Singapore Talking

Tagalog gives Filipinos a sense of home

Tagalog is facing a tough fight in order to take root among second generation Filipino Singaporeans, as many Filipino families speak English at home.
Mr Jeffrey Giron with his wife Mary Joy and their children Althea Isis, 16, Audrey Ermengarde, 10, and Benart Atticus, four. He encourages the children to speak Tagalog but says it may be a losing battle as they have few opportunities to use the lang
Mr Jeffrey Giron with his wife Mary Joy and their children Althea Isis, 16, Audrey Ermengarde, 10, and Benart Atticus, four. He encourages the children to speak Tagalog but says it may be a losing battle as they have few opportunities to use the language outside of home. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO
Mr Anthony Garcia (left) gets to chat in Tagalog when he meets his friends from the University of the Philippines Alumni Association in Singapore.
Mr Anthony Garcia (left) gets to chat in Tagalog when he meets his friends from the University of the Philippines Alumni Association in Singapore. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ANTHONY GARCIA
Mr Anthony Garcia (left) gets to chat in Tagalog when he meets his friends from the University of the Philippines Alumni Association in Singapore. Ms Zenaida Lopez Viernes says she teaches Tagalog folk songs to the two girls she is looking after. Mr
Ms Zenaida Lopez Viernes says she teaches Tagalog folk songs to the two girls she is looking after. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ZENAIDA LOPEZ VIERNES

Singapore is a tapestry of languages, each with its unique syntax and history. Some are endangered while others are thriving. In the latest instalment of a weekly series, we look at Tagalog.

Once a week, Filipino domestic workers blow the dust off Tagalog, curl their tongues around the familiar cadence of their patois, and release the stress of the work week in conversation with their fellow countrymen.

For many of the estimated 70,000 Filipino maids here, the weekly rest days are the only chance they have to return freely to the warm embrace of their native tongue - Tagalog, the lingua franca of the Philippines and overseas Filipino communities, which is spoken by over 70 million people.

But Ms Evelyn Bhel, 42, who has been working in Singapore since 2005, has woven Tagalog into her everyday life.

The domestic worker started teaching Tagalog words to the children under her care when they were very young. The youngest in the household, aged eight, now speaks to her in Taglish - a mix of Tagalog and English.

Said Ms Bhel: "I teach them my language so that they will know how to connect to Filipinos if they meet them. Knowing different languages is a strength."

The phrase she likes most in Tagalog is mahal na mahal kita (I love you very much), which also happens to be the title of her favourite song.

She murmurs the phrase often to the four children - aged 16, 14, 10 and eight - under her care. The children, too, croon the line whenever the chorus of a rendition of the song by Aegis, a Filipino rock band from the 90s, is played.

  • Facts and figures

  • ORIGINS

    Tagalog is spoken as a first language by a quarter of the Philippines' population of 103 million people and as a second language by the majority. Its standardised form is the national language, Filipino. The other national language is English.

    The Tagalog people inhabit and form a majority in the Metro Manila and Calabarzon regions of southern Luzon; the provinces of Bulacan, Bataan and Nueva Ecija in Central Luzon; and in the islands of Marinduque and Mindoro in the south-western region of Mimaropa.

  • NUMBER OF SPEAKERS

    According to the 2010 Census of Population, there are more than 39,900 Singaporeans of Filipino origin living here. This number is the largest of all ethnic groups in the "Other" category, making Tagalog the most common foreign language - ahead of languages like Arabic, Thai and Japanese.

    In addition, there are around 141,400 Filipinos working in Singapore, according to the 2015 Deployment Statistics by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.

    However, many in the younger generation are not fluent in spoken Tagalog. Even fewer know how to read and write the language.

  • WHERE TO LEARN IT

    Lingo School of Knowledge, which offers language instruction for around 20 languages, provides both private and group classes for Tagalog, at various proficiency levels.

  • TAGALOG LITERATURE

    •Francisco Balagtas: The foremost Filipino poet's most notable work is the epic Florante at Laura - a royal love story.

    •Bob Ong: The contemporary author adds heavy doses of humour to his depictions of Philippine life.

    •Lualhati Bautista: One of the most famous Filipino female novelists; her novels are meditations on social issues and historical events.

    Selina Xu

Ms Bhel is not alone in her desire to spread Tagalog to those she lives with. Fellow domestic worker, Ms Zenaida Lopez Viernes, 46, gets the children to call her "Ate", which means big sister.

She teaches the two girls, aged nine and 10, Tagalog folk songs that she herself sang while growing up, such as Bahay Kubo (Nipa hut) - a children's song about vegetables.

While Tagalog has found an unexpected audience in families like the ones Ms Bhel and Ms Viernes work with, it is ironically finding it tough to take root among second-generation Filipino Singaporeans.

For Ms Mars Fernandez, 42, a first-generation Singaporean, Tagalog's role in her life is a world apart from its place in that of her son.

The president of the Filipino Bowlers Club of Singapore speaks the native tongue regularly with the few Filipino colleagues at her workplace and her friends.

Yet, Ms Fernandez's 17-year-old son can grasp only a few words in Tagalog. He is far more conversant in Mandarin, his mother tongue in school.

LANGUAGE CONNECTION

I teach them my language so that they will know how to connect to Filipinos if they meet them. Knowing different languages is a strength.

MS EVELYN BHEL, 42, a domestic worker who started teaching Tagalog words to the children under her care when they were very young.

This seems to be a common phenomenon for many younger Filipino-Singaporeans.

Mr Jeffrey Giron, 38, said his three children - two born in Singapore - struggled to learn Tagalog.

Mr Giron said with English being one of two official languages of the Philippines - the other is Filipino, which is based on Tagalog - most Filipino Singaporean families would choose to use English when conversing with their children.

Speaking good English is like a status symbol in the Filipino psyche, he said.

This preference for English over the native tongue is an indelible vestige of the colonial legacy, he argued.

SECRET DIALECT

I do encourage my kids to speak Tagalog at home. I tell them it is like having a secret language to yourself. They learn it willingly in order to connect with the family.

MR JEFFREY GIRON, who founded Filipinos in Singapore (FiS), the biggest Facebook group for Filipinos here with over 21,600 members.

"I do encourage my kids to speak Tagalog at home. I tell them it is like having a secret language to yourself. They learn it willingly in order to connect with the family," said Mr Giron.

However, he calls it "a losing battle", as his children have few opportunities to use Tagalog outside of home.

"English has taken over Tagalog as the native language for all of the younger generation in Singapore," said Mr Giron.

His children, who can manage a decent level of Tagalog, are considered an exception in the local Filipino community, he claimed. Most can barely speak it.

Mr Giron, who founded Filipinos in Singapore (FiS) - the biggest Facebook group for Filipinos here, with over 21,600 members - said that Tagalog-centric events for the youngsters are in the pipeline.

There is currently no community-wide initiative for passing on Tagalog to the younger generation, though language classes are offered through private language instruction school Lingo.

Vice-president of the University of the Philippines Alumni Association in Singapore, Mr Anthony Garcia, 32, draws from Jose Rizal - the Filipino literary and national hero - to illuminate the importance of holding onto Tagalog in a globalised age: ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa patutunguhan.

Or, in plain English: "He who does not know how to look back from where he came from will never get to his destination."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2017, with the headline 'Tagalog gives Filipinos a sense of home'. Print Edition | Subscribe