Speaking in T-Tongues

Speak properly,” my five-year-old Arthur admonished me. I was talking in fluent Tagalog to my mum over the phone. “I can’t understand you,” he said. I was left speechless for a minute as it struck me that (a) he was eavesdropping on my conversation and (b) he thought I was speaking gobbledygook with his lola in the Philippines.

I realized the moment had arrived for me to finally face the monumental task of giving him his long-delayed Filipino lessons.

Five years ago, while pregnant, I had the dilemma of when and how to teach my future offspring the language I grew up speaking. I wanted them to be in touch with their Filipino heritage, and part of this would involve learning my mother tongue. After all, language reflects culture. And when the time comes for them to explore their Filipino identity by backpacking around the country, I will want them to be armed with a verbal knowledge of Tagalog. I wouldn’t want them to be ripped off by unscrupulous tour guides and roadside vendors.

So I read up on raising bilingual children. My research told me that young minds absorbed quickly, and that teaching two languages at the onset would help in the development of their linguistic skills.

I was dismayed that he thought Tagalog was merely stuttering in English.

To see how this worked, I sought advice from friends who, like me, came to Britain from another culture. My Spanish friend employed immersion. She spoke to her baby exclusively in Spanish. “She’ll learn English at nursery, and from other people, ” she reasoned. This worked for her because her partner was also Spanish. At home it was the language they used. But because my English husband could not speak in Tagalog, I had to disregard this model.

Another friend spoke to her child only in her native German while her British husband mainly used English. This made sense to me until I had my baby. I found that, having no one to converse with in Tagalog on a regular basis, I ended up thinking in English and translating in my head. Whenever I spoke to my baby, it came out stilted. I sounded like a badly programmed robot. By default, I reverted to English.

Disheartened, I turned to a Filipino friend who was also a mother. Like me she was married to a non-Tagalog-speaking Englishman. Her approach involved waiting until her children were school-age before she introduced the language. She wanted them to master English first then have a more structured lesson in Tagalog. After my failed first attempt, I decided I would follow suit.

Until recently, Arthur’s Tagalog vocabulary was limited to a few words—lola, lolo, gigil and tabo. It bothered me that he could count in French and sing in German (languages he has been learning in school), but he hardly knew any words in my language. So over a relaxed Saturday breakfast, I decided to teach him a few more.

According to books I’ve read, one way to acquire a language is by making visual connections with a word, similar to how babies learn to speak. The advice was to make it fun, as positive association reinforced learning.

Author Emmily Magtalas Rhodes and her family (L-R: Edward, husband Daniel, Emmily and Arthur) at Buxton Opera House in Derbyshire, England

“Arthur, “ I said, giddy with excitement. “Let’s play a game. ” I pointed to my mouth. “Bibig, ” I said. “Bibig, ” he mimicked. Encouraged, I pointed to my eyes. “Mata.” “Mata, ” he repeated. I proceeded to point to various parts of my face and head while naming them in Tagalog. He did his best to say the words correctly. He was enjoying the session, and I felt proud.

For the next two days, we carried on with the exercise. I would point and say the word, and he would repeat.

A week later, I bumped into a new Filipino friend. She had just taken her little boy to see the health visitor and was advised to talk to him more in her language. Like me she mostly spoke to her children in English, only occasionally using some Tagalog words. The encounter made me determined to improve Arthur’s Pinoy lingo.

That night, I eagerly showed off to my husband the results of our Tagalog lessons over family dinner.

I pointed to my mouth. “What’s this in Tagalog? ” “Bibig! ” Arthur exclaimed. “Yes! ” I pounded my fist in the air. We were making progress. Egged on by my husband’s expectant smile, I moved my index finger to my nose. “What about this? ” Arthur was silent for a while as he searched his mind for the answer. “I know, I know, ” he said. “No-nose! ” Then he pointed to his eyes, “E-eyes! ” Then to his ears, “E-ears! ”

“I can speak in Tagalog, ” he boasted. I couldn’t help but laugh, although I was dismayed that he thought Tagalog was merely stuttering in English.

I made a promise to resolve the issue.

With a new baby in our family, there’s even more reason to revive our Tagalog lessons. I will start by talking more about the country where I grew up—the customs, the climate, the food. When I do, I will use Tagalog words to describe my experiences. I also intend to teach Tagalog nursery rhymes to Arthur so we can sing these to the baby. I’m planning to get Tagalog books, which we can read together. I will do my best to speak more in Tagalog, especially with Filipino friends. I’m going to ask those friends to speak to my children in Tagalog. I will start a “Tagalog word for the day. ” I will ask for advice from other Filipino parents raising their children in an English-speaking environment. Tagalog will be part of our every day, and if the children resist, I will tell them I’m talking in a top-secret language. It should pique their interest.

With this scheme in place, I’m hoping by the end of the year when Arthur opens his mouth, his arsenal of Tagalog will be b-big.

Emmily Magtalas Rhodes

Emmily Magtalas Rhodes

Emmily Magtalas Rhodes is a full-time mother of two boys. She lives in Derbyshire, England.