Is it okay to lose your language? Not for these Filipino-Americans

Dennis Clemente in Manila/Philippine Daily Inquirer

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - "Would you like to learn Filipino?"

Ask a very young Filipino-American, and you will most likely draw a blank. It's okay. He can't decide for himself yet.

When puberty hits, that's when it hits them. They can't communicate with their parents or relatives as much as they want to. Speaking only in English, they feel isolated in family gatherings or Filipino parties.

Agnes 'Bing' Magtoto knows a thing or two about the frustrations of Filipino-Americans trying to learn Filipino. Since 2004, Magtoto has seen all sorts of Filipino-language learners from her basic to advanced classes. Magtoto is adjunct instructor at New York University's Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program.

Aside from Filipinos, she has had non-Filipino students who surprised her with their enthusiasm in learning and practicing the language.

A Jewish guy turned out to be her best student. Being a linguist, he learned the language like a native speaker. She also points out the dedication of one American woman to learn Filipino before her move to the Philippines.

And what could be more motivating than having an inspiration? An American guy tried to learn as much as he could to show his affection for his Filipino girlfriend, Filipino-style.

Not easy to learn

Magtoto knows Filipino is not easy to learn past puberty, so she digs into her thespian roots to make the lessons fun and interactive. Having been a theater artist for the Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) in 1978-1996, she has her class go beyond lectures to role-playing and immersion in Filipino enclaves where they can interact with other Filipinos, especially native speakers like herself.

At her basic Filipino-language weekly class in February-March outside of NYU, her seven students consisted of Filipino-Americans, some of pure Filipino descent.

The classes were held weekly in different locations. Magtoto admits she didn't want to pay what she considered steep rent, even at the Philippine Consulate, so she relied on the kindness of friends to accommodate them in one office at one time and a school in another.

One student who takes the classes seriously is Katrina Landeta, a 22-year-old immigration paralegal in the city - for a good reason. When she interviewed domestic helpers in Hong Kong as part of her internship with a nonprofit organization, she said she needed a translator. Landeta was born in San Diego, California, to Filipino parents from Cagayan Valley in the Philippines.

"I felt I was letting them down when I told them I couldn't understand Tagalog (or Filipino), and we would have to communicate in English," says Landeta, who, transformed by the experience, proceeded to write her senior thesis on New York Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights. She lives in New York now.

Landeta admits to having a little knowledge of the Filipino language, but hopes to learn more, so she can better communicate with Filipino clients at her place of work. She is eager to take more lessons, because she sees how her classmate, Isis Arias, decided to take a lesson again six years after her first lesson.

Arias, 27, a marketing professional, attended her first Filipino-language lesson in Los Ba?os, Laguna province, in 2005. It's a long way from the Bronx, where she lives, but she said she learned a lot from her Philippine trip.

"From not knowing Tagalog at all, I'd say my knowledge increased about 45 percent," she says, thanks to the program she attended with the organization Tagalog On Site (, an organization headed by Susan Quimpo, an educator and community organizer who moved back to the Philippines from Athens, Ohio. Today, she says her level of understanding is at 65 percent.

Asked why she didn't learn Filipino when she was younger, Arias says her mother didn't speak the language and her grandparents didn't teach her, although they spoke it at home.

She is half-Filipino, half African-American. She hopes to learn more as she interacts with Filipino customers in her sister's Filipino restaurant, called Maharlika.

Learning the culture

Learning the language is one thing, but for Lorial Crowder, 29, a social worker from Norwalk, Connecticut, it's also about getting involved in the Philippine community. She is vice president of the Filipino American National Historical Society.

It was Crowder who encouraged Magtoto to hold a special Filipino language class for Filipino-Americans. The two women met briefly in 2005 and again in 2007, when Crowder attended two sessions of Magtoto's Filipino language class. Crowder also went to a class at the University of the Philippines.

For all her sociocivic efforts, it seems the only thing Crowder is missing is the language of her motherland. Her reason for learning it is admirable. "I want to pass it on to my 4-year-old son."

Crowder did not have a chance to learn Filipino; an American couple visiting Olongapo adopted her when she was 5 years old, and she grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Connecticut.

She knows how adoptees like herself feel disconnected from their Filipino roots, so next year she plans to host a two-week Philippine tour with the Filipino Adoptees Network.

In a city where about 800 languages are spoken daily, making it the most linguistically diverse city in the world, learning one's language gives one a sense of belonging. Ethnic neighborhoods abound and celebrate their culture.

Many affluent parents are aware of the city's rich diverse population, which is also why they require baby sitters to know another language other than English, a newspaper report said. They believe their children will grow up with a richer vocabulary and higher IQs.

But why is it so important to learn your parents' language?

For other ethnic groups that stick to their languages, it's about retaining one's culture. Many Latinos, Chinese and Koreans pass on the legacy of their languages to their children, more than young Filipino Americans, in fact.

It doesn't help that first-generation Filipinos know English only too well that they end up speaking in English all the time with their kids.

But what exactly will Filipino-Americans lose when they lose their language? Will they lose their distinct voice, relevance and culture in the general American marketplace? If language is culture, you know the answer.

For Magtoto's students, though, "Hindi pwede 'yan." (No way.)