Musings on an overheard conversation

While trying to catch a nap on the train today, I overheard two Filipino women greet each other as they sat down several seats from where we were seating. One of the women had her teenage daughter with her and introduced her to the older woman. The daughter smiled and said hello to her mother’s acquaintance. The woman smiled in return then proceeded to haughtily ask the mother, “Nakakapag-Tagalog ba ‘yan? (Does it know Tagalog?)” To which the mother answered, “Nakakaintindi lang, di nakakapag-salita. (She can understand but cannot converse).” The mother then proceeded to say that the family migrated to Australia when the daughter was only 2 and so the kid grew up knowing English as her first language but could still understand Tagalog/Filipino because she hears it being used at home.

The first thing that strikes me about this conversation is the inappropriateness of the words used by the older woman. I was appalled to hear her refer to the girl as “iyan” (that) as if she was an object instead of “siya” (she/her). Although the two seems interchangeable to Filipinos nowadays, it still sounded rude to my purist ears. It’s not as if they were talking about an inanimate object or a favourite pet that could do tricks, it’s a person we are talking about here. A fairly young one but an entity on to herself, nonetheless.

Which also made me think, why did the older woman direct the question to the mother instead of asking the daughter directly? Maybe the Filipino elders’ practice of “huwag makikisama sa usapan ng mga matatanda,” which discourages younger Filipinos to join in the conversation of their elders, was on display. Although this practice has been encouraged in the past among the young as a sign of respect to their elders, I don’t know if it’s still a good one to follow. At least not all of the time. We all know that most adults are not always the wisest people around and I believe that young people should be encouraged to speak their mind in a conversation with an adult. The exchange could enrich both sides’ view of each other and if done correctly, could still be executed in a respectful manner.

The other thing that struck me about the conversation was the fact that the daughter could understand Filipino words but is unable to speak it. How difficult is it to jump from comprehension to speech? But then again, that’s my situation with the Chinese language as well. Although my mom has always encouraged me to speak to her in Chinese, I rarely do so. That is because although I could understand most of the Chinese words when she’s talking to me, there are some that I don’t really know the meaning of. But instead of asking what each word means and then commit the new word to memory, I usually just fill in the blanks, assume the meaning of some words and never really try to remember them. The only time I ask for the real meaning of a word is when I couldn’t really guess the word and it’s crucial to the comprehension of the sentence. On most occasions, these words would be nouns or verbs. For example, if my mom asks me to do or get something, she’d say something in Chinese and to me it would translate to something like, ” Could you get me that …, I need it to …?” Of course I’d have to know what the words in the blanks mean. How else could I get what she wanted for whatever she intended to do? Which is to say that although the words would be familiar to me the next time I hear it, I couldn’t come up with the words myself when I need to. Which frustrates Gj no end since he’d ask me what something is called in Chinese and I would only stare at him blankly and say, er… I don’t remember.

Maybe another reason for this inability to speak the language comes from the lack of practice. My mom puts the blame on this for my inability to speak the language and has even discouraged me at one time to talk to her in Filipino, insisting that I use Chinese to do so. Her plan backfired of course, when I ceased talking to her at all during that period.

Oh, and don’t get me started on the accent. Once when I was talking to my maternal grandfather in Chinese, he suddenly laughed out loud. There was nothing funny in what I was saying and so I asked him what he found so hilarious. He answered that I had a “funny accent” and laughed some more. I think it would have been a good learning experience for me had he told me what the correct pronounciation was but he never did. I was self-concious of this accent everytime I talk in Chinese and spoke the language less and less.

Learning a language should be fun and the best people to learn it from are those who know it and speak it. Next time you know of someone trying to learn Filipino, maybe it’s a good idea to encourage them and although their efforts may be hilarious to you, it’s okay to laugh but make sure to correct them. I, for one, wouldn’t mind that kind of support and instruction. On the other hand, I would have persisted and learned Chinese inspite of my experiences when I was younger. But then again, maybe I was just a lazy student after all.

Published in: on January 12, 2006 at 12:31 pm  Comments (3)  

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. My hubby is also a passive bilingual. A friend of mine used to be one (she was born overseas) but after a month-long visit to the Phils, she was reasonably fluent in conversation…complete with regional accent. One of my linguistics teachers was a passive bilingual so I don’t think it has anything to do with laziness, per se. It’s just that you never need to speak the other language so you never really acquire skills in speaking it. I had initially planned to raise my children up as fluent bilinguals but after less than a year, I’ve come to realise how very difficult that is to achieve (and how much of the language I’ve lost myself just from lack of practice).

  2. @Inggo: I suspect that I wasn’t as keen a student as I should have been anyway. If I were, I could have bugged him to correct my pronounciation till I got it right and got past that stage. 😛

  3. But then again… i guess it’s human nature to laugh at people’s faults. Take example us Filipinos. Whenever we hear a balikbayan or Pinoys who grew up in the States and try to talk Tagalog, we usually laugh at them, sometimes to the point of mocking them. But also, in the end, after a good laugh, we still teach them the correct pronounciation. I guess your lolo just forgot to correct you. 🙂

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