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Why I Teach My Son Our Native Language

This balikbayan mom believes in the value of speaking our mother tongue


By Corinna Vistan-Takahashi

What does it mean to be Filipino? I’ve often been asked that question while living abroad. Living in Los Angeles for more than a decade, in a city that takes pride in housing a melting pot of countless cultures, I couldn’t help but take pride in my own. The longer I lived away from my country and immersed myself in the American culture, the stronger sense of pride in Philippine culture I somehow gained. This pride grew even more when I became a mother. It was important for me to teach my son about the place I came from, the country I called home, and the language I grew up speaking.

Connecting with conversations

Growing up in Manila, I had been used to speaking English a lot more frequently than Tagalog. My parents felt speaking fluent English would be a great advantage in the work environment one day and it was. I was often told by American coworkers how great my English was. Although there are plenty of benefits in speaking English, there is something so remarkable when speaking Tagalog to your fellow kababayans when overseas. Whether it’s asking “Magkano ito?” (How much is this?) at the Filipino grocery store or answering “oo, syempre naman” (Of course!) when asked if I knew how to speak Tagalog. There is a sense of familiarity in our conversation and an immediate connection is created. There is an unspoken assurance between us Filipinos that conveys a strong sense of community and identity: This is who we are and this is where we come from.

Learning Tagalog

It wasn’t easy to teach Tagalog to my son. In fact, I don’t think I succeeded. It was a huge challenge, since everyone around us spoke English. The only words my son knew were numbers and some food items like ube (purple yam), champorado (sweet chocolate rice porridge) and pancit (noodles).

CULTIVATING ONE’S NATIVE LANGUAGE IN A FOREIGN LAND Family sightseeing in San Francisco, California

Eventually, I discovered that he knew more Tagalog words. He was learning it through my expressions. In moments of sheer joy, anger, and frustration, it was much easier to describe what I was feeling when speaking Tagalog. There are some Tagalog words that do a better job of relaying our emotions rather. Words like grabe (extreme), galing (very good), kakainis (annoying), and hay nako (sigh). One morning, I heard my son jokingly tell his dad “hay nako, daddy!”

Now that we’ve moved back to the Philippines, I am excited for my son to learn and speak it fluently. I see the value in it and the importance of continuing to pass it down to the next generations. Speaking it defines who we are as a people and as a nation, whether living here or abroad.

What does it mean to be Filipino? It is a lot of things but one of it is appreciating the language. Whether Tagalog, Cebuano, Kapampangan, or any of the other languages and dialects in our country, knowing the language gives you a better idea of who you are and where you came from.

As James Baldwin once said, “If you know where you came from, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

Corinna Vistan-Takahashi first worked in the Philippines as a TV network reporter before pursuing a master’s degree in Film in America. The highlight of her 13-year-career in the Hollywood industry included an executive position at Marvel Studios where she worked on 19 out of its 22 films. She is married to an American of Japanese ancestry. They now live in Manila with their seven-year-old son.

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