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Filipino: A new language excursion

by Tom Thompson

I went to Manila for an important business trip with the stakes, and the associated stress, much higher than other trips abroad. The biggest challenge of this particular trip was an oral presentation of twenty minutes or so to a mixture of high-level government leaders, as well as representatives from business and academics. My comments would be followed by a question and answer period. And I tried foolishly to confidently think that the answers might be good enough to promote collaborative discussion. Nothing, of course, was certain. I would speak in English, but, I've always found that a few polite words in the national language can go a long way toward building a good first impression.

I had been so busy to get ready for the trip that what I had done to learn a few whole sentences in Filipino was really minimal. I knew that there was an overabundance of Spanish-derived words due to Spanish occupation from 1565 to 1898, which included naming the islands Las Islas Philipinas after Spain's King Felipe II. II hadn't appreciated that many words derived from Spanish have particular meanings different from the original Spanish. An example is siempre in Spanish, meaning "always," but siyempre in Filipino, meaning "of course."

A friend, who is from the Philippines, had told me about "code-switching," when Filipino and English are mixed, often with the English words Filipinized by using them with Filipino rules, and even verb conjugations. I found the practice to be surprisingly common. An example:

Sino ba ang magdadrive sa shopping center? ("Who will drive to the shopping center?")

Then there's the frequent appearance of the word "Ng" in Filipino, which means "of" in English. "Ng" is a letter combination found in lots of words, so the "Ng" sound is of extreme importance, and I'll show you with an example or two in a minute.

Upon arrival in Manila, I was in a kind of linguistic panic. None of my smarty-pants observations about the language would help me speak even the simplest of sentences. So my solution was to choose a couple of sentences that I would really need for my presentation and memorize them parrot-like so that I could use one at the beginning of my comments, and then end with something else. Then I decided that, since I really liked the sounds of Filipino, I would take an extra day or two to take apart what I had memorized, and in the old-fashion tradition of the beginnings of my own "technical grammar," I would build a growing arsenal of sentences.

What follows is a schematic of that effort, piece by piece, so to speak, with the sentences I used for my presentation. I owe lots of thanks to many of the warm and loving citizens of the Philippines, who crossed my path (I crossed theirs more often and no doubt got in the way of every- day life), and not once failed to energetically and patiently guide me through a new language. Their greatest gift was to seduce me into wanting very deeply to make great linguistic progress by the time of my next visit in a couple of months or so.

Read the rest of the article (Word Doc)

About the author

Tom Thompson writes frequently on language-related topics.