans just have one word; they call it “rice.” We have kanin, bigas, sinangag, tutong, suman, lugaw, bibingka, and so many more. Rice is something so ingrained (no pun intended) in our everyday life, something we cannot live without, that we have an overdeveloped vocabulary for it (from an English point of view) which encompasses every interaction we may have with it — rice that is sweetened, ground, cooked, overcooked, baked, sugared, boiled, burned, uncooked, etc. And because the really exciting thing about knowing languages intimately is the different mindsets that we are able to traverse as we switch from one to the other. I call the flawless switching we do cambio, as in switching gears. We can seamlessly enter one reality and cambio to another, sometimes even in mid-sentence! It’s like doing high-flying trapeze — so graceful and effortless. When we say, “What’s the address nga?” or “We were gonna go sana pero we got tamad,” or even, “Ganyan talaga ang buhay. Weather-weather lang,” we are freely juxtaposing not just words but making halo-halo out of two cultures. It’s nothing short of amazing.

There are some things that are easier to say in English, and other things that flow better in the vernacular. For example, a Filipino sentence that is hard to translate directly to English is, “Pang-ilang presidente si George Bush?” Try it. You’ll be at a loss. It’s tempting to think up a sentence that you end with a question mark, something like, “George Bush is the how manyeth president?” except that there is no such word as “manyeth,” and won’t do as a substitute for “pang-ilan.”

Often, we think we are translating something correctly until we analyze things at the etymological level and see that we are expressing different realities. Take the phrase, “I love you.” We think we are saying the same thing when we say “mahal kita.” Actually, we are not. When we express love in English, there is an independent “I” (subject) and a “you” (object) conjoined by the word “love.” But when we say “mahal kita,” where is the subject (ako) and where is the object (ikaw)? We do not say “Ako mahal ikaw” unless we are trying to speak barok! In the Filipino reality of love, subject and object disappear and is intimately melded in the word “kita.” Clearly, that must say something unique about our experience of love itself.

Are there such things as a Filipino “reality” and an English one? I don’t know. But I do know that there are two interpretations of the same reality that do not entirely overlap. I think each language can only encompass certain chunks of reality but cannot handle other chunks as well as other languages. As bilinguals, we know there are certain things that are “invisible” or not real in the English domain but are real in our Filipino reality, and vice versa. We are more attuned to the spirit world, for example, and do not bat an eyelash when we talk about a deceased loved one who is nagpaparamdam. Try saying that to an English-speaking foreigner and he will give you a strange look. To many rural Filipinos, time and space are not always linear but experiential. For example, we describe the distance from one town to another as “isang sigarilyo lang,” and we know we are not comparing it to the physical size of a cigarette.

While we pride ourselves on being English speaking, I suspect that our primal understanding of many things is Filipino, and at best, we express much of it by word substitution in English. We mostly use a Filipino sensibility and our mental and lingual syntax is still Filipino. For example, we have no problem taking an English word and conjugating it in Filipino. A verb like “shopping” turns into: nagshopping, nagshoshopping, napashopping, etc.

As a young songwriter years ago, I realized early on how much more visceral a reaction I was getting from the audience when I sang a Tagalog song instead of an English one. The world of emotions I sing about in Tagalog just hits home in a more intimate way. I am sure my songs in the vernacular will outlive my English ones. And partly because of this and for many more reasons (and I know this is controversial), I believe in a language policy that promotes Filipino over English, but that’s for another discussion later on.

Language is a subject that has always fascinated me and I know I have merely skimmed the surface here. Before I end, I would like to leave you with this intriguing question that I hope you will ponder over this weekend:

Why do we speak to our dogs in English?

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