By Firth McEachern
I WAS at the supermarket a month ago and decided to try out my fledgling Ilokano on a pretty staff girl. “Manu daytoy?” I asked her, as I picked up a can of corn beef. I don’t even like corn beef, but it was a convenient opportunity to gain a smile from a cute girl.
“Oh, you speak Tagalog!” She said, impressed.
“Actually, Ilokano” I told her, confused.
“Oi!” she bleeped in that universal Filipino exclamation of surprise. I assumed the wrong word came out, and didn’t think anything more of the incident.
The same bizarre thing has happened five times since. Granted, my skewed accent probably makes it difficult for listeners to identify certain words, but I don’t think that “Agyamanak” could possibly be construed as “Salamat,” no matter how bad my accent is. There was even a time when a person who had mistaken my Ilokano speaking for Tagalog continued to rattle away in the latter language, despite my showing no signs of comprehension and repeatedly addressing him in Ilokano. I finally had to directly tell him, “Look buddy, I don’t speak Tagalog so I don’t know why you keep talking to me like that.” He acted surprised, as if all the evidence pointed to the contrary.
There was something deeper behind these seemingly innocent mixups, and I wanted to find out what. It turns out that it is so rare for foreigners to learn other Philippine languages other than Tagalog (especially on Luzon), that there is a deep rooted assumption that if a foreigner knows a language of these islands, it is probably Tagalog. Unless one is listening attentively, an exception to this rule may be missed. Another factor in these mixups is my own unwitting fault. Upon hearing Tagalog on the television, I was shocked to discover that many of the words in my Ilokano repertoire are in fact Tagalog—no wonder it’s not immediately obvious to people what language I’m trying to speak! I had no idea that people had been teaching me words from both languages; even more shocking was the realization that the regular “Ilokano” heard on the street is heavily mixed too. How can I learn a foreign language properly when it is being so bastardized by another?
This problem motivated me to find out more. Why do so many Filipinos, especially the youth, speak a “halo-halo” version of their mother tongue and Tagalog? The mixing phenomenon is only slight among adults, as in my office, but a walk through a plaza and you will hear many conversations peppered with “wala”, “mayroon”, “hindi”, and “dapat.” Mixing two languages is not necessarily a bad thing; speakers of Spanglish in the U.S., for example, have recently become advocates for the flexibility and wealth of expressions that mixing can afford.
But if mixing becomes so habitual that you cannot speak formally in either language, this is a problem. If you have never been challenged to speak your own language properly, your vocabulary can be stunted, reducing the complexity and scope of conversations you can have. Thus limited, you shall never be able to fully appreciate the depth and power your own language can offer, and in frustration or indolence, continue to drift away from it. If you, your friends, or your children are doing the same, this is not just symptomatic of the decay of your own linguistic abilities, but of the entire language.
Presented with this possibility, it was crucial for me to find out whether the adoption of Tagalog words by non-Tagalog youth was merely a playful social affectation or a symptom of widespread language decay. Are Filipino youth gradually losing vocabulary in their native tongues? If 30 percent of the words used by non-Tagalog youth are Tagalog, will it be 50% in a few years time? 60 percent? 70 percent? Will the streets of Dagupan, San Fernando, Baguio, Naga, Angeles City, and maybe even Davao be 100 percent Tagalog some day? The thought worries me, and next week, I’ll tell you why.