Newspaper article

Growing Up In A Multilingual Household

This is one of my old articles published in the now defunct The Philippine Post newspaper.  I posted this on my websites. But since the advent of Web 2.0 and the popularity of blogs, I have abandoned my websites. I am posting this in this blog, for posterity’s sake.



The Philippines has 171 languages –168 of these are still living while three are already extinct. On the other hand, the country’s dialects number in the thousands, according to one website in the World Wide Web. The list includes all languages spoken in the Philippines including English, Spanish and three Chinese languages (Mandarin, Min Nan and Yue). Arabic was not included.

The dead languages are not listed, but two dialects of Chavacano are listed as extinct; namely: Ermitaño and Davaweño-Zamboangueño. The former used to be spoken in Ermita, Manila while the latter was spoken by some people in Zamboanga. Davaweño is distinct from Davawenyo, which is a living language and spoken in Davao City and its environs. However, with the huge influx of Cebuanos, the native tongue of the hijos de Davao is now facing extinction. The list includes some 50 languages, subdivided into many dialects, native to Mindanao.

In Manila, as in most parts of Luzon and Visayas, one can get by with only just one language, usually the lingua franca of the particular place. However, Mindanao, especially the non-Muslim part, has become such a melting pot that it pays to know two or more languages. One is simply not enough.

Growing up in our household in Mindanao in the ’60’s was like living in a Tower of Babel. At least a dozen languages were spoken by its residents and visitors. For natural polyglots like my mother, it was a breeze. But I was sure my father must have felt like a stranger in his own house. He spoke three languages: Maranao, English and Tagalog (he went to high school and law school in Manila). Unfortunately for him, these languages were hardly the favorites in our house.

My grandmother used Maguindanaon when talking to my mother and to relatives from Buayan and Maguindanao. They both spoke Manobo, Tagakaulo and B’la-an to the helpmates and visitors from the nearby provinces. My mother spoke Davawenyo to her barkada, Cebuano to the servants, Ilocano to her visiting cousins (from her hometown in Malita, Davao del Sur) and Tausug to her elder children and other relatives living in the city. My elder brothers and sisters, who grew up in Sulu, talked to one another in Tausug. To their classmates and friends, they spoke either Davawenyo, Chavacano or Cebuano.

To my father’s chagrin, it appeared that practically nobody spoke his languages in his own home. Maranao was spoken only when relatives from Lanao came over. Tagalog and English were spoken only during parties. As CFI judge, Macapanton Abbas, Sr. must have vented his ire on the lawyers. Stories of his strict use of the English language — proper grammar, diction, idiom and all– were circulated in the city, especially among law students. Lawyers appearing in his sala usually came prepared — with dictionary and grammar books.

On one occasion, a lawyer asked the witness: “Mr. Witness, what do you do on the 14th day of last month?” My father interrupted and said “Did.” The lawyer re-phrased his question: “Mr. Witness, what did you did on the 14th of last month?” “Do!”, my father interjected. The lawyer got so rattled he ended up asking: “Mr. Witness, how do you do?” !

According to linguists, a Maranao speaker can understand about 52% of Maguindanaon They are related languages belonging to the Southern Philippine, Danao sub-families under the Western Malayo-Polynesian family of languages. This means that, theoretically speaking, when my grandmother and mother conversed in Maguindanaon, my father could understand about half of what they were saying. But for other languages like Davawenyo and Manobo, he could only guess what they meant.

Perhaps in order to control the situation a little, my father declared that in his house, the lingua franca would be English and/or Tagalog. All the children would have to speak to him only in these languages. Because of this dictum, my other sisters and one brother, who grew up in Davao, never learned Davawenyo, Manobo, Tagakaulo, etc. They concentrated on English, Tagalog and a bit of Cebuano.

Me? I was overwhelmed by this confusion of tongues. I welcomed my father’s order and learned only those two languages. But I hated it when my mother or elder brothers and sisters talked in what seemed to me like secret codes. So years later, I made sure that I would learn a language that my family would not understand. I studied Spanish and French. They might understand Spanish because of their Chavacano, but French will always remain a mystery to them.

The above article, with some family photos, was printed in The Philippine Post on July 5, 1999

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