Learning Your Parents’ Language

“I wish you spoke Filipino,” my mom said to me a couple weekends ago.

She said it with a laugh, but I knew she was serious. I was visiting my parents at their home and had been telling her about the Filipino-American MMA fighter Mark Muñoz. I imitated his post-fight interview, which was a mixture of Filipino and English. My caricature-like approximation of Tagalog made her laugh and laugh, and that’s when she made her comment.

Samar, Philippines — the region where my mom and her family are from.

My dad is American, born and raised. My mom is American too, but naturalized. She’s originally from the Philippines. Her first languages are Waray-Waray, which is a regional language of the Philippines, and Tagalog. The two are distinct, but similar, and from what she’s told me, she switches between the two effortlessly. She also speaks several other regional Filipino languages, as well as English.

Since we were living in the US, my parents made sure that I was taught only English growing up, and not Tagalog. I know some people would disagree with their decision, but just like all parents, they wanted to make the choice that was in my best interest. And given the parts of the US I grew up in, I think they made a reasonable choice. I had black hair, dark brown eyes, and a dark complexion, and the last thing I needed was to stick out any more than I already did.

But lately I’ve felt like I’ve needed to tackle Tagalog, even before Mom said anything. There are a few reasons:

  • I’m American through and through and love my country, but I am also proud of my Filipino heritage.
  • My mom spoke a little Filipino to me when I was a kid, mainly everyday words for things around the house. I also heard her speaking to family back in the Philippines and to her fellow ex-pat friends in the States. I feel like I might’ve developed an innate ear for it by hearing it at an impressionable age, so I’m curious how easily it would come to me.
  • It’s kind of a monkey on my back–something I’ve always thought about doing but have never done.
  • It sounds fun.

Here’s my most personal reason: I’ve communicated with my mom only in English, on my linguistic turf. Other than a couple misunderstandings here and there–which are inevitable between parents and kids, even if they were both to have the same native language–we’ve always communicated just fine. (And our ability to function just fine as mom and son is one of my inspirations to push the imperfect language concept.) But I’d like to communicate with her on her linguistic ground, to hear her speak effortlessly with the language she grew up speaking.

I often write about having fun with language learning and not making it a chore. But it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that learning languages is important. It doesn’t just fulfill practical needs, or social needs, or economic needs. It also fulfills something deeper. In a sense, it fulfills spiritual needs.

My coworker was saying how much he’d like to learn Italian because it’s the language of his parents and grandparents. One of my best friends wants to learn Hebrew to talk with his dad and his grandparents in Israel. People just sense that you’ll know your heritage better by learning your ancestors’ language.

That sense is justified. It’s not mysticism or wishful thinking. Researchers and scientists have written extensively about how your brain changes when you learn a new language. So if you learn a new language, you learn a new way to think. If you learn the language of your family and ancestors, you’re understanding the world closer to the way they understand it.  You’re dialing a line to your family’s past and, in some cases, present.

I made a commitment to get to a decent level in Spanish by November, and I haven’t lost sight of all the reasons why I want to reach that goal. But when I’m finished I’m going to switch gears and begin learning Tagalog.

By the way, if you want to learn your family’s language and don’t know how to get started, you can leave a comment below or send me a private message via my Facebook page. There’s no charge, and I’m not selling anything with this offer or anything crazy like that. This is something that’s personal and important to me, and if you need help getting started on your way, I’m glad to point you in the right direction.

  • Firefly

    I feel this too! My parents are both immigrants from Europe (to Canada, and from different countries) and neither of them taught me & my siblings their native languages. I asked my mom why not too long ago, and she said they were worried that for what we learned of Dutch or Polish, we would be weaker in English, and English is the language where I lived. We knew some kids in French Immersion school at the time, and she said their English was much worse than other kids their age. So I guess it makes sense.

    I was also learning another language before I decided to try out one of my ancestral languages – I was learning Japanese. I decided of the 2 heritage languages I could pick, I’d learn Polish, just cos I prefer the sound of Slavic languages to Dutch or German, and also cos growing up, we learned a fair bit about Dutch customs, but nearly nothing about our Polish heritage.

    I took a different route though, and decided that instead of waiting to be decently proficient at Japanese before learning Polish, I would just learn both at the same time. I’m already going slow with this cos I have a health issue that makes it hard to keep on top of learning daily, and I guess I just figured that given my slow learning, I didn’t want to end up putting Polish off indefinitely.

    I sometimes feel conflicted about picking it though – I mean, my Polish-speaking grandparents are long gone (I wish I had learned earlier, as in their later years they struggled to communicate in English) and beyond a visit or 2 I’m not sure I’ll get a lot of use out of Polish. I suppose at least with Tagalog, there are probably a fair number of expats in the US to converse with (I know there are in Canada, even in the smaller city I lived in). I wonder how often I’ll get the chance to converse in Polish? That said, my dad immigrated when he was quite young, and he said that with me learning, it’s coming back to him, & he was pretty pleased with that. My aunt was thrilled when I told her I was learning it, & said that if I got good enough at it she could hook me up on Skype with some extended family back in Poland. Maybe that family connection is enough? Haha.