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How my sons lost their Tagalog: ‘Sulat kay’ James Soriano

/ 10:46 PM September 10, 2011

Benjamin Pimentel

(Editor’s Note: In the fourth week of “Buwan ng Wika” last month, an Ateneo senior wrote that Filipino was the language of the streets and that English was the language of learning and privilege. James Soriano’s article drew criticisms from Filipino Netizens, prompting a newspaper website that posted the material to remove it. The newspaper later reposted the article. We are running the article as it appeared on blogs and Manila Bulletin’s website, and a response of a Filipino-American journalist to encourage debate on how the use of Filipino, English or another language affects us as individuals and as a nation. Benjamin Pimentel’s piece appeared on’s Global Nation.)

SAN FRANCISCO – My wife and I decided early on that Tagalog was going to be our sons’ first language.

It wasn’t easy.


In his first days in preschool, our firstborn was miserable, intimidated by a world in which pretty much everyone spoke English.

But his pediatrician said not to worry about it. Experts said not to worry about it. They even said that it’s good for kids to be exposed to many languages, that they, eventually, will adjust and adapt.

And my son did.

It didn’t take long for Paolo to be fluent in English, although he later, sadly, lost his Tagalog.

His younger brother grew up with a kuya who spoke to him in English. They had some funny moments. Anton would struggle to tell his big brother, “Eh kuya, I just ano … uh … because … maglaro naman tayo.”

But like his kuya, it didn’t take long for Anton to shift from Filipino to English. And sadly, he, too, lost his Tagalog.

Well, they didn’t actually “lose” it.

It’s still there. They can understand, but would not speak it.


But the spirit of my mother tongue is still part of them. I hope someday that they get a chance to use it again, to be immersed once again in that world. It’ll be up to them.

Which brings me to James Soriano, the Ateneo senior, whose essay on his own struggles with English and Filipino sparked a heated controversy, especially on the Web.

Now, this may surprise many, but I’m glad he wrote that essay. It inspired me to write him a letter.


Dear James,

Unang una, maraming salamat.

Mabigat ang dating ng sinulat mo. At alam kong bugbog ka ngayon sa mga puna at batikos.

Pero dahil sa iyo, nagkaroon ng debate. Dahil sa ’yo, pinag-uusapan, pinag-iisipan ang papel ng wika sa buhay natin, sa bayan natin, lalo na ng mga kabataang tulad mo.

Ipagtatanggol ko ang karapatan mong sabihin ang sinabi mo. Salubungin mo lang ‘yong mga puna, ‘yong mga ideyang kontra sa mga pananaw mo. Kung hindi mo tanggap, OK lang. Pero harapin mo pa rin.

Ganyan naman tayo umuunlad at natututo.

Ngayon, tungkol doon sa sinabi mo na Filipino “is not the language of the learned” – sakit mo namang magsalita p’re.

Classy, lowbrow

Do you really believe the implied equations in what you wrote?

English = Classy, smart people.

Filipino = Stupid, lowbrow, very emotional people.

For I can share with you several instances when knowing just English (and Filipino) really made me feel unlearned.

One was when I was in Cotabato in the late 1980s as a reporter covering the lumad, the tribal Filipinos struggling against militarization and social injustice. I don’t speak Cebuano. They didn’t speak English or Filipino.

We needed help.

And that help came from an unexpected source – a  kind-hearted Italian priest named Father Peter Geremia, who spoke Italian, English and Cebuano. (I’m guessing he also speaks Tagalog since he had lived in Manila where he got involved in the protests against the Marcos dictatorship in the 1970s.)

It was one of the oddest interviews in my career as a journalist.

Here was this white dude from Europe helping me understand and communicate with my own people. He knew their language. I didn’t. My grasp of English couldn’t bridge that gap.

Father Peter was the learned one. Not me.

Like a chore

Sabi mo, “Filipino is like a chore, like washing the dishes; it was not the language of learning. It was the language we used to speak to the people who washed our dishes.”

Pag nagkita tayo, Tagalugin mo ako. Kasi, bagama’t ang hanapbuhay ko sa Amerika e nakabatay sa kakayanan kong umingles, kasama ng buhay ko dito ang paghugas ng pinggan.

Oo, may dishwasher sa bahay namin. Pero, alam mo, pag mga malalaking kaldero ang katapat, puno ng mga latak ng mantika at tirang ulam, kinukuskos ko nang husto ’yon, p’re.

Condescending view

Obviously, many got upset because of what they felt was your stunningly condescending view of those who speak Filipino.

Well, I must confess, I also once had an intense bias against another language: Spanish.

You see, when Filipinos of my generation were in college, we had to learn Spanish, four semesters of it.

We hated it. We thought it was useless. We were offended that we had to learn the language of the conquistador, of the Padre Damasos and Padre Salvis. Of the coño kids!


Then I moved to California.

Boy, do I regret not taking those Spanish courses seriously.

For Spanish may have been the language of the hoity toity back home. But in California, it’s the language of middle-class and working-class people, of immigrants like me. Many of them may seem like the people you somewhat derisively referred to in your essay as the tinderos and the katulongs.

As a journalism student, I had to run around the US-Mexico border and came face-to-face with poor Mexicans and Central Americans in Tijuana and Mexicali.

How I wished I could speak really fluent Spanish then.

As a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle I was assigned to cover immigration and affirmative action, which took me to Latino neighborhoods all over the Bay Area.

How I tried to find the Spanish-speaking me.

But there was no such person. There was only English. And English couldn’t help me out. Knowing English didn’t make me feel learned.

‘Unang nobela’

Binigo rin ako ng Ingles noong unang pagtatangka kong sumulat ng nobela.

Sa Ingles ko unang sinubukang buuin ang “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street.” Sa San Francisco ang setting, kaya, siyempre, inisip kong dapat Ingglisin.

Pero ayaw makisama ng mga tauhan. Iyong mga beteranong nakatambay sa may cable car stop sa San Francisco, ayaw umIngles. Kahit anong gawin ko, hindi umuusad ang kuwento.

Para bagang sinasabi ng mga matatanda, ‘E bakit mo ba kami pinag-iIngles Boying, e mga Filipino kami.’

Kaya kumambyo ako. Sinulat ko sa Filipino. Saka umarangkada ang kuwento. Nabuhay ang mga tauhan.

Sarap ng pakiramdam.

Fil-Ams’ yearning

You want to know why I wanted our children to learn Tagalog? Because when I moved to the US, I met many young Filipino Americans who were disappointed, a few were even angry, that their parents didn’t teach them Filipino, didn’t expose them to Filipino culture.

It’s really strange, in a way.

Here you are declaring that Filipino is “not the language of the learned … not the language of privilege.”

But here where I live now, thousands of miles from our homeland, young Filipino Americans, who yearn for the privilege of speaking that language, are searching for ways to embrace Filipino.

Baybayin script tattoo

They take Tagalog lessons, even learn the Baybayin, the original Tagalog script. They even have Baybayin script tattooed on their bodies.

Joey Ayala, the folk singer who lived in Berkeley for a time, put it best when he told me, “Things that are distinctly Filipino are often more valuable to Filipino Americans. Filipinos in the Philippines look to the American dream. Filipinos in the United States have the Philippine dream.”

Quite a stir

You caused quite a stir with what you wrote, James. I’m sure you’re still reeling from the criticisms.

But like I said, I’ll defend your right to express your views, even if I disagree with many of them.

That’s how we learn, after all. I’m guessing your views may still evolve, grow wings, take flight.

Good sign

I actually see the backlash as a good sign. It tells me that young people feel strongly about these issues, about language, culture and society. (I don’t get Jejemon, but hey, that’s part of the debate, of the process of finding answers.)

And it’s important to remember that culture and language are not static. They change.

Consider some of the big changes over the past 20 years.

When I was growing up in Manila, pretty much all the TV newscasts were in English.  When I was growing up, we got fined for speaking in Tagalog on campus. Five centavos a word!

Well, OK, I hear that still happens in some schools. But I also hear there’s a congressional bill trying to put an end to that silly practice. Progress!

Even my eldest son’s attitude toward his first language has been changing. He used to tell me that he really didn’t want to speak Tagalog anymore, “Because it’s not cool, Tatay.”’s Bebot

Well, when the Black Eyed Peas’’s “Apl Song” and “Bebot” became hits that changed. Suddenly, Tagalog was “cool.”

And during our last visit to Manila, he even realized the value of his Tagalog-speaking self when he witnessed a street fight in Ermita.

“I understood what they were saying, Tatay,” he said. “One was saying, ‘That’s mine. ‘Akin ’yan.’”

I imagine that he could very well have been talking about his Tagalog.

For while it’s buried within him, it’s still his. It’s still there.

Nandoon pa rin.

(Pimentel is a US-based Filipino journalist, novelist, author and blogger. He studied at Ateneo de Manila University and University of the Philippines-Diliman before moving to the United States, where he earned a master’s degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A former editor-in-chief of The Philippine Collegian, he worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle for 14 years until he moved to MarketWatch, where he covers the Technology Business news. Among his published works are  “UG, An Underground Tale,”  “Pareng Barack: Filipinos in Obama’s America” and “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street.”)

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