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Languages, languages, languages

/ 04:15 AM August 02, 2022

It’s August again, Buwan ng Wikang Pilipino or National Language Month, and I thought I’d do some advocacy not just for Filipino but for more languages, local and international.

Most Filipinos start off early anyway being at least bilingual (English and Filipino), many trilingual (for those whose mother language is not Filipino but Cebuano for example, or one of more than a hundred other Philippine languages). Add on parents coming from different linguistic backgrounds, migration, cross-cultural marriage, and the linguistic repertoire expands.

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My fellow columnist and medical anthropologist Gideon Lasco has been taking Spanish intensively in Mexico and feels it’s almost time to move on to another language. Chinese is an option.

Picking up additional languages is always an advantage for a very simple, practical reason: you communicate with more people. You get cheaper prices when shopping, get to order better stuff including food, argue your way out, find your way into the hearts and minds of people.

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This is the time of the year when students are applying to enter college in 2023, and you might want to choose schools that offer many language courses, whether as electives or as an entire degree program. UP Diliman tops them all with languages from around the world, many taught by native speakers or by Filipinos who have so mastered a language and have taken certification exams to allow them to teach.

UP Diliman’s European Languages department is one of the best-kept secrets in the campus—its graduates (and, too often, its faculty) snapped up to teach Spanish, French, German, Italian (a favorite elective, incidentally, among music students majoring in voice). Others end up working in embassies, call centers (yes, we service Europe too), foreign service, multinationals, and the United Nations.

Foreign languages are important for diplomacy and national security work. Our giant neighbor, China, has Chinese fluent in Filipino and use this to monitor us. But, while the number of Filipinos signing up for Chinese classes has grown, mainly to improve chances of getting a job with a Chinese firm, we are weak when it comes to using Chinese for international affairs. Some time back, I was sent a copy of Chinese law with a request to translate it. I needed a clearer copy, so I searched through Chinese files on the internet … and found that the copy sent to me was an earlier draft and that the final version had some important differences from the draft.

In my senior years, I found two more important reasons to learn languages. The more serious one is for brain exercise, especially for sharpening memory. Note that this is not just to speak but to write. For languages like Chinese and Arabic, you do calligraphy as you would art, stimulating the brain, as well as calming it, as one does with calligraphy for Chinese and Japanese Buddhist meditation.

I have met young people who have no time or interest in calligraphy but who like learning writing systems—Japanese katakana and hiragana, and Korean hangeul—and I marvel at how fast they pick up. Katakana and hiragana are syllabaries, like our baybayin, while hangeul is actually an alphabet. And yes, why not learn our own Philippine syllabaries: Tagalog, Ilocano, Pangasinan, Kapampangan, Hanunoo Mangyan, Tagbanua, to name some of them.

Other than brain calisthenics, there’s joy in practicing languages, especially with the way Netflix and other streaming services now offer films from throughout the world. Watch them with the original audio and then get the translation from subtitles.

Catch the prosody or musical qualities of languages. They can be contagious as you find yourself “humming” the language you just listened to, especially if you binged through several episodes or seasons.

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Learn, too, the body languages across cultures, the most notorious being Italian with the way their arms and hands fly all over the place as they speak. The joke is that the best way to silence Italians is to tie up their hands.

Finally, don’t forget the sign languages, which vary as well with cultures. Filipino Sign Language is very different from American Sign Language, and you will find, too, variations in FSL as you go from one part of the Philippines to another. Ultimately though, across all those cultures, you find signing for emotions does bear many similarities, coming from and back to the heart.

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