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Why knowing many languages is good for Filipinos

/ 08:08 PM May 04, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO—I grew up learning Tagalog at home. And while I was exposed early to English because of television, it was not until I was around five that I had to use it.

And I still remember the dread I felt when I started going to school and had to communicate with my teachers and other school staff in English.

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One incident I’ve never forgotten: I had to go to the school clinic and was worried sick about having to swallow some pill but could only express that concern by muttering incoherently: ‘Do I – ah –inom gamot?’

But with more TV and more exposure to books in school, I eventually grew more comfortable with English, just like many other middle class Filipino kids who grew up in Manila in the 1970s.

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In Manila and other major city centers, at least, it’s rare to find a Filipino who speaks only one language. Most people are bilingual. Many are even fortunate to be multilingual.

My father speaks Bicolano, and my mother Ilocano, in addition to their knowledge of English and Tagalog. My wife has Waray for a third language.

I have at different points in my life tried to add a third tongue to my arsenal.

Having nothing to do one summer, I signed up for a summer course in German at the Goethe Institut on Aurora Boulevard. Like many Filipinos of my generation, I had to study Spanish in college.

But I’m still just bilingual – and how I wish I could be more.

How I wish my parents had forced me to learn Bicolano and Ilocano. How I wish I had taken more seriously the required college Spanish courses at UP Diliman. (It sure would come in handy now that I live in California.)

Bottom line: it’s such a wonderful skill, knowing many languages.

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Now, a new report has even found that being bilingual or even multilingual can very good for one’s health.

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported in the Wall Street Journal. It found that people who know more than one language tend to be more attentive and are better able to multitask. They even tend to age better, mainly because they supposedly have sturdier, more resilient brains.

“Because you have two languages going on in your head, you become very good at determining what is and is not relevant,” Dr. Dina Kraus, a Northwestern University professor who took part in the study was quoted as saying. “You are a mental juggler.”

In fact, the story said, knowing at least two languages could make one’s brain better equipped to deal with the onset of dementia and could even delay Alzheimer’s disease by roughly four years. (For middle aged Filipinos like me, that’s certainly great news.)

And there’s also good news for parents, especially expat Filipinos raising children outside the homeland.

Don’t worry about exposing your little children to Tagalog or Cebuano or Ilonggo or Ilocano. Babies easily pick up languages, mastering different grammatical rules even if the languages vastly different from one another as English, Tagalog, German and Mandarin.

This is an important point to remember for us Filipinos given how we have spread out and settled all over the world.

Language, of course, remains a subject of debate back in the Philippines.

A report by Agence France Presse written by my friend Cecil Morella noted some bad news – but also some good news.

The bad news involves a sad trend: Up to 50 of the country’s 175 languages spoken in the archipelago could be lost within 20 years, mainly because fewer people are using them.

The good news was pointed out in the story by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a non-profit group which works with communities throughout the world to preserve and develop their languages and cultures.

“There’s a growing awareness of the value of languages in the Philippines, if you compare it with other countries in Asia where (some minority) languages are publicly discouraged,” Catherine Young, an endangered languages expert from the group, was quoted as saying in the AFP report.

The story also highlighted a positive development in the way Filipino children are educated.

Starting this school year, students from kindergarten to third grade will be taught in their native languages.

In other words, kids in the Ilocos or the Visayas or in Bicol or other parts of the archipelago who did not grow up speaking English or Tagalog, will begin their education in the language they’re most familiar with.

Smart move which could lead to smarter kids who could then journey on to explore and embrace other languages – including English and Pilipino — in the Philippines and beyond.

On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/benjamin.pimentel

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