Monday, June 27, 2011

Language and Identity: The Young Rizal and the Filipino-Americans

At age 8, the young Jose Rizal made his first poem, that of "Sa Aking Mga Kabata" (To the Youth), a poem in which he exhorted his fellow youth to love one's own language. He likened to "an animal and putrid fish" someone who does not know and love one's own.

Sa aking mga Kabata

Kapagka ang baya'y sadyáng umiibig
Sa kanyáng salitáng kaloob ng langit,
Sanglang kalayaan nasa ring masapit
Katulad ng ibong nasa himpapawid.

Pagka't ang salita'y isang kahatulan
Sa bayan, sa nayo't mga kaharián,
At ang isáng tao'y katulad, kabagay
Ng alin mang likha noong kalayaán.

Ang hindi magmahal sa kanyang salitâ
Mahigit sa hayop at malansáng isdâ,
Kayâ ang marapat pagyamaning kusà
Na tulad sa ináng tunay na nagpalà.

Ang wikang Tagalog tulad din sa Latin
Sa Inglés, Kastilà at salitang anghel,
Sapagka't ang Poong maalam tumingín
Ang siyang naggawad, nagbigay sa atin.

Ang salita nati'y huwad din sa iba
Na may alfabeto at sariling letra,
Na kaya nawalá'y dinatnan ng sigwâ
Ang lunday sa lawà noóng dakong una.

English Translation here.

Rizal was a known polyglot - someone who is fluent in several languages. But he also knew that while there are many languages in the world, one must not allow one's own language to be drowned out by them; one must have a voice, one must be heard; and there is no better language to speak with than one's mother tongue.

Language is a distillation of one's culture; it is it's very essence. To not know the language of one's society is to lose out on that essence - like a body with no soul, like a face without an identity. Young Filipino-Americans are experiencing that difficulty. They were born and raised in America, have acquired American citizenship, and for all intents and purposes they are American.

But to these young Fil-Ams, finding out who they really are is not a matter of birthplace nor citizenship.

When they look in the mirror, they look Asian; and they know that in their predominantly Caucasian environment, they are the odd one out. Their fellow Asian-Americans - the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Koreans - well, they seem to be having an easier time. For one, they are more in touch with their native homeland's culture. AND, they tend to have a better grasp of their native language.

Clockwise from Left: The Rizal @ 150 poster; author with friends (none of them are Fil-Ams, hehe) beside the Young Rizal sculpture at the Rizal Shrine in Calamba; Rizal's home and birthplace; author with Rizal at backdrop; the young Rizal's room which he shared with his brother Paciano. 
The reason many put forth for the Fil-Am's failure to know more about their native culture and esp. of their language is the Filipinos 'adaptability'. Even in the Philippines, English is a considered a second language and is in many institutions a medium of communication, and in many schools a medium of instruction. It's a product of our American colonial experience and the residual colonial mentality. That is why Filipino parents who raise a family in the U.S. tend to adapt easily to the American culture and find ease in the language. Their children naturally follow the same. There is little effort to try to teach the Filipino language to their children, except only by way of absorption which is inefficient in an environment where everything's American. Compare this with our Asian neighbors who find it imperative that their children know their mother tongue, even sending them to language schools both in the U.S. and in their native countries.

With the 150th birthday of the Filipino national hero Jose Rizal - a man of science, letters and the arts - we must heed to his call for our loving our own language. Part of that affection would be to share that language to our children. After all, Rizal was speaking to them when he wrote "Sa Aking Mga Kabata" at age 8. Rizal then, like the Fil-Ams now, know that something within them is lost if they cannot be made to know the language that runs in their blood.

Book Recommendations:
THE FIRST FILIPINO: A Biography of Jose Rizal
Lineage, Life and Labors of Jose Rizal, Philippine Patriot
Lolo Jose: An Intimate and Illustrated Portrait of Jose Rizal
Looking for Jose Rizal in Madrid : journeys, latitudes, perspectives, destinations

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