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Yasmin Arquiza

What’s your mother tongue?

August 31, 2011 12:02pm
Whenever I need to fill in an application for an academic or career pursuit abroad, one item always gets me stumped: mother tongue.

In the past, I had no problem putting Visayan or Cebuano on the dotted line; after all, it was the language that I first learned while growing up in Davao City. But having lived away from my hometown for three decades, my proficiency in the language has declined due to infrequent usage.

Like many professionals in Manila, my conversational language is Taglish. However, my SMS and email language is usually English, like most of my written output, although I can also scribble passably in Filipino (Pilipino or Tagalog to others). Most of the stuff I read is also in the colonial language, and because my work involves a lot of writing and editing, it’s not surprising that I tend to think in English most of the time.

Like most Pinoys of my generation, I got exposed to English early on because it was the medium of instruction in the educational institutions I attended from kindergarten to graduate school. That’s why we frown on language proficiency tests when applying for scholarships abroad, and I’ve known quite a few who got exemptions after presenting proof of our academic standards.

Once, I had to take the IELTS, the International English Language Testing System, for a scholarship application and found out that it seemed to measure comprehension and IQ more than proficiency. I doubt if native English speakers with blue-collar jobs would be able to pass the exam, and I pitied the huge numbers of Filipino nurses and seamen who struggled with the reading and writing tests. Many were in tears afterwards, as the test was a new (and expensive) requirement for those who want to work in English-speaking countries.

On a trip to the U.S. west coast in the 1990s, my hosts were surprised to learn that many Filipinos speak English fluently. For some reason, they expected us to speak Spanish, which was after all the language of our colonizers for 300 years. Did we adopt English because it was the language of our more recent colonizers, or because they defeated the Spanish, or because of the Thomasites?

Whatever the reason, another thing to add to the aberration of the Philippines aside from being the only Catholic country in Asia is that unlike much of Latin America where Spanish has all but replaced local languages, we still retained our various regional tongues despite centuries of colonial rule.

It’s a small comfort, no matter that we are no closer to a national language after decades of celebrating Buwan ng Wika. It’s also something to keep in mind whenever we have to pause for thought at the question of a mother tongue.

So what’s my answer, you ask? If the questionnaire rates fluency in reading, writing, and speaking, I would have to say English because I don’t read and write much in either Tagalog or Visayan. But if the option is there, I always select Filipino.