For Some Filipino-Americans, Language Barriers Leave Culture Lost in Translation

Dominic Lim stands with his mother, Consuelo Tokita, in front of her Concord home.  (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

When it came time for Dominic Lim to pick a language to study in high school, he chose French. He chose it not because he was particularly interested in the language, but because the only other option was Spanish.

"I consciously picked French because I didn't want to learn Spanish and then feel bad that I was learning Spanish, which was so similar to Tagalog ..." said Lim. "I know that's very bizarre but it's like, if I learned French then I wouldn't feel so bad that I didn't learn Tagalog."

Lim, 41, is first-generation Filipino-American. He never learned to speak his family's native language, Tagalog.

He loves adobo, sinigang and lumpia. He grew up surrounded by his large extended family, whom he regularly saw at gatherings.

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"Going to all these family parties and weddings and everything, you know you hear the older cousins talking to aunts and uncles, but you can't really join in," said Lim. "I felt like they probably didn't respect the kids as much because we couldn't talk to them in their own language. That was, for me, the biggest, most emotional regret that I have. It's the most emotional component, for me, of being Filipino."

Dominic Lim, 41, is first generation Filipino-American. He grew up never learning to speak his family's native dialect, Tagalog.
Dominic Lim, 41, is first-generation Filipino-American. He grew up never learning to speak his family's native dialect, Tagalog. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

It was this language barrier that made him question what it meant to be Filipino in America, a situation not uncommon among Filipino-Americans (including me). According to the most recent U.S. Census data, only about half of the 1.4 million Filipinos in California speak Tagalog, Ilocano or Visayan.

“Even though I’ve always been proud of being Filipino, I had never really questioned the facets of one's own racial identity,” said Lim. “But I always thought that the language component of it was sort of the one piece I was lacking.”

While he can understand the language, he often wondered about the stories or conversations he missed out on with his family because he couldn’t speak it back. He tried learning on his own in his 20s, but nothing ever really stuck. He wondered, for a long time, why his parents never taught him the language in the first place.

The 'Benefits' of Speaking English

Lim now works as a paralegal at a biotech firm in Emeryville. He was a successful student, in part because his mother was very keen on perfecting his English.

His mother, Consuelo Tokita, is a small woman with a strong Filipino accent. She taught English in the Philippines before the family moved to the United States in 1975, but knew that there was no way that she'd be allowed to teach it here because of her accent.

“I know for everybody coming here to the United States, it's always a struggle," said Tokita. "There’s always that portion of being scared. Will my husband get a job? Will I be able to get a job myself? How will I take care of my baby? How will I feed him? Things like that came to my mind.”

From left to right: Dominic's brother John, Connie, and Dominic at 8 years old.
From left to right: Dominic's brother Joseph, Consuelo and Dominic at 8 years old. (Courtesy of Consuelo Tokita)

For Tokita, being tough about learning English was all about assimilating, and protecting her four kids.

“The fact that I could read, even before I went into kindergarten, really set in motion my academic track throughout my entire life. ... It was really important for my mom to do that for me,” said Lim.

Upon arriving to the United States, the family settled down in Newport News, Virginia, where Tokita said she experienced discrimination everywhere from the streets to church.

Tokita's husband, who passed away in 2005, lost his job 13 times, partly because he had difficulty socializing and speaking English.

“There were regrets also on my part, and I had wished that I had exposed (the kids) to Tagalog,” she said. “But the benefits of talking in English are larger than speaking to them in our language.”

Lily Wong Fillmore, a professor emerita of education at the University of California at Berkeley, studies the benefits of bilingualism. She says there is a lot to gain from knowing more than one language.

"Children are naturally endowed with the capacity to learn as many languages as they have opportunity and social support for learning," said Fillmore. "Recent research in Canada indicates that full bilingualism may even confer some protection against memory loss in old age. The evidence is very strong that  bilingualism endows children with greater intellectual flexibility and advantages that may last throughout their lives."

A Residual Effect of Colonialism

Lily Ann Villaraza is a historian who specializes in Philippine and Southeast Asian history. She is also the chair of the Philippine Studies Department at City College of San Francisco, the only department in the country with faculty and a department chair solely focused on the study of the Philippines.

Villaraza said that a Filipino immigrant family's reluctance to teach a native language is a residual effect of American colonialism, whereby Filipinos were taught to believe that English was the only linguistic gateway to success.

“Parents and grandparents who’ve come here have been convinced that their children and grandchildren only need to know English to be successful,” said Villaraza. “(But) if you learn the language and are able to communicate with people in their primary language, whether it be Tagalog, Ilonggo or whatever, there’s an immediate 'Oh!' and there's an opening up, and a greater willingness to share. And I think that’s what a lot of Fil-Ams are looking for.”

Language and Identity

Niel Calara, 18, was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the United States when he was 15. He knows how to speak Tagalog, but generally chooses not to speak it.

“English became a big part of me,” said Calara, who is in his first year at City College of San Francisco. "Apparently people think I'm whitewashed because I speak English at home.”

Calara was overwhelmed by the United States when he arrived, but he was also fascinated by it. He watched American movies all his life and even contemplated majoring in English. He shifted to English as his primary language, even at home, where his parents continued to speak their native dialect.

But in the process of learning about American culture, the undeniable aspects of his Filipino identity only became more apparent to him.

“I started to imitate them and participate in their culture. But like, if I think about it, I look so different from them,” he said.

In his attempt to assimilate in the way that Lim’s mother hoped her children would, Calara found himself realizing the differences he couldn't hide from, no matter how good his English was.

“What do I represent, you know? Because I can't just say 'I’m white' because I know how to speak English properly. I can't just say that because I represent something. There's something about me that's original. And I began to question that.”

It was here that Calara began to appreciate those differences.

“For me, I feel like I valued my culture once I arrived here,” said Calara. “I never got to learn the actual value we had, and I thought it was beautiful.”

Language as a Bridge

Vicenta Asuncion, 25, sat in the front of Villaraza’s Filipino Family class at City College of San Francisco. A second-generation Filipina-American, Asuncion lived in Alabama for a few years, where she had something of an identity crisis.

“I didn’t know who I was, because I was the only one with chinky eyes,” she said. “Growing up, I thought I was just a brown white girl.”

Then she moved back to Daly City with her grandparents, whose primary language was Tagalog. It was there that her grandparents would teach her about Filipino culture. But in order to learn from them, she said, she knew she had to be able to communicate with them in their language.

“Listening to my grandmother speak to me in Tagalog and having to sit there and be like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ kind of gave me this sense of disconnection with culture.”

Asuncion began taking Tagalog classes in the second grade. Now, she speaks Ilocano, Tagalog and Visayan.

“Finally being able to communicate with my grandmother, instead of her getting frustrated trying to explain stuff to me in English because she doesn't speak English very well, being able to hear her and understand everything she's saying and being able to articulate my answers to her just made everything so much better for me," Asuncion said. "Language is how you get a foot in the door with culture."

As for Dominic Lim, he doesn’t think that there’s enough cultural support from the Filipino-American community that stresses learning native Filipino languages. Villaraza is working to change that.

“What I think (people) need to realize is that language is one of the most important gateways for people to have a deeper understanding of who they are and the cultures that they come from,” said Villaraza. “And to not discount that, to believe that there is value in learning Filipino but also retaining the language.”

Lim said he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to reconcile never learning his parents' native language. His mother reminds him that it’s never too late to learn. But in some ways, he says, it is.

“I think the politics and the relationship between the Philippines and the United States is a long one, and that's not really our job to sort that out," Lim said. "But if there has been any regret, it’s because I couldn't talk to the people I probably should've talked to, about the things that might have been important.”

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