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"I Understand It, but I Can't Speak It"

"I Understand It, but I Can't Speak It"

Ang dalawa. My older sister and I.

Umaalis ako! I’m leaving (presumably to go to work).

Wala nang kanin. There’s no more rice (a not-so-subtle cue for me or one of my siblings to cook more).

In my 19 years of life, I’ve picked up some understanding of my parents’ Tagalog. By watching their gestures or focusing on their intonations, I can tell if my dad is engaging in ‘tech talk’ with my uncle about his new laptop, or if my mom is gossiping about other nurses at work with my aunt.

First generation Filipino Americans (the kind that were born in the US) have a staple phrase in their vocabulary: “I understand it, but I can’t speak it.” It seems we all grew up picking up on our parents’ language, but never being taught how to speak. Myself, I can’t even fully understand. Aunts and uncles ask me things in complete Tagalog and sometimes, I can only respond with a smile and nod, and that usually satisfies them. I dread the coming of a conversation where I’m forced to publicly admit, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

I can live day-to-day knowing I can’t speak Tagalog. I live in the US and speak fluent English. My language proficiency is practical for the rest of my life. The bitter shame bubbles up when I’m made to feel inferior, a sorry excuse for a Filipino, for my inability to speak Tagalog.

In November of last year, my sister got into a car accident in front of her off-campus house. I was with my school’s Filipino club practicing for a dancing performance when my sister’s boyfriend told me the news. Thankfully, her housemates were members of the club; I’d have run to the house in the cold dark by myself if one of them hadn’t insisted on driving me. My parents had been gone for a cruise at the time, so my sister called two of my aunts. When they arrived, they all talked through the ordeal as her other housemates gradually came back to the house after practice.

At this point, everything calmed down and we were all more or less waiting until it seemed socially acceptable to end the night. Then my aunt asked the question: “So, do you girls speak Tagalog?” The house of first generation Filipino American girls held their breaths while anticipating the response to our mutual answer: “I understand it, but I can’t speak it.” We all knew what would come next.

“Oh man, it’s such a shame. Our children can’t speak the language of their parents. It’s truly a loss. You girls should be able to speak to your family in their language…” And so on. We sat with gritted teeth behind thin smiles and deep sighs.

We are shamed for growing up speaking the [unofficial] language of the country we were born in. I was raised with hints that English was better and to have remnants of another language in your mouth outside the family was wrong. My dad read books about how to speak proper English in professional settings. My mom listened to CDs in the car that taught her how to lose her accent. They ask me and my siblings: “Did I say that right? Wooord. Wooorld. World. Is that how you say it? Especific. Specific. What do you call it? Tweeerl. Twarl. Twirl.

It wasn’t a part of my upbringing to be taught Tagalog. I learned to understand some, of my own choice. It was practical and made me feel closer to my family to show them I’m Filipino too. But to my aunts and uncles that are disappointed their children don’t speak Tagalog, don’t feel so alone: we’re disappointed in ourselves too.


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