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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, August 09, 2004

entry arrow10:16 PM | The Languages of Our Every Day

I will begin this essay reflecting on a fervent misconception (on my part), springing mainly from a charge once made by the literary critic Fr. Miguel Bernad who, in his seminal essay "Philippine Literature: Perpetually Inchoate," surveyed the state of that national literature and proclaimed it as continually being in an "amateur" phase, never quite regaining maturity principally because of three reasons -- economic, linguistic, and cultural.

About the second factor, he wrote: "The linguistic difficulty is obvious. It is possible to, produce great literature only in a language that has been mastered. By "mastered" is meant more than mere grammatical or idiomatic mastery. It must be the type of mastery which assimilates the thought processes, the verbal nuances, and the characteristic rhythms, peculiar to an idiom. Every language has its peculiar genius: he is the master of the language who has caught that genius. Unfortunately the Philippines has not had a thorough chance to assimilate the genius of any particular language. Those whose education has been in English but whose parents were educated in Spanish will understand what this implies. In their case a wall of separation stands as a barrier between parents and children, between the younger generation and the one that preceded it. It is not that parents cannot understand English or the children Spanish, or that parents and children have no common medium of conversation. It is not a question of conversing; it is a question of thought processes. The thought patterns are different."

So I thought: I consider myself a Philippine writer who writes principally in English by choice -- not because I am not well versed in the language of my fathers (although, admittedly, anyone can make that accusation about me), but rather because my creativity springs from that particular linguistic well, foreign though it may be. (Only recently have I ventured into writing poetry in Binisaya, and while I have found this particular experience "liberating" and worthwhile, the instinct to write in the Queen's language is still what defines my oeuvre as a writer.)

So there it goes: the instinct to write is primarily colored by English. There has always been comfort in that. The words come easier...

But the Bernad charge made me uneasy: Does he mean that in my choosing to write in a foreign language, I am actually an eternal fraud? That no matter how I conceive of my situation as a writer, my thought processes can never really be in English?

I felt like a linguistic bastard.

This made me reflect on another once-upon-a-time, when I had wanted to have an arbaito, or a part-time job, in Japan, ostensibly to teach English to Japanese nationals who were ever-hungry to learn the language's nuances. And yet, scanning through the Help Wanted booklet regularly published by my Tokyo university's student affairs section, I was constantly met with this restriction "Wanted native speaker only." And "native speaker" invariably meant being blond, blue-eyed. American.

Which, needless to say, negated me.

Does not this language called English belong to me? I write in it and my education and upbringing has been characterized by my very immersion in it. And yet, by virtue of the geography of my birth and the color of my skin, I was not deemed a "holder" of that language, a "non-native."

This, coupled with Bernad's unsettling contention, made way to a self-willed construction of my language identity: if I must be a writer in English, then I should believe that my thought processes are in English.

"I dream in English," I began telling myself. "I think in English..."

And I believed that. Sometimes, when I wanted to prove this very point, I would pause and listen to how I think, and I'd get thrilled by the fact that I heard my mind whirr in English -- although I now know, reading from Stephen Pinker, that human thought actually does not possess language. We think in images and metaphors, not in any particular tongue.

Still, disregarding this piece of cognitive science, I believed in the concept of my Anglicized thoughts: the "evidence," after all, proved to me overwhelming. The spontaneous outbursts that come from me were always in English, and that satisfied me. Seeing a deformed woman on the street, for example, I'd say to myself: "What an ugly hag!" and never, "Hala, ka-maot gyud niya!" Taken by surprise by something or someone, I'd say, "What the--!" and never "Unsa ba!"

Last week, however, came this experiment: I wanted to listen to myself more, and objectively, and to take note of the language of my every day. The procedure was hard: I proved to be not too much of a keen observer, especially an observer of myself and my interactions. I kept forgetting to keep track of my linguistic use.

But I remember waking up one morning, nudged awake by the shrill of my alarm clock, and thinking... "Huh? What the...? What time is it?"

That's English.

And then, after turning off the alarm: "It's still a bit early. Makatulog pa ko."

That's English, and then Cebuano.

When I finally do wake up, I go about the morning preparing for what needs to be done for the late morning and afternoon, and the conscious conversation with myself seems to be in English. I either watch Oprah or the running programs of Discovery Channel or CNN while going about these morning rituals, and the language of my thoughts seems to parallel the language that comes out of my television. I react to the news or to the televised conversations in the language they come wrapped in, and that is English.

When I finally go out for lunch to the little corner karinderia in Tubod near my pad, my language switches to either Tagalog (the proprietor is a Bikolana) or Binisaya, but never in terms of a full-fledged conversation, only as indicators of function: "Kani ra" (indicating my choice for food), "Usa ra" (indicating my choice for number of cups for rice), and "Pila?" (asking for the total payment of my order). When I finally converse with people, I do so generally in English, with a bit of Binisaya thrown in for measure. I have no idea why but when people come up to me, they speak in English, so I reply to them in English, as well. Do I look a certain way that demanded this use of language? I have no idea.

At work, there seems to be a tendency for my colleagues -- all of them English teachers-to speak to each other in Binisaya. Paradoxical? Maybe, but I see it as a linguistic and psychological compensation: our classroom lives are engulfed, after all, in the straight use of English, non-stop, and so when we do gather together in the office away from our students, we speak in the local language "to balance" the language usage. I once asked a fellow teacher why this is the case. In reply, she joked: "Nahutdan man gud ta ug Iningles sa classroom." Which, I think, contains kernels of truth.

This is my conclusion: It is foolhardy to claim that our language life must be defined only by one exclusive tongue. Language is alive and ever-changing, never inert. Our linguistic mentality, I think, must also be the same -- so why do we need to impose on it, especially in the case of multilinguals like us, the rigidity of one tongue only? Our everyday lives speak in multiple tongues, shifting from code to code effortlessly, and we have learned to smoothly accommodate situations to particular languages we deem fit for it. I speak English to myself because that is the fountainhead of my self-expression. I speak Binisaya to the man on the street (or the karinderia) because that is the language we share from the cradle (but even that comes in a mixed bag: I would ask the karinderia owner "Pila?" and she would reply, "Twenty pesos"). I speak English in the classroom because I am an English teacher, and my University encourages this to be the medium of instruction. I speak both in English and Binisaya to my work colleagues because the office becomes the bridge in which our linguistic twains must meet. There is no singular language to live our daily lives.

Thus, a necessary revision: "I dream in Pinoy English."

What then can I now say about Bernad's contention knowing this? That he may have a point, but he is barking up the wrong tree. True, we cannot have real mastery over a foreign language, but I will read that as mastery over American English. I subscribe instead to Pinoy English, something that is still english, but peppered with the richness of my brown, multilingual identity -- I can say, for example, "Where man ka mo go?" -- and of this language, I am certainly very much a master.

And as for the Japanese who wanted only "native speakers"? They can have all the blue-eyed blondes they want: former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle is blond, blue-eyed, and American, but he once spelled "potato" as "potatoe."

Now, that's a native speaker.

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich