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Raising a Bilingual Child in the Philippines

A Philippine mother explains why her child’s first language is not Filipino.

I always knew my children would grow up bilingual. In the Philippines, bilingualism is not something you need to think about and choose for your children. It is a given. It is decided for you.

It’s been that way ever since the Americans came to the Philippines in the late 1800s. Since then, the educational system has been English centered. Until today, almost all our classes in school are taught in English.

So all children learn English. The only question, really, is not “whether,” but “when?” How early do you want your child to become bilingual?

For my child, I decided it would be as early as possible. I would not wait for him to start school before he learned a foreign language. His first language would be the foreign language.

The social advantage of learning English

There is a social motivation for wanting your child to speak a foreign language instead of his own native language here in the Philippines.

The country has a culture of reverse ethnocentricity: We love what is not our own.

This comes from the Philippine’s long history of being under foreign colonization — first under Spain, then under the United States. For centuries, the ruling class came from foreign lands, wore foreign clothes and spoke foreign languages. The native language was used only by the ruled, not the rulers.

So the inability to speak the native language became a status symbol. Even today, the child who speaks English better than he can speak Filipino is deemed to be more intelligent and coming from a higher social class.

But the advantage is not limited to people’s minds. It is also very practical. As was previously mentioned, most classes in Philippine schools are taught in English. This is true even in preschool.

So the child whose first language is English will have an easier time understanding the stories the teacher reads. He will be better able to answer the teacher’s questions. And when they are taught to read by themselves, he will be more at ease with the materials, because the words being used to teach reading are familiar to him: ant, bed, cat, dog, …

Raised on a foreign language

So I sang to my baby, told him stories, even scolded him, in English.

When he started to talk, he spoke in English. His first few words, other than mama, were “ta-ter” (water), book, and “kicky cola” (Coca Cola).

And for a time, he did not understand Filipino. When he was one year old, his grandmother said to him in Filipino, “Josh, pakisara yung pinto (please close the door).” He looked at her but did not move. So she repeated her question in English. Then he went to the door and closed it.

My parents and in-laws, of course, were very concerned about this. What would happen, they asked me, when he starts going to school? How will he make friends? He will be isolated!

I told them that when he starts going to school, he will start to speak Filipino. After all, he has not been completely unexposed to his own country’s native language. His father spoke to him in Filipino most of the time. He hears everyone in the house speaking it to each other.

But since it was seldom used in speaking to him directly, he did not learn it half as well as he learned English. So he did not speak it — but the foundation was there.

Sure enough, when he started school, he adapted almost instantly. By the end of the first week, I noticed he was speaking more and more in Filipino at home.

He has also begun classifying people into who-speaks-what-language groups. When he is speaking to me or his teacher, he speaks in English. When he speaks to everyone else, he speaks in Filipino. If I talk to him on the phone and give him a message in English to relay to his babysitter, he takes the message in English but translates it into Filipino when he tells it to her.

He still makes a few mistakes in Filipino pronunciation and translation. For instance, he would still say “na-u-u-nod” instead of “na-nu-no-od (watching)” when he wants to say that he is watching TV. He says “alangan (hesitant)” when what he means is “kailangan (need).” And he would say “kanina (earlier today)” when he means to say is “kahapon (yesterday).”

But that is not a disadvantage. As I’ve explained before, he is growing up in a country for whom the inability to speak the native language is considered an asset.

People find it cute that he speaks Filipino that way. We find it amusing and endearing when foreigners strive to speak Filipino. But generally we find little value in speaking it well ourselves.

About the author: Blessie Adlaon is an editor at the Philippine-based writing department of goFLUENT Inc., a European company that teaches English by phone worldwide. She is working towards a degree in MA English Studies at the University of the Philippines. She is also the mother of three kids.

You Might Also Like:

Raising Bilingual-Biliterate Children in Monolingual Cultures

Bilingual By Choice: The Family Guide for Raising Kids in Two (Or More!) Languages

The Bilingual Edge: How, When and Why to Teach Your Child a Second Language

You can find additional books about raising bilingual children in the Multilingual Mania store.

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Categories: Bilingualism

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