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How I learned Tagalog

How I learned Tagalog

My parents speak Tagalog at home.

Tagalog is a Filipino language. It’s pronounced [tɐˈɡaːloɡ] like, “tah-ga-log” not “tag-a-long,” like I’ve heard it butchered so many times (all you Filipinos understand the struggle). My parents tend to speak English to my brother at home because he doesn’t really understand any Tagalog words. He probably never will. “Kumain ka na ba?” (Have you eaten yet?) is something I hear at my house on a daily basis and his answer is always a blank expression. Then my parents repeat it in English and the conversation continues. They’re not going to bother teaching him anymore, but it’s not his fault — he didn’t have the same experience as me growing up around a Tagalog-enriched environment.

This language is Tag-English, or “Taglish,” according to Wikipedia. This dialect is an intricate mixture of the two languages, accompanied by a heavy Filipino accent that would disappear magically when in conversation with any non-Filipino person. I was quick to notice this when I was younger and I found it amusing.

Here's an example:

  • English: Have you finished your homework?
  • Tagalog: Natapos mo na ba yung takdáng-aralín mo?
  • Taglish: Finished na ba yung homework mo?

All languages have their own versions of this. I’ve heard my Cantonese friends converse with their parents in a similar way and my Japanese friends doing the same.

The only thing about this is that I sometimes refer to Tagalog being “my language,” when it’s really not. It’s my parents’ language. It’s the language of my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, but it isn’t by any means actually my language. I can’t speak Tagalog. I can say a quick “salamat” to someone at the mall or greet my relatives, but nothing more than that. Taglish isn’t even my language either.

But the weird part is that I can understand everything.

This all started when I was super young — too young to remember, actually. My mom, my lola (grandma) and I would go down to Bellingham, Washington pretty frequently. Little day trips for shopping every Saturday at the outlet stores in Blaine with Van Heusen, Bass, Cost Cutter (yum, fried chicken), and my favourite diner that made a kick-ass grilled cheese sandwich and crinkle cut fries.

During the two-hour car ride, I would sit in the backseat of our 1994 Honda Accord and just listen. Not to the radio, not to CDs, but to the conversation — to the tsismis, or Tagalog for gossip. I have no actual recollection of the conversations. All I knew was that words and sounds I couldn’t understand were flying by me at a thousand words a minute. It was a little bit of everything — family, extended family, politics, TV shows, shopping. It was small talk taken to a whole other level as I just sat in the back and absorbed it over the years into my little toddler-sized brain.

One Saturday morning, I woke up, got in the Accord and realized I knew exactly what my lola was telling my mom. And what my mom was saying in reply. And back and forth, and back and forth — the understanding never left me.

I learned other things too, like some family history, recipes and tidbits about people I’ve never even met. I think it was an all-encompassing experience. I call this a unique time period because not only is it a form of inter-generational bonding, but also because it represents a snapshot in time that I can always reflect back on.

This family dynamic is hard to come by, and definitely only existed when I was a child. I like to think of it as a fond memory of my childhood and an interesting, funny way to retain a part of my cultural heritage that would have otherwise been lost.

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