The Multilingual Filipino

“Hey, what language was that?”

Nico, my German friend, asked the moment I put my phone down. I just finished a conversation was with my girlfriend from home, while Nico and I were sat outside the benches while studying in the Fisher Fine Art Library. (Also, I just wanted to write that last sentence to tell you that yes, I do study.)

“Cebuano.” I answered. “Why?”

“It didn’t sound like the same language you speak with Ryan.” Nico responded, referring to another Filipino classmate.

“That’s Tagalog.”

“But this language Cebuano — it must be your first language, yes?”

I confirmed, and he shot a grin back in triumph. “I figured, because everyone always sound angrier in their own language.” Nico said I certainly sounded angry, but knew I wasn’t, because I was laughing after every sentence.

“Unless, you laugh when you’re angry in your culture,” he mused.

He made a pretty good point. We are always nicer and more respectful in another language, saying everything in a gentler, question manner, slightly unsure of ourselves; like we become children conversing to adults once again.

We do tend to take up different personalities in the different languages I speak. I feel more professional in English, courteous in Tagalog, sweet in Hiligaynon, and I’m a foul-mouthed, drunken sailor in Cebuano.

Being Filipino, I grew up to hearing and speaking different tongues — sometimes simultaneously, and it was the only world I knew of.

In my hometown in Mindanao, we spoke in Visayan, and our Muslim brothers Maranao; my father’s side spoke Hiligaynon, and my mother’s side of the family Tagalog. I know my grandfather’s temper is going on the upside when I start hearing his cussing in Spanish. English is taught in our schools from prep to college. And French… well, from dating a few of them.

This is not unusual in a Filipino household. The country, after all, has 7,000-plus islands, 170-plus languages and hundreds of dialects. Frequent movement and diaspora; Spanish colonial roots, and then raised by Hollywood and 80’s love ballads–our hodge-podge history has made it a given for every Filipino-born to be multilingual, or bilingual at the least.

We don’t really think about multilingual aptitude much, but then you go abroad and realize that most people speak only one language, for multiple reasons. Some weren’t granted the opportunity or exposure to other foreign tongues and cultures. Some by choice just refuse to learn any other language. Still others are simply crippled by the convenience of being spoiled into not having the necessity (I’m looking at you, America).

Foreigners always compliment at how “good my English is,” like it’s supposed to be otherwise. Moreover, they revel at how easily I can switch from one language to another. It’s kind of nice to show off once in a while, pretending it’s some sort of sorcery or superpower.

Nico, being European, was also multilingual, so I played around with the topic and shot back a question: “Nico, what language do you think in?”

His blue eyes danced, like he had been expecting the discourse.

“The German language is made perfectly for a thinking mind, I believe. The vocabulary is just so exact and concise, there’s little room for error.”

I shot the question back to myself:

What language do I think in? What language do I feel with?

On formal and professional context, English seemed the default. It was my rationalizing language. But in the social and emotional scenarios, Cebuano is my preference. How beautiful and whole it made me feel to speak in Cebuano.

Especially when it came to bodily feelings, I feel I could better explain myself in my language. How can you perfectly translate gigil? kilig? binhod? panuhot? pasmo? alimungawan?

Even in vocabulary precision, we could argue that we can probably win the Germans in some aspects, especially when it came to bodily functions.

When we look at the word ‘eat’—my editor Noel tells me there are numerous variations to describe the bodily function of eating. There is the general term ‘kaon’, but then there is also: usap, habhab, ugom, paak, pahit, ingkib, kitkit, pang-it, sibsib, lamon, lanlan, timo, pakal, sima, hamol, lamoy, subsob, uyab, ub-ob, lanlan, ingkit, um-om, timi-timi, hamoy, kibkib, pang-os, hamong, kilaw, supsop, and higop!

When we use the word ‘wash’ in Cebuano, we have the general term ‘hugas’. And then we have a term for washing the face (hilam-os), both hands (hunaw), one hand (hinaw), feet (himasa), calves (himatiis), inside the mouth (limugmog) and around the mouth (dam-ot)—all referring to bodily functions only. That alone goes to show our love for bathing.

The nuances of languages tell us how the people and culture are characteristically; and on this — it seems like Cebuanos are very attuned to our bodies and feelings.


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