Growing up, Carlos Cabaneros was familiar with the books of Dr. Seuss and Robert Munsch. Born in Saudi Arabia to Filipino parents, he attended international school in Riyadh, and English is his first language. But through yearly vacations to the Philippines to visit extended family, Mr. Cabaneros eventually learned to speak his heritage language, Tagalog.
Today, he wants to make it easier for second-generation immigrants like him to do the same. So in the spring, the child and youth worker, who now lives in Toronto, published a children’s book, My Everyday Tagalog Words with Nathan and John. Another book, Learn Tagalog Phrases With Ate & Kuya was published in September, and a third one, I Am A Winner! is slated for publication in the fall. The latter was inspired by weightlifting champion Hidilyn Diaz, who recently won the Philippines’ first Olympic gold medal in Tokyo.
“I want kids to learn the language,” Mr. Cabaneros said. “And if their parents want them to learn, that’s their source right there.”
Almost one million people of Filipino descent live in Canada, which counts the Philippines as its third-largest source of immigrants. Many children and young people in the diaspora are bilingual in English and Filipino, a language based on Tagalog, as these are the official languages in the Philippines.
But once in Canada, opportunities to use their heritage language are few. And while there have been initiatives to add Filipino classes to the curriculums of schools serving large Filipino populations, it is up to parents, for the most part, to teach their children the language.
“What I’ve told [my kids] is that, here at home, we need to speak Tagalog,” said Gladys Gervacio-Acosta, a mother of three from Brampton, Ont. She said Tagalog and Ilocano, a language primarily spoken in the northern region of the Philippines, have always been her family’s official languages at home, even when they lived in Saudi Arabia, before moving to Canada in 2010.
“All day, they’re exposed to English, whereas for Filipino – our language – it’s difficult for them to learn it outside,” she said.
Some families also ask grandparents and other relatives to speak to their children in the language, whether at home or on Zoom. Others point their kids to Filipino films on Netflix and OPM (Original Pilipino Music) songs on Spotify.
The folk song Bahay Kubo, which is also a nursery rhyme, is a favourite for teaching at home. It’s about a home surrounded by various vegetables, the lyrics helpful for learning vocabulary.
For Gemma Pineda-Krueger, a Tagalog and ESL teacher in the GTA, teaching vocabulary to her five-year-old and three-year-old is also a matter of age-appropriate instruction. She takes out Tagalog books from the library and asks friends who are travelling to the Philippines to buy children’s books there.
“We read them in English, then I just [teach them] the vocabulary,” she said. The storybooks usually consist of legends, or alamat – the legend of the mango, the legend of the chicken or the legend of the butterfly, for example.
Speaking their heritage languages is a way for immigrant families to hold on to their cultural identity. But there are also practical considerations, such as allowing parents and children to communicate better with one another.
Vanessa Kilat, a medical radiation technologist from Surrey, B.C., says it often feels like her daughter “is a different person” when she speaks in English. “Sometimes, when she talks to me, I don’t know what she’s talking about,” said Ms. Kilat, who moved to Canada with her daughter in 2019.
This is why she speaks with her 13-year-old as much as possible in Bisaya, a language spoken in the province of Cebu.
“She now has the option of letting go of the language,” Ms. Kilat said. “I’m the only anchor that she has left.”
Parental encouragement is important when it comes to passing on a heritage language, says Guofang Li, a professor in the department of language and literacy education at the University of British Columbia. “The same kind of effort to learn English should be put to learning heritage languages, if not more, because opportunities to use heritage languages are very limited,” she said.
She added that it can be difficult for children to learn or continue to speak their heritage language if it comes with negative associations.
Aira Fusilero Villanueva, a third-year student at the University of Winnipeg, said she experienced bullying because of her accent when she moved to Manitoba 10 years ago.
“There are a lot of Filipinos in Winnipeg, so it wasn’t difficult to keep learning and speaking Tagalog and Ilocano,” she said. “However, in school, it is kind of prominent, being bullied for having a harsh accent when you speak in English – not even from people who are white, but from Filipinos as well.”
Having supportive parents, with whom she speaks Ilocano at home, helped. ”When stuff like that happens, it makes me more motivated to focus on school, just because my parents are really great.”
For many immigrant parents, passing on the language is also a matter of cultural pride. Ms. Pineda-Krueger said it’s important for her Canadian-born kids to know the language because “it’s part of who they are.
“It’s not just your language, it’s your culture,” she said. “It’s a sense of yourself – and that is absolutely important, to know who you are.”
Ms. Gervacio-Acosta concurs. “I tell my children: ‘Regardless of where we go, you’re still Filipino. Even if you turn the world upside down, you’re still Filipino.’ ”
For Ms. Villanueva, being able to speak Tagalog and Ilocano is important because she can communicate with loved ones when she returns to the Philippines. “Being able to speak your native language at home is such a different experience,” she said. “It makes me so happy, coming back home to the Philippines and just being with friends and family, and it makes them super happy, too, that I can still speak Ilocano.”
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