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For the love of languages

Are you scared of languages that are not what you speak? I must admit I am, and many Filipinos seem to be, too.

As a native Visayan speaker, I am all too familiar with the cold-sweat uneasiness that arises whenever I am required to speak Filipino. You know how there are skills you practice all your life yet you are still nervous about because you think you are bad at them? And you know how your nervousness only adds to your ineptness? That’s how many Visayans feel about having to use Filipino or Tagalog. We get tongue-tied, we run out of words, we find ourselves blurting out kanang or kuwan every so often. In my case, I can only chuckle at my awkward Filipino speaking and pray for the embarrassment to go away painlessly (it does not).

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This, despite the fact that Visayans also grew up watching Filipino-dubbed animé, listening to Original Pilipino Music, and most of all, learning Filipino every single year in school. I believe we can speak the language fluently if we really want to; we’re just… not very comfortable with it.

Likewise, regional languages such as Cebuano are still poorly perceived in Tagalog-speaking places. I am no stranger to getting funny looks whenever I am somewhere in Luzon and conversing with a companion in Cebuano. And these are not just the glancing, curious kind of looks, either: These are the head-to-toe-sizing-up kind of stares.

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Our apprehension toward foreign languages is not just one of those Tagalogs-versus-Visayans hot buttons. To be sure, countless Filipinos—Tagalogs, Visayans, and others—are unified by the dread toward a common nemesis: speaking English.

For some reason, we are just averse to foreign languages. Perhaps it is primarily because of plain and simple intimidation at being confronted with a language or dialect we have not fully mastered. But it seems a large part of our aversion toward certain languages is also borne of anti-intellectualism. For instance, if you are a Filipino who speaks fluent English in the Philippines, you would soon get an array of comments, not all of them kind—from the joking “Nosebleed!” to the outright vilifying “Pa-sosyal!”

It is a wonder why we Filipinos are disinclined toward varying languages, when we have shown to be excellent multilingual speakers. An ordinary Filipino can speak at least two languages or dialects. By now, we should have discovered how beautiful languages are, especially in their differences.

There are nuances in each language or dialect that just cannot be translated into our own. They must be experienced in their original word. The Filipino words kilig, gigil, and sayang capture universal emotions so succinctly, yet there are no English equivalents for them (the Oxford English Dictionary recently gave in and added kilig to its lexicon). The Visayan expression puhon conveys a much more hopeful meaning than the English soon, or the Filipino sana. And the tangy little Visayan question Dawbi? can shape-shift to mean either “What now?” or “So what?”

Such distinct nuances are not limited to single untranslatable words. Whole phrases and passages, too, are meant to be savored in their original form. It has to be the Filipino flow and bitter-sweetness when Juan Miguel Severo delivers the line “At patawarin mo ako sa hindi ko pagkamuhi sa ’yo, at patatawarin kita sa hindi mo sa akin pagmamahal, mahal.” In the same way, it has to be the English austerity that evokes the atmosphere in Mark Strand’s “In a field/ I am the absence/ of field.”

If you’re not one to be convinced by the aesthetic value of different languages, certainly you can recognize their practical value. English is essential in keeping up with the world, Filipino is essential in keeping together as a nation, and a basic awareness of local languages and dialects is useful when you find yourself away from home. At the very least, an interest in translation is helpful so we can fully understand what President Duterte says when he code-switches in his speeches. (Don’t hesitate to contact your nearest Visayan friend next time you need help understanding the President’s quips.)

When languages are this beautiful and useful, why do we use them as a basis for prejudice? Just because one speaks English doesn’t mean he or she is a showoff or an elitist.

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Just because one chooses to speak the native tongue doesn’t mean he or she is unintelligent or uneducated. Used appropriately and with good command, any language can be wonderful. In a multilingual country like ours, being a polyglot should be celebrated instead of judged.

It is perfectly natural to be flustered by something as unfamiliar as a different language, but we don’t have to completely close off our perceptions to it. Experiencing languages is a magnificent thing. I say let’s be tongue-tied for as long as it takes if it means we are expanding our cultural horizons. We’ll get past the cold-sweat uneasiness eventually. Puhon, puhon.

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TAGS: foreign language, languages, Tagalog, Visayan language
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