I’m Filipino. So whenever I usually encounter other Filipinos, they greet me in Pilipino, until I say, “Sorry… Ilocano.” Then they smile and go, “Ahhh… Ilocano,” and we end up speaking in English.
It’s because Pilipino — the national language of the Philippines — is actually Tagalog. Ilocano, even though often called a “dialect” of Pilipino, is actually a language all of its own, with its own grammar and diction, and thus unintelligible to a monolingual Tagalog speaker.
I knew that, as my Ilocano-speaking parents explained generally to me. But I didn’t realize just HOW different until I started re-learning Ilocano from some grammar/phrasebooks that I got online last month. Also, I didn’t realize just how DIFFERENT Ilocano is from English… as in, “MOM! PA! WHY did you decide not to raise your children bilingual????”
I don’t remember if I mentioned this somewhere on this blog, but I used to be bilingual up until the age of four. From birth to age four, my family lived in Taipei, Taiwan, and we regularly visited the extended family back in P.I. And so, I was exposed to plenty of Ilocano speakers. But in my fourth year, Pa got transferred to the States: Great Lakes, Illinois, to be exact. And that’s when my bilingual parents began to speak only English to me and my little sister. When my other two younger siblings were born, they also only spoke English to them.
Why? So we could assimilate better, I suppose. So we wouldn’t have a linguistic disadvantage in American public schools, sounding, well… FOB (Fresh Off the Boat).
It never really bothered us when we were kids. Yes, it was awkward around the Cali relatives (all of whom were bilingual, including my cousins), as well as Filipino-majority parties. But they easily switched to English just fine when it became clear that me and my siblings were English-only.
But, as we got older, it really began to bug us. First, my youngest two siblings became incredibly annoyed because they started visiting California more often, hanging out with the cousins, and it seemed like EVERY SINGLE FILIPINO in California was bilingual, so my siblings started to feel like the odd ones out. Second, I’ve become incredibly annoyed because I’m raising a half-Filipino little boy whose Mama’s cut off from her Filipino heritage because she can’t understand her own people’s language.
And — look, I love my parents. But they’re continuing their “English-only” decision with their grandchildren — Daniel and his cousin Vincent. The only way Daniel will know Ilocano is if I try to recapture my long-lost Ilocano.
Thankfully, I’m a strong visual learner, so I can pick up the rudiments of a language from books. (Just ask any of my Spanish teachers — high school and college — and they can relate just how useless I am in conversation labs.) After a slow but steady start, I’m starting to be able to parse out the syntax of a simple Ilocano sentence. Not bad for a person who hasn’t comprehended an Ilocano sentence in 33 years.
What does Ilocano look like, you may ask?
Here’s an example: “Agsintutulongkami.” Translated: “We help each other.”
Yes. It’s just one word. Thank goodness that I learned German in grad school, so the “prefix-infix-suffix” hell that is in memorizing Ilocano words and syntax isn’t as hopeless as I was afraid it would be.
Here’s another one: “Nabayag a minulenglengannak.” Trans.= “He/She looked at me with a blank face for a long time.”
It’s actually helping me to imagine my mom speaking these words, as her heavy Filipino accent never went away, even with living in the States for 33 years. I call her accent “chicken talk” — no offense, Mom — but it makes perfect sense, trying to pronounce all of these tortuous Ilocano words. And — as I hoped — regaining this part of my heritage is actually making me understand my parents better, seeing a little bit of the world through their eyes. Especially my high-strung mom. Ay naku!