Why you should learn your mother tongue

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Me in first grade, after coming to Canada in 2002.

I used to be really fluent in Tagalog when I was younger—or so my dad tells me, shaking his head, every time I have to ask him to translate certain sentences into English.

For those of you who don’t know, Tagalog is the first language in the Philippines, and it also just so happens to be my mother tongue.

My dad tells me that between the ages four and six, I used to rattle off Tagalog sentences in such rapid-fire succession that even he lost track of what I was saying. Mind you, he’d been speaking Tagalog since he was kid, too, so the fact that a six-year-old could outwit him in the language he was brought up in leads me to conclude two things: (1) I had a strong grasp of the language from the start, or (2) I was just super talkative and annoying. I’m guessing I fall in the latter category.

He chuckles every time he talks of these faded memories, and once in a while, he likes to remind me that my favourite phrase was, “Saan tayo magpupunta?” or “Where are we going?” to which my eyes would grow big with sorrow every time the response was not related to any place that sold food.

(Note: I had an obsession with this fast food restaurant called Jollibee, and I can still recall, without hesitation, my go-to order in those days: Chicken with rice and two extra gravies on the side.)

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Enjoying a meal at Jollibee (trust me, behind that stoic expression is pure bliss).

I guess I’m recounting these stories because I like to console myself with the remembrance of being once fluent in a language that I now have little mastery over.

You see, when my family and I relocated to Canada in 2002, my proficiency in Tagalog dropped faster than my freshman high school GPA. It wasn’t because I never had the opportunity to exercise the language—in fact, I had plenty, both at home and with neighbourhood families—it was a personal choice that I had made when I was young.

Whether I was at school, home or anywhere, if I ever engaged in conversation, I replied strictly in English. Now, I’d like to point out that my intention is not to demean the English language in any way. Actually, the English language and I have an almost illicit love affair, so any thoughts that I’d intentionally shame my first love should go out the door this instant. However, what I am trying to do is relate a story of a girl who lost her language, and as a corollary of that stupid decision, lost her culture and identity in the process.

When I first came to Canada, it was winter, and the white flurries of snow were something I had never witnessed before. In sum, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I was in complete, dumbfounded awe of the culture and environment in this country. It was all so different from what I was used to. Besides the snow, nice people and pollution-free air, one startling difference was the language.

I grew up watching English TV shows and so I had a better grasp of the language and culture than was expected of me. As a result, adjusting to school life wasn’t that difficult. It was more like fitting in with my peers that was hard. I already knew that I was different, I figured that out from the moment I stepped out of the airplane; with my tanned-complexion, hooded eyes and dead-straight black hair, I thought, why make myself seem even more different by speaking a foreign language?

So, when I decided that I would only speak English, this was also around the same time I asked my mom if she could please pack sandwiches instead of rice for my lunch.

Gradually, I started detaching myself from my Filipino culture—refusing to eat Filipino food, watch Filipino movies and much to my chagrin, speaking Tagalog.

As I grew up, it didn’t seem like such a big deal to me that I knew almost nothing about the country of my origin. But I guess the epiphany came to me when I visited Ifugao (a mountain province of the Philippines) in 2008. Interacting with my extended family was impossible, since communication between us was non-existent. In other words, I couldn’t even utter an understandable sentence in Tagalog to save my life.

I remember thinking, “Oh my God, who am I anymore?”

I spent those weeks in awkward silence, and I felt like an alien in what was once my home and safe haven. The culture that I tried so vehemently to push away was coming back to haunt me—and it was in Ifugao that I realized that I had never truly stopped being Filipino. Even if I couldn’t speak the language or blurt out the past five presidents of the country, I realized that being Filipino was an intrinsic aspect of my identity—something I could never strip away from myself. It was something I had to remember to embrace.

So, reader, I implore you to learn your mother tongue simply because it’s part of who you are. Firstly, I bet your ancestors have spoken that very language and it would be a shame if that tradition came to a stop in your generation, or the next one to follow.

Secondly, language is a bridge to cultures across the globe. You’d be surprised to discover what kind of new world exists out there by virtue of speaking another language, really. Third, and perhaps most importantly, you get to claim awesome bragging rights by flaunting your mother tongue.

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