The Polyglot Wanna-be that is Me

I’m not sure when the appeal of being able to speak, read and write different languages first appealed to me. Thinking back real hard, I could only guess that it was when we first visited my Dad who worked in Saudi Arabia during my summer vacation when I was very young in the early 80s.

He had this green paperback book on learning to read and write Arabic. I found it fascinating at the time that Arabs wrote from right to left but wrote numbers from left to right. I also learned to read Arabic numerals from that book which helped me a lot in determining how much a bill in Riyals I had in my hand. I didn’t really had a lot of interest in Arabic though so I didn’t pursued it further.

Then my Dad got transfered to work for the Sultan of Negara Brunei Darussalam in the mid-80s at his palace, the Istana Nurul Iman. So we started spending our summer vacations in Brunei instead.

This time, Dad had a black paperback Malay-English/English-Malay dictionary. What I found amazing this time was that we had lots of words in Tagalog that were very similar to Malay (or Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Melayu) words. Here are Malay words that, although some of them may not be synonymous to Tagalog words, still have related meanings: Awas (to be cautious, reminded me of Iwas), Lima (Five), Enam (Six, like Anim), Anak (child), Kaya (wealthy, hence kekayaan means wealth), Payung (umbrella, like Payong), Kelambu (mosquito-net, like Kulambo), Masuk (to enter, like Pasok), Tolak (to push, like Tulak), Lelaki (male, like Lalaki), Langit (sky), Tengah Hari (midday, like Tanghali), Bulan (moon or month, like Buwan), Tahun (year, like Taon) or Buntut (bottom or buttocks, may not exactly mean tail like our Buntot).

It’s just amazing to me then how our Tagalog language evolved from that used by the Bruneians and Malaysians (and Indonesians). Where similar words meant different things but you can still imagine how the meaning may have evolved to mean something different. Take the Tagalog word Tanghali which means noon. In Malay, Tengah Hari makes perfect sense because it literally meant Middle Day. I can only guess that the word got corrupted into Tanghali but still retained its original meaning of midday.

Although I got curious with Arabic, I was more interested in learning Malay. I tried to learn it for a while but I never did get to use it a lot so I wasn’t really that motivated to master the language. Although I could understand some words here and there, I couldn’t really understand whole paragraphs of Malay. I could at least determine if somebody is speaking it even though I couldn’t comprehend him or her.

Later on, while in university, I wanted to learn how to speak Fukien (or Fookien, Fujian, Hokkien, Lan nang uwe) because of various reasons, mainly the following: (1) our university had a big Chinese-Pinoy population so being able to speak Fukien may be advantageous, (2) I’m still part Chinese myself (as my surname would attest) and being able to talk to my paternal relatives in Fukien appealed to me and, (3) my then girlfriend’s parents wanted a Chinese boy courting their daughter so I erroneously thought that being able to speak the language would help me become more Chinese.

As with my try at learning Malay, I didn’t get to apply what I’ve learned with Fukien that much. And since I really didn’t have any formal and consistent training in it, I only learned a little bit of the language and forgot most of it easily. Right now, Raquel occasionally says something in Fukien and I had to think long and hard before I could translate it. I had to ask her what some of the words she said meant. She would tell me, and added that she already taught me the said words before. Ah. Mea culpa (my fault, in Latin which I also got into later).

My interest then shifted to another East Asian language, Nihongo (Japanese language) specially after I grew very fond of Japanese anime (animation) and manga (comics) while still in University. So in 1995, if I recall correctly, I enrolled at the Nihongo language “school” provided for by the Japanese Embassy that was then located in Makati.

I actually did pretty well at the start of it. I memorized the hiragana and the katakana with not a lot of effort. It was also an advantage that I tried learning Fukien some years before then, making kanji, which was actually just Chinese characters used in Japan, easier to pick up. I was fourth in my class (according to the exams I took) but I didn’t finish the entire course. There was a reason that I’d rather not go into here.

In the late 90s, I was employed by Taiwanese-based IT company. Raquel and I were supposed to work in Taiwan. There, I was able to make use of some of the Fukien I learned from before because, apparently, the native Taiwanese language is quite similar to the Fukien used in the Philippines.

Still, Mandarin seemed to be in use more than Taiwanese, so I was highly motivated to learn Guoyu (Mandarin used in Taiwan and Hong Kong) that time around. I liked it that there were a lot of instruction books on how to speak, read and write Mandarin unlike with Fukien when I was studying it in the Philippines. Plus, I got to use the Mandarin I learned because most Taiwanese couldn’t speak or understand English (supposedly, 80% of them could, in fact, speak English, but we just couldn’t seem to find them).

After six months working in Taiwan, Trend Micro decided to just send us all back home to the Philippines to establish a new base of operations there. With that, my self-study of the Mandarin language ended. Now, I only know a smattering of words even though I could still construct sentences in that language (if I have a English-Chinese dictionary handy, that is).

Lately, I tried learning Spanish and Latin because I’d really love to be able to read old historical documents. A lot of historical documents about the Philippines during the Spanish era were written in Spanish including literature by Jose Rizal and other Filipino illustrados at the time. Reading the material translated and quoted out-of-context in English just doesn’t seem to be good enough. As for Latin, I just want to be able to understand old Church documents and prayers. There was a time (before the Second Vatican Council) when the Catholic church celebrated Mass in Latin instead of the local language. I just want to be able to understand a Latin Tridentine Mass if I went to one.

I really wanted to master Spanish, Mandarin (Putonghua or Guoyu, doesn’t matter to me), and Nihongo but I just don’t really have a lot of time in my hands to do so. I find each moderately useful even now so I really couldn’t decide which language to devote my time first. I even bought a very cheap second-hand English-Spanish dictionary ($3) and English-Japanese dictionary ($10) earlier today so I could brush up my Japanese and Spanish. There was a real cheap English-Chinese dictionary at the bookshop, too, but I still have one that I bought in Taiwan all those years ago.

Hmm. Maybe I should just give up on these other languages and just try mastering Australian-English instead and all its nuances.

Published in: on July 26, 2005 at 12:10 pm  Comments (3)