Adding a Helping of Heritage on a Full Plate (Part 1 – Language)

“Dad, what are they saying?” said Number One Son.

“Yeah, what are they talking about?” said Number Two Son. 

My sons were referring to the animated conversation that was going on in Tagalog between, their Aunts, their Uncles, and the Wife at the dinner table.  I tried to translate as fast as I could, but I didn’t catch everything.

I was reminded of this time when John forwarded a link to this article to the 8asians blogger mailing list. The Asian American couple (he of Korean descent and she of Chinese) sent their busy, highly scheduled three year old son to Chinese school even though neither of them spoke Chinese.  The family lives in a mostly white area, and one of the goals of sending him there was to expose him to other Asian American kids.  To their surprise, the vast majority of students were white.   The son didn’t seem to take to the classes, and so the parents let him quit.

The Chung/Liu Family by Janet Durrans for the New York Times

The article generated a lot of discussion on the 8asians list.  Some bloggers objected to the claim in the article that Asian-American families concentrate 100% on assimilating their children.   Others pointed out the folly overloading kids so young, while others pointed out that many Asian Americans parents seem to be intent on “earning points” by having their kids do many activities while ignoring the real purpose of those activities.  Shouldn’t be sports be about learning sportsmanship, discipline, and appreciating and learning exercise?  Shouldn’t music be about learning culture and appreciating the splendid works of the past?  Shouldn’t learning languages be about learnin g different perspectives and cultures?

All great questions and comments.  My own particular thoughts came in three areas:  teaching the kids languages, exposing your kids to other Asian Americans, and loading and on how much to push on kids.  I had a lot of thoughts on this, so I am dividing them into three parts.  This first part is about teaching kids the languages of the ancestral homeland.  I wish I had learned as Tagalog as a kid, but most Filipino immigrant parents at the time when I was a kid didn’t bother and generally didn’t seem to care.  Most spoke English fairly well.  I have heard that some Filipino parents during that time were told that if they didn’t talk speak only English to their kids that the kids would fall behind in school. 

The colonial mentality of Filipinos and Philippine geography (lots of islands and different languages) does not help either.  The Wife tells me that some richer families in the Philippines would speak only English to their kids, and that the kids would only learn Tagalog from their maids and nannies.  Also, in some regions of the Philippines, I am told that the people would prefer to speak English rather than Tagalog.  My mother only learned Tagalog in the US.  In some places, like Hawaii and Guam, the common language of Filipinos is Ilocano.  My brother’s Chinese wife was really shocked to learn that Filipinos generally don’t make an effort to pass on language skills of Filipinos languages. Where I live, there are Japanese language schools, Chinese language schools, and Vietnamese language schools, but no Filipino language schools.  Ironically, my brother never learned Tagalog, but he learned Japanese and Mandarin, although that didn’t do him much good communicating with his father-in-law who only speaks Cantonese.

I ended up learning Tagalog on my own from some books.  Having The Wife yell in Tagalog when she gets mad also helped!  I generally can understand conversations and the action on TFC (The Filipino Channel), but I take a while to compose sentences when I have to talk.  Filipinos, I find, are generally not particularly amused by my accented slow Tagalog, although they think that it is SO cute when a white guy like Travis Kraft speaks it.  My kids ended up not learning Tagalog, something I regret.  It would have helped the Daughter greatly in her Spanish language classes.  For one, it would have helped her think mo re flexibly. The Daughter’s friend, who is fluent in Mandarin, also takes Spanish, and I remember her helping the Daughter with Spanish, saying “don’t try to make sentences the same way as in English.”  My daughter, knowing only one language, had trouble thinking flexibly in different grammatical patterns.  Also, Tagalog has many words from Spanish.  If she had known Tagalog, she already would have had a substantial vocabulary.

In the article, there are non-Chinese parents who send their young kids to Chinese school.  I have a friend who did this.  My guess is that his motivation is give his child an advantage knowing what he, who worked as an expat in Asia for a long time, perceives as a dominant language of the future.  So I think that the benefits of teaching the ancestral language are three potentially threefold:   the ability to think in more flexible ways, picking up an economically useful skill, and the ability to better connect with other generations of family.  Some stories, like the one that Number One Son and Number Two Son asked about, are just better told in Tagalog, and my hurried translations just don’t do them justice. 

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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