Growing up bilingual – Part 1

It was nap time. The baby had been fed and read to, and it was time for the lullaby, sung to the tune of Brahm’s lullaby:

Tulog na, tulog na, Sa kandungan ni Nanay.

Kalaro mong anghel, Sa iyo nagbabantay.

Tulog na, tulog na, Mahal kong anak. 

Tulog na, tulog na, Bunso ko, tulog na.

(Sleep now, sleep now, on Mother’s lap. Your angel playmate watches over you. Sleep now, sleep now, my beloved child. Sleep now, sleep now, my youngest child, sleep now.)

Baby was gently laid in the crib clutching a baby doll. Only… it wasn’t really Baby but a little toy koala in the toy crib, clutching an even tinier baby doll. And “mom” – a 2-year old, only able to sing the lullaby with an adorable utal mispronunciation of words.

DSC_0293-3PR - CopyIt was a gentle, soothing song full of a mother’s love and guardian angels – one Mommy had sung so many times, at nap time and at night, that learning it by heart came quite naturally, perhaps even before one could speak.

What an almost effortless way to learn – and an ancient one.

Long before ancient civilizations could write, people would pass down through generations songs of their people, their history, their gods. We do the same to this day. Through song, children learn their ABC’s, nursery rhymes, prayers, body parts, the meanings of holidays and special events, and much much more, almost effortlessly. And no children’s course in a foreign language would seem complete without songs.

So too, in teaching our kids Tagalog, music has always been a favorite tool. Even before they could speak, Tagalog CD’s or music videos would be played and DSC_0295-3crop - CopyPRTagalog songs sung. (Their favorite was Awiting Pambata video CD from Ivory Records –  though with less than stellar audio, it features children in traditional attire singing in a traditional Filipino setting at Nayong Filipino, which our children found fascinating.)

When our panganay (firstborn) was born, I worried when she didn’t start to babble constantly as other babies did. Instead, she would watch intently and listen. I spoke to her mostly in Tagalog, but barely — admittedly finding the one-sided conversation a bit silly. Yet I had no qualms singing Tagalog songs to her throughout the day.

When she did start speaking, she was at once able to speak both English and Tagalog fluently, with quite a wide vocabulary in both, and with near perfect diction. It seems, as with other children raised in bilingual households, her brain had taken extra time to process two languages instead of just one. It was well worth the wait.

There is much evidence suggesting the benefits of bilingualism, including a less distractible brain that is able to focus and switch tasks easier, as well as delayed onset of dementia. Being bilingual, the brain learns practically from birth that there is more than one way to skin a cat – or rather, to call a “pusa” (cat). And if things do not just have one name, then perhaps other challenges one meets in life might have more than just one solution as well. Having to switch languages constantly, bilingual children learn early on, without even knowing it, how to approach life with increased awareness and flexibility.

Some cite increased standardized test scores, college and career opportunities, as well as confidence in bilinguals. It is also easier to learn other languages – in the case of Tagalog, the plentiful Spanish-derived words make it easier to learn Spanish and perhaps other Romance languages. But more than all these, being bilingual gives one a wider view of the world, paving the way early on for an affinity for and understanding of more than just one culture and Weltanschauung (worldview).

The Philippines’ 7,107 islands is home to over 170 languages or dialects. Most Filipinos are bilingual, if not multilingual – speaking Tagalog and English and/or at least one other dialect. Perhaps it is our inherent bilingualism / multilingualism that explains our love of travel and ability to learn and adapt to other cultures easily. It would behoove us then to maintain our native language as best we can, recognizing that our very culture and first language were and continue to be instrumental in helping us assimilate into our new homelands. Hopefully, we can hand down this same privilege and advantage to our children as well.

If you haven’t learned Tagalog yet, perhaps it is time. Immersion is the best way, but if you can’t fly to the Philippines and stay there a while, there are plenty of books, websites with free lessons, and even free Mango online courses for some libraries. Someone I know improved his Tagalog  immensely simply by watching TFC (The Filipino Channel). Filipino classes and camps are few and far between, but worth looking into – if you live in the New York / New Jersey area, there is a Filipino school founded by Venessa Manzano called The Filipino School of New York & New Jersey.

Whichever path you choose, it is never too late. And you (and your children) will reap the benefits for life.



[You may also want to view Growing up Bilingual Part 2 (or Ten Tips for teaching your kids Tagalog)]


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