Wika: Our languages, ourselves

  • 2022
  • Leadership
J. Christine Greenberg, Primary And Middle School Principal


One of my children’s greatest contentions with their upbringing was that they didn’t grow up bilingual like I did because I didn’t speak to them in Tagalog early on.

How could you not teach us your “other” language, mom? Didn’t you want us to relate to our relatives? My daughter actually asked. Ouch. Considering my response made me realize that I took for granted being raised bilingual where complex concepts like syntax, semantics, inflection, pronunciation, subtext, even humor intertwined effortlessly on the daily. I don’t recall who taught me which language or even which language came first-English or Tagalog. At the risk of oversimplifying the variables my parents put into play (whether consciously or not), it was as simple as knowing to speak one language in one context and the other language in another and that was that. I never paid much attention to how this happened and didn’t understand how grateful I should be that it even did. 

Only after spending time researching second/third language acquisition to make upgrades in our school curriculum did I pause to appreciate experiences in my life that made the difference for me in my own personal language learning journey. I remember being five years old translating English Sesame Street to Tagalog for my paternal grandmother who lived with us. She emigrated from Fujian to the Philippines and we spoke broken Tagalog between us because it was the only language in which we could communicate: I didn’t speak Hokkien and she didn’t speak English and so my cobbled knowledge of grammatical structure in Tagalog came from having to intentionally say the wrong thing grammatically in order for her to understand me or helping her with words when she needed to speak to people who didn’t have the patience or the ear to understand her. I chuckle now recalling Ama fetching me at four or five years old so I could reprimand the cook for her but correcting me to say it the wrong way because she couldn’t understand what I was saying, our cook of course trying to keep a straight face through it all. 

Because all my schooling was in English, it eventually became my dominant language. The more I read, wrote, listened and spoke in English, the less I thought and dreamt in Tagalog. In fact, now that I think about it, for a short spell I did actually try to speak to my children in Tagalog when they were young, but realized my fluency was rusty with the tongue for it. Tagalog words are famously long and multi-syllabic with repeating phonetic sounds and chastising the children for something as simple as “chew with your mouth closed” was, well, a mouthful: ngumuya ka habang nakasara ang iyong bibig and so I found myself self-conscious about being tongue-twisted and lapsed more frequently into English because in the heat of the moment, that was the language in which I could cajole or correct more convincingly.

When I moved to Taiwan at age nine and Mandarin, my third language came into play, I realized my brain did a funny thing by sometimes memorizing Chinese words by translating them into Tagalog first and then into English. It was like I had to fire up an old engine to add to the garage. I don’t know if other bilingual people have the same experience but oddly enough learning Chinese, specifically learning to write Chinese sentences made me improve in my, by then generally dormant, Tagalog. I found myself reworking Chinese grammar (Subject-Verb-Object) and comparing it to Tagalog (Verb-Object-Subject) before committing it to memory in English (also Subject-Verb-Object). It seemed a circuitous route at first but I came to accept my brain had to go back to familiar patterns as it processed new information. It’s only recently while researching the conditions conducive to effective acquisition and retrieval that I appreciate the importance of familiar associations when linking the new with something salient and familiar when communicating in another language so that it is looped into working memory.

Second or third language acquisition and learning is important for so many of us whether our children live in their birth country or have been transplanted for a short or long time. It’s always a plus for people to have a wider community with which to communicate because the words we use open up new doors not only for speaking but for behaving as well. We learn what other people and cultures value by the way we might analyze their language. Tagalog has multiple words specific to both cooked rice, uncooked rice and ways in which to cook rice, and only one word for snow- yelo which funnily enough can mean what you put in a glass to make your water cold or what you need to shovel because a Nor’Easter dumped 10 inches of it all over your driveway. But the other bonus of having more than one language or continuing to learn a new language is that it is a lifelong endeavor which, if we’re open to it, can make us curious about how our brains uniquely learn so that we can apply those techniques that encourage neuroplasticity with other skills too. 

I’m genuinely excited about our Foreign Language Learning program this year because a lot of research and thought went into it and for the first time, I’m inspired with ideas about changes I want to make in my own life about improving my Tagalog and possibly adding French - a nod to my maternal great-grandfather - to the mix. If there’s anything we hope to achieve, it’s that we become a part of your student’s language learning journey which maybe starts, but shouldn’t end in the classroom. May it be long-lived and one in which they acquire not only proficiency but also a sense of adventure, fun and agency.

For current THS Primary Parents: To learn more about our adjustments made in the Primary school, please visit our Curriculum & Instruction page on the Dock, which includes this video that introduces an updated direction in Foreign Language learning. Responses to the Family Opt In/Opt Out commitment are due by Sept 7 here.

For Prospective Parents: Please contact our Admissions Team to learn more about Foreign Language Learning at THS.


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