By Paulyne L. Fermin
It’s Linggo ng Wika at my daughter’s school. “Do I look like Gabriela Silang, mom?” She twirls around in her baro’t saya as she boldly holds up a wooden sword. “Oo naman! You are ready for the parade of heroines. Now go sit with your classmates,” I told my six-year-old. Minutes later, the host of the school’s program takes the microphone, welcomes everybody, and starts asking questions in Filipino. I notice the empty expressions of the grade one children. It was the older kids who were able to respond.
It is no different from my experience with my teenager. As a young boy, he understood the language but he was hesitant to speak it and when he did, the American accent was so thick, you could slice it. Filipino projects done in our home exposed me to the linguistic capacity of his classmates, which left me all the more worried. How are these boys going to learn Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo in high school or pass college entrance exams? Gladly, my son has improved immensely. I told him it’s impolite to answer in English when you are spoken to in Filipino. At present, he is very self conscious (and yes, still with an accent), but he is able to converse with me in the vernacular.
I have always been bilingual. My parents and nannies spoke to my siblings and I exclusively in Filipino. But the books (Golden Books and volumes of encyclopedia) in the house were all written in English, so I was exposed to both languages in the homefront. Not to mention that every single day, I woke up to Sesame Street, which was followed by Electric Company (Remember Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader and Rita Moreno shouting “Hey you guuuys!!!). By the time I went to school, I was already fluent in two languages.
What Went Wrong?
Most parents nowadays (including myself) speak to their children in English. Nannies are also instructed to talk to their wards in English. There are no educational shows in Filipino. Video games, YouTube, and almost all of social media are non-Filipino platforms. There was a time when Social Studies was taught in Filipino. Now all subjects, save for Filipino, are taught in English. Given these facts, how can we really expect our children to be fluent in Filipino?
What can we do? As parents, we should make a conscious and daily effort to speak to our children in Filipino. Language is learned through exposure and continuous practice. If at first they do not respond, keep on speaking to the kids until they do. Buy books written in the national language. I bought several but found English translations at the bottom. My kids’ eyes immediately went down to the English text so I made them read the Filipino text out loud. Recently, I even made use of the traffic to play games with them. I would ask them to give me the Filipino word for different body parts, things inside the car or anything we would see on the road. Then I would say a sentence in English and have them repeat it in Filipino. Sometimes, the translations they give are downright hilarious. (I’m not feeling well is translated as “Baka may sakit ako.”) But I have to refrain from laughing because it will embarrass the kids and I do not want to thwart their progress. Proper sentence construction takes a backseat to making the kids feel comfortable while speaking in Filipino. I find that making them write their thoughts in Filipino helps a lot, too.
The truth is many parents have predisposed their kids to be English-speaking from birth. Unconsciously or consciously, speaking in English is viewed as a status symbol. The society looks down on people who can’t speak English but is amused at kids who speak in broken Filipino (How cute!). This mindset really must change and we must all do our part to make it happen. We are Filipinos and should be fluent in our language before learning any other.
The words of Jose Rizal still ring true today, “Ang hindi marunong magmahal sa sariling wika, ay mas masahol pa sa mabahong isda.”