My mom once told me that children are not passive observers but rather, active ones. What they are exposed to and what they observe, especially when they are in the stage of growing up, become the foundations of their well-being. What a child hears is what a child speaks. What a child hears every day is what he will eventually adapt and master as his first language, his mother tongue.
Growing up with parents who taught in the University of the Philippines meant growing up with not only a sense of patriotism but also with appreciation of language, culture, and art. My mother, Prof. Joycie Alegre teaches theater and film at UP Tacloban and my father, Dr. Edilberto Alegre used to teach literature in UP Diliman. They believed that one way of becoming was through embodying one’s culture. And language, as what they taught me, was part of my evolving culture. As a result, we used Tagalog every day.
I was exposed to Tagalog every day and I heard it every day. I made sense of things by listening to words. My father kept a record of this language’s development. At the age of two, I was able to address my father from tata to tatay and my mother from nana to nanay. At the age of three, I was able to use the enclitics pa and na. I was also able to ask questions but without the pronoun system. “Ano pangalan nanay?” I used nanay instead of the pronoun niya. Eventually, I became akin to Tagalog, it became my language.
Sounds made sense to me because I adapted to the environment that I was exposed to, the environment that I always listened to. However, I did not have the concept of language as a structured system at such an early age. I would have been considered a genius if I did. I did not have the idea of Tagalog being a language. I only knew its purpose then. To communicate. Language is a structured system with grammar and syntax. Grammar and syntax are laws which language is supposed to be held. They are the bones where words are held together like muscles in locomotion, creating movements in places while embodying its culture. I was not aware of this back then. I did not know then that there were several languages. What only mattered to me was that I made sense to other people.
I used to drink orange juice for the most of my toddler years. I used to refer to orange juice as “nones” and “onis”. It wasn’t until I was three, that I could refer to it as “orange juice”. I did not know “orange juice” was English. I had no idea that Tagalog and English were two different languages. To me, they were the same. They were but only communicating tools I heard, mimicked, and understood. There were no differences at all.
I did not realize that I knew English at such an early stage by learning the words “orange” and “juice”. I knew English but was never introduced to it. It wasn’t until I was introduced to my half-sister, Ate Maria that I was formally introduced to English.
My sister was 18 when I first met her. I was four then. We would have brief conversations that would end with yes or no questions for I did not know much of English. The most English that I was exposed to was through animated films and movies like Tarzan, Monsters Incorporated, and Clifford.
Yes. No. Yeah. These were usually the responses I gave her to questions like “Do you want ice cream?” “Need to go to the bath room?” or “Want some water?” These were the only responses that my four-year-old self could think of.
Ate Maria migrated to the States with her mom and my other half-siblings at the age of two. This meant that she could not speak Tagalog… at all, not a single bit. Whenever she said my name, Lakan, which is a Tagalog word that means “love child” (anak-mahal), she would always prolong the second a and would pronounce it as Lakén. I would address her as Ate, a Filipino word used in addressing older sisters. She told me she was happy to be called Ate. She was the youngest child of her mom and nobody called her Ate. None of them would address the other Ate or Kuya (Older Brother). They all address others in the first name basis. I, on the other hand, did not have any siblings who lived with me so calling someone Ate made my four-year-old self leap in delight. But these were the only things that made sense really— calling her Ate and she calling me, Lakan. The rest were all jargon, nothing but meaningless noise. I doubt any made sense to her either. Truly, my English was as bad as her Tagalog but we both knew that we were trying as much as we could to understand each other. We were siblings and there will always be a connection regardless of the language barrier. Though we never really talked about it, I believe there was an unspoken truth: speaking in different tongues was as hard as deciphering a codex.
My sister visited me again when I was eight. My English got better. English was a subject that was taught in school. From memorizing the alphabet, adding numbers, grammar, punctuations, and tenses, all were taught in kindergarten and grade school. I could count numbers in English—one, two, three—and recite the English alphabet: A, B, C. But most importantly, I could understand sentences and was sure that orange and juice were English words, different from Tagalog.
“Hi Ate, How are you?”
“I’m fine. You speak English now, kid. That’s good.”
This made me happy because I understood my sister. I knew what she was saying and what she meant. English was no longer meaningless noise. It made sense. My sister made sense.
She told me it was a pity that her Tagalog got lost when she moved to the States. She wanted to learn more about her own culture. She was well read and finished her degree in Library Science. She knew several languages, but none were Filipino. I was eight and was not quite sure how to respond. So instead, I hugged her, and she kept me in that warm embrace.
The good thing about our exchange was that Ate also tried to learn a bit of Tagalog. She tried to learn a few phrases in Tagalog, some she picked up from Tatay’s translations of what I said during her first visit. She learned to ask Saan tayo pupunta? Where are we going? She knew that tae and ihi meant that I needed to go to the bathroom. She also knew what Ayokong umalis ka meant. Don’t go. But of all things, she liked best the proper way of saying goodbye was Kita-kits and not Paalam.
It is a pity that there are some that have lost their language and there are those that need to learn another just to talk and be understood. English is a language that is not ours, but it is a necessity that we are bound to learn. My sister and I knew this. We were well aware of it. I knew Ate’s life was happening in the States, mine was always in my own country. We had to endure the pangs of longing separately, for it is in separation that we find our deepest connection.
The last visit I had from Ate was when I was eighteen. I told her of my achievements and that I was best in English in my class. She was already working as a librarian and taught kids English at The Dalton School in New York City. She had the license to tell me how terrible my English was when we first met. I told her that her Tagalog was still as terrible as it used to be. At least, my English got better. We laughed and exchanged notes about our lives. I told her stories of my experiences and she told me of hers.
Though our tongues were different, our blood was of the same. This made things more coherent whether I was four, eight, or eighteen. English made it easy for me to understand her. Though it was not a language that Nanay and Tatay used much at home, it was a language that I yearned for, because it was the only language that I could use to talk with my sister.
The last time I saw my sister was when I was sending her off from the airport in Tacloban. The last words we spoke of were the most meaningful and most coherent of all conversations we had before.
“I love you, Ate.”
“Mahal din kita, Lakan.”
Lakan Uhay D. Alegre is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines Mindanao. He recently attended the 2019 ADDU Summer Writers Workshop as a writing fellow for poetry.