Bernardo M. Villegas
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Multilingual Filipinos

           When I resided abroad (four years in the U.S. and three years in Spain), I used to boast about how literate Filipinos (and these constitute the vast majority) are among the most multilingual creatures on earth. We may be next only to the Swiss, the Germans and many Northern Europeans who write and speak several languages fluently. Of course, I had to first explain to them that there are different languages in the Philippines, such as Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilonggo, Ilocano, Bicolano, Pampangueno, etc. I used to correct some of my fellow Filipinos who referred to these as dialects. I reminded them that these Filipino languages are more different from one another than the Romance languages such as Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese and Catalan. A Spaniard and a Portuguese, for example, can communicate more easily with one another than an Ilocano and a Tagalog in their respective languages.

          The vast majority of Filipinos speak at least two languages. Those who do not come from the Southern Tagalog region and part of Central Luzon (Bulacan and Nueva Ecija) are generally bilingual. They speak their mother tongue like Cebuano and in addition, Filipino or Bicolano and in addition, Filipino. They speak their regional language as the mother tongue and Filipino as the national language.  Mass media, especially radio and television, help facilitate the learning of Filipino among the non-Tagalogs through both news and entertainment programs.

          Those who have had at least a few years of secondary education are sufficiently conversant in English. Our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are usually a cut above other migrant workers from non-English-speaking countries precisely because of their ability to speak and write English, no matter how elementary. English is the international lingua franca, especially in business and in the internet. We have the Americans to thank for leaving us this important economic asset. We have overtaken the Indians in the volume of our call center business because we have many young people who can speak American English and who are familiar with the pop culture of the U.S. The knowledge of English plays a major role in our earning billions of dollars through our OFWs or our BPO industry.

          Thanks to his or her being multilingual, the typical OFW finds it easier to learn the other languages of their host countries where English is not spoken. Linguistic experts maintain that those who grow up in a multilingual environment, being exposed to different sounds from the cradle, can easily pick up new languages in contrast with those who have been monolingual from childhood. I have noticed that my students and friends who have grown up in an environment with English as the only language to which they were exposed from their earliest years find it more difficult to learn new languages in their adulthood. In contrast, I observed that in Barcelona, where children are exposed to two languages simultaneously--Spanish and Catalan-- most educated Catalans learn English more easily. They speak English with very little accent.

          This learning phenomenon may be the key to resolving the dilemma of an increasing number of middle-class parents living in the Philippines as well as those who have migrated to other countries. On one hand, many young couples want to give their children a head start in learning English by introducing the language as the mother tongue. They intentionally avoid using Tagalog at home to help their children be proficient in English as early as possible. This was the case of an Ateneo student by the name of James Soriano who stirred up a controversy last September 2011 with a candid essay referring to his difficulty speaking fluent Filipino because he got used to using English both at home and in school. One of those who replied to his essay is a Filipino-American journalist residing in California and who faced the same difficulty ensuring that his children would continue to be fluent in Filipino despite their being educated in America. I can sympathize with their predicament because I do have nephews who are not proficient in Filipino because they have spoken English from the cradle and learned only a modicum of Filipino whenever they had to communicate with their household helpers, drivers and other service workers.

          An advice I would give to young couples who want to spare their children this "linguistic dilemma" is to follow the practice I have observed in families all over the world where children are taught to be multilingual at a very early age. The common practice is to have one adult in the family to specialize in speaking only one language to the child. For example, the father could be assigned to always speak in English to the child from the cradle; the mother in Tagalog or whatever is the mother tongue in the region; and another adult (say, the yaya or another service worker) in Filipino, if Tagalog is not the mother tongue. I have seen this work all the time. The child is not at all confused if the adults are persistent and persevering in their respective tasks. Children are like sponges: they can absorb different languages in their early years as long as there is systematic exposure. With easy access to computers, DVD players and the television itself, parents and their collaborators can supplement their own personal tutoring with the abundant software available.

          The parents can then coordinate with the teachers of the schools to which they send their children. As pedagogical experts advise, the language in the earliest years of schooling should be the mother tongue. English and Filipino can be taught as subjects. But with the help of the adults at home, speaking in English and Filipino (in non-Tagalog regions) can be continued at home beyond classroom hours. As those of us who had the painful experience of taking as much as 24 hours of Spanish in the 1950s to the 1970s realized, one does not learn a language without using it frequently in conversation. We perfected conjugations and vocabulary but never learned how to speak Spanish because we had no opportunity for total immersion in the language. In my case, the only time I really learned Spanish was when I actually resided in Spain and was forced to speak it in the ordinary course of the day. Those adults who have the tasks of tutoring the child in specific languages must be relentless in speaking to him or her only in their respective assigned languages. This may be a tall order but I have seen it work in many multi-lingual households all over the world. For comments, my email address is