“Buwan ng Wika” is here again. Are the pansit, puto, and bibingka ready? Are the costumes prepared? But more importantly, how does your child feel confident about his oral piece? If your child’s English is stronger than Filipino, this can pose a challenge.
It can be frustrating for children to feel engaged in activities in Filipino if it is less familiar. It can easily be perceived as “more difficult,” and the more likely they will “fail” at it. Also, being surrounded by a culture that applauds English over Filipino (or other languages in the Philippines) reinforces the thinking that the former is “better” than the latter (and we know that there is no such thing as a more superior language).
Why do we have to choose one if we already have both? The average Filipino household is already a bilingual nest, given that the parents know of at least two languages. Their children have the best opportunities to learn both English and Filipino (or whichever the parents’ mother tongue is). In this shared language environment, the whole family is able to express themselves and discover, however subtle, the culture embedded in both languages.
increased empathy, understanding of others, and perspective taking
increased mental activity and flexibility
delay in age-related diseases (such as Alzheimer’s and dementia)
As summarized by Mia Nacamulli in her TED Talk “The Benefits of a Bilingual Brain,” a bilingual brain is “healthy, complex, and actively engaged.” She’s talking about our brains!
So how do we encourage a bilingual home?
1. Re-think relationships with language.
We pass down our beliefs, attitudes, and habits to our children, including our language stance. Go through these questions to know how your experience and beliefs may be profoundly affecting your choice in how much language opportunities you are giving your child in both Filipino and English, and to think about how both languages can be part of your child’s life:
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Growing up, how did I feel about learning Filipino / English?
Was it easy/hard, fun/not fun, challenging/boring?
What do I think about Filipino / English now?
When does knowing Filipino / English make things easier for me?
What advantages do I see my child getting if his/her Filipino / English language skills are strong?
Conversely, what are the disadvantages do I see my child facing if her Filipino / English skills are not that strong?
What is important for you and your child? (i.e., being confident, making friends, exploring interests, expressing oneself, etc.)
For a language to be alive, it has to be used. How about incorporating everyday phrases about food, hygiene, routine, expressions in Filipino? Start with everyday things around the house (pinto, bintana, walis, sabon, etc.), usual activities you do (gumising, kumain, maligo, mag-aral, magtrabaho, matulog), or everyday words (salamat, teka, oo/hindi, mamaya, ewan ko).
I grew up watching Batibot and Sesame Street, counted in Filipino and English, sang children’s songs in both languages and grew up using both at my own disposal. Maybe you did too? What if your child responds in English though? That is natural and perfectly fine. Your child will use the stronger language to learn the other. And the more he/she is exposed to both, the more adept he/she becomes in them.
As adults, we provide our children with a safe environment to take risks, make mistakes, and grow.
3. Read in Filipino.
Take the time to sit down and cuddle with your little one with a Filipino or bilingual picture book. Read to them the story, point to the pictures as you go along, so there is an immediate word-picture connection, read with expression to let them hear how the Filipino language “sings,” let them interrupt you if they have ideas or questions.
The point of this activity is this: For your child to hear the sounds, words, and structure of Filipino, also to open their minds to the culture stories carry – a culture they are already a part of. Ever wonder why we remember stories? Because they appeal to both mind and heart. Choose a book that is interesting to your child – a book on bugs? Food? Toys? Dance? We have a rich and diverse choice of Filipino books, I’m sure you’ll find at least one that engages them wholly.
Relearn games you used to play when you were a kid. Do you still remember how to play sungka, pick up sticks, jackstones, the fortune teller? There are also hand clap games like Bahay Kubo, Nanay-Tatay, Si Nena ay Bata Pa, Chiki-Chiki Bum, I Wanna Be a Tutubi. There are loads of ideas on the internet. Teach your child games we used to play and recall how much fun you had playing them! Songs and rhymes are particularly influential in learning, as they slow down language, so children hear the words, rhymes, and cadence more clearly, planting in them the sounds and rhythms of the language.
5. Recognize your child’s efforts.
We know positive reinforcement works. When we acknowledge their efforts, they feel good about themselves. That’s what we want them to associate Filipino with – that they can learn it. Commend them by saying, “Ang galing!” (in addition to their vocabulary too). Allow for mistakes, and when they do make them, model how to say certain words/phrases: “Did you mean to say, “______”? “Ang gusto mo bang sabihin ay ______?”
Try this: Set up a “Filipino board” somewhere in your house and put up words/phrases that your child is learning. It provides a visual on how the word looks like, which can aid them when reading.
Your home is bilingual-ready. Share with them the joys and benefits you have as a bilingual through using and modeling both languages as useful tools in communicating our thoughts and feelings with a broader community. Remember, you are the best Filipino teachers for your child, regardless of your ability to teach and language skills. Teach them your mother tongue, because that’s where you’re most self-expressed with. When they see you believe in the Filipino language’s beauty, purpose, and power, they will see it that way too and might make the extra effort to learn that oral piece.
Born to a family of teachers, Anna Manuel is a reading advocate and a children’s book author with a degree in Language Education, with a minor in Special Education, and a Master's in Reading Education. She is the master storyteller behind Melbourne-based Heads and Tales, which offers storytelling sessions, family literacy workshops, performances, and more. Her work and latest book, Leo’s Pet Bug, focuses on empathy, which she believes keeps us connected and thriving.