She inquired in Swiss German, “What language are you speaking?...I ask because my husband, he is Vietnamese,” she gestured at her kids who were already busy exploring the playground. I gave a nod and smiled, it’s hard not to notice. Like my own, they had dark hair and brown eyes and despite the four seasons, tanned skin all-year round. They always stood out among the normally light-skinned and blue-eyed children of our small region in Switzerland.
She was intrigued at my answer. “That's great! My husband, he also speaks only his language to our boys. It's so important! But tell me, is Tagalog a dialect in the Philippines? I’ve never heard it before…I know a few Filipina women, but they only speak English to their children. I thought only English was spoken in the Philippines…”
A little embarrassed, I couldn’t deny that this practice was not unusual. Growing up in a foreign country myself, where English was the formal language of learning, many of the expat families often adopted English as their language at home. And to my astonishment, while working for an international school in the Philippines, I met not one student but a whole population of Filipino children born and raised in Manila who did not speak a word of Filipino. When I asked one of them why, he looked at me as if I had missed the memo, “What for?!?" he exclaimed, "Everywhere you go, people always speak English!”
Understandably, for parents who have emigrated overseas, it’s easier to let a child’s communication develop in the language of their adopted country. It’s easy to blame our so-deeply-rooted colonial mentality for this tendency. How else would we explain it to strangers like the curious Swiss mother at the playground? She's probably still scratching her head in disbelief.
Experts everywhere else encourage parents to raise their children in their mother tongue, no matter where they may actually reside. Not only does it develop a child's language skills, but it also opens the child's eyes to the world and its many differences.
After all, when the mother speaks, she speaks from the heart; she’s raising her children in words and phrases that are molded by her deepest emotions, spilling out in expressions not unlike her mother before her. She speaks it to teach not just a language, but also a culture and history that surpass distance and time, regardless of how remotely detached she is from her motherland. Surely this is irreplaceable, especially with a foreign language she herself has not mastered.
It’s not unusual to meet second-generation expat Filipinos in Europe who express their disappointment in adulthood after missing out on the opportunity to learn their own language throughout their childhood. Now living in my third country and learning my fourth language, I'm thankful every day that my parents insisted on raising us in Filipino, consciously preserving our language and subconsciously planting our roots. It has spared me one less frustration.
Though my Filipino still does not compare to my fluency in English, it still remains the language I speak to my parents, siblings, cousins and distant relatives, and now to my two sons as well. It is my home language. And during the 11 years I lived in the Philippines, after growing up overseas until I was 15, it was the difference that made exploring the country natural, built lasting friendships and enabled me to experience my own culture unfiltered.
For tri-cultural kids like me, knowing I can take that part of my heritage with me wherever I go keeps me grounded. Understanding my own language has even been key to how I have learned new ones; and taking pride in the faults and imperfections of my own culture has helped me assimilate into new cultures too.
Like the mother I met at the playground that autumn afternoon, who takes pride in the mixed cultures her children are experiencing every day, I find my mother tongue to be such an important part of my identity that I could not imagine denying it to my own children. Living continents away from the homeland and raising a multilingual family, speaking to them in Filipino is like sharing a key to a secret chest of drawers.
In our everyday exchanges and whenever we read Tagalog books together, we're opening one of those drawers and rediscovering words and phrases I forgot I knew from another life. When my eldest points at pictures of things like “bakya” and “walis ting-ting” asking what they are, I get so excited explaining what they’re made of and what they’re for. The stories and conversations that sprout from them, bring back memories of school vacations I spent in the Philippines, running around in flip-flops and playing with our neighbors on piles of gravel, or evenings in the "bukid" in our province, when my brothers and I used to catch fireflies with glass jars. I love those conversations with my son, sharing stories and tales as he listens wide-eyed, fascinated about that world far away, where lolo and lola reside, living a life so different, so intriguing.
Granted, I could never teach my sons how to write books or essays in Tagalog, as I never mastered that art myself, I hope to at least gift them the ability to understand and speak the language that is more than just a window to a part of their heritage, but a door to a second home and a potential life if they would ever choose to take it.
After living as a child in Saudi Arabia, later as a teen in the Philippines, Cherry Malonzo now resides in Switzerland after unexpectedly meeting her husband in Rome in 2006. A mother of two boys, she’s currently taking time off from being a lab rat working with stem cells and spending most of her days outside with her children. (She blogs at www.whileinswitzerland.com.)
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