Our son Malcolm was a few months short of two years when we started planning for our move to the USA.
We decided to start talking to him mainly in English to help him prepare for the transition since he will be surrounded by English-speaking Americans.
Nope, that is not how it turned out. We were wrong.
Teach Filipino first!
Looking back, the same reasoning would have helped our son acquire Filipino as a mother-tongue first. Since he’s surrounded by English-speaking people–in church, at school, and in our neighborhood he could easily pick the language up.
Children, after all, are very good at picking up languages.
Language is so much more than words, sentences, and paragraphs spoken or written. It is one of the main ways that we transmit culture to the next generation.
Young kids who move to the USA will acquire English one way or another.
I have recently read the book “Ultralearning” by Scott Young [affiliate link]. One of the concepts he discussed is that the most effective way to learn a foreign language is not by reading or understanding grammar, but rather by immersing yourself in the language, bumbling around and using the language in everyday situations.
The same is true for kids. They will find a way to speak and use the English language. They may even acquire the accent of the region where they’re staying.
Speaking of accents. When I was younger, a lot of people in the Philippines thought of “American accent” as the one often featured in movies–they’re like a Northern accent, probably New Yorker.
But after being exposed to more Americans and after staying in the USA for almost five years now, I have heard many different American accents.
I also frequently tell people that my son is working on his hybrid Filipino-American-Southern accent.
Teach Filipino (or Ilokano, Bisaya, and other languages) Intentionally!
This needs to be an intentional learning process. If kids do not use the Filipino language, they will not be proficient with it. I have met a number of second- and third-generation Filipinos in the USA who have not learned to speak our language, and who can only understand simple sentences.
I know that families are different. In multi-racial families, teaching Tagalog or Ilokano may be more difficult. I mean, my wife is Tagalog and I am Ilokano. That is not multi-racial but there are similarities.
We continue to speak to and teach our older son the Filipino language. But I have not started teaching him Ilokano. To think that I am an Ilokano poet and writer.
What does being intentional mean?
Speaking only in Tagalog (or whatever your first language is) at home and asking kids to communicate with Tagalog even if they struggle.
It also means helping them learn to read and write in our native language.
Yes it is tough. But that is why it needs to be intentional!
Language is also crucial to our identity and sense of self. If we deprive our children this opportunity, they may look back when they’re older and regret not learning our language.
Besides, bilingual children learn to see the world from the lenses of their people’s culture and language and that of American English.
Tools for Teaching Filipino to Kids in the USA
Our son was two when we moved to Nashville. We have tried several ways to teach him our native tongue. Although English is really his first language now, he can understand Tagalog pretty well and speaks “pilipit” Tagalog every now and then.
Here are some of the tools we’ve used to help him learn the language.
Children’s books written in Filipino and Ilokano.
Whenever I travel back to the Philippines for work, I make it a point to buy books from OMF Literature’s Book Shops to buy bilingual children’s books from their Hiyas imprint. Two of their most popular authors are Grace Chong and Luis Gatmaitan.
Adarna is the other publisher whose books I frequently buy for my son. Although the books have seen wear and tear, thanks to 4 years in my oldest son’s care, our son Caspian and Rasing child no. 3 will get to enjoy them in the future!
If you found yourself at NAIA 3, there is a National Bookstore branch there. I am no longer a fan of NBS because of their bad policy and business practices toward publishers and book distributors. But they are still the biggest bookstore and school supplies store in the Philippines.
The Filipino Channel.
Our son had several weeks of Tagalog practice, thanks to the show “Your Face Sounds Familiar: Kids Edition,” which we watched on TFC. It was hilarious and fun. It also gave him the inspiration to learn Filipino. They have show for kids, those are worth checking out.
If you’re not sure how to subscribe, read my guide on How to Subscribe to TFC.
This is more of a workbook for kids. Thanks to my good friend Earlie who gave this gift. Our son got to practice pronouncing words such “paaralan”, “kalabaw”, and others.
We also play some Tagalog songs at home whenever we can. Thankfully, we have Spotify. In between dinosaur songs and silly children’s songs, we get to play some songs and playlists in Tagalog.
It’s a journey.
Teaching Filipino to our children is a journey. As Filipino parents in a foreign land, I wish that our kids will learn our language as well as our culture and heritage.
We may have made a mistake right before moving to the USA, but we get to be on this journey together as a family.