One fine day, my four-year-old said out of the blue, “I must be an American because I speak English.”
It was a bit funny, as he said it with all innocence and earnestness. But then, it alarmed me too, and I scrambled for words to tell him that he is a Filipino who speaks English.
I know though that there are other Filipino kids who have had similar thoughts. This is because for a certain demographic in the Philippines (perhaps most especially in Metro Manila?), children prefer English. They have been raised with it as their first language and their brains already automatically think in English.
When parents notice that their child is unable and reluctant to speak the native language, though, they begin to panic over future Filipino classes in school. At least, my husband and I did!
But it’s not too late! You can still teach your child to use your native tongue (Tagalog, Cebuano, Bisaya, etc.) with these tips culled from different experts I interviewed for past articles on raising bilingual children and teaching kids to speak Filipino. Please note, that when I say Filipino, it is whatever Philippine dialect your family uses.
1. Teach and expose your child to the language early
It came as a surprise (or maybe even shock!) that our kids did not easily and naturally pick up Tagalog. It turns out that you have to be intentional about exposing children to language.
According to my friend Ryce Cortez of The Learning Library (the go-to after-school service for teaching kids reading and Filipino), the brain familiarizes itself with the specific tone of a language. She advises to expose your child to a language even before he begins to speak.
As your child grows older, you can do this not just by conversing, but also by reading books, playing games, singing songs and reciting nursery rhymes in the language that you’re trying to teach your child.
In our home, this means enjoying and learning from local books published by Tahanan Books, Adarna House, Lampara books etc. It is also about singing Filipino songs that I remember from my childhood, such as Tong-tong-tong Pakitong-kitong, Pong-pong Kasili, and Pen-pen de Sarapen.
2. Use just one language in a sentence
Ryce advises parent to use just one language in a sentence. This means it’s a no-no to use hybrid sentences, such as the ever-popular Taglish, as doing so will not help your child become fluent in even one language.
So, how do you do this? That’s where number three comes in.
3. Assign a language to a place or a person
Early on, we designated our household helpers to be the Tagalog speakers because they are more comfortable in it. This helped our children enormously, using straight Tagalog when talking to their Ates.
My husband also ruled that we should also use Tagalog when we are out of the house. Though we have a bit of resistance sometimes, we still get to squeeze in some practice. You can apply this to any language that you want your child to acquire.
4. Just speak it!
Practice makes perfect. This is especially true for kids who are starting to learn Filipino a little bit late. For children learning the language as a school subject, learning to love speaking it is crucial in being receptive to formal lessons.
And there’s really no way around it: we have to speak Filipino ourselves. According to another The Learning Library teacher, Teacher Kate Perello, making Filipino your family’s primary language is bound to be effective.
Teacher Kate pointed out, too, that we could no longer rely on our environment when it comes to language acquisition. Most of our children’s friends use English and there are no good Filipino shows around like the Batibot of the past.
It really troubled me to hear my son say that he must be an American because he speaks English better than he does Filipino. You can bet that his remark brought out our Filipino storybooks again!
Our language roots us in our culture and heritage, and it is important to me that my children grow up proud to be Filipinos. Yes, we must have made a mistake in introducing English before Filipino, but it’s not hopeless yet, especially with the simple tips above.