ON ASSIGNMENT: Turning Bisaya
THE DOWNBEAT - DLS Pineda (The Philippine Star) - October 8, 2016 - 12:00am

100 days into the Duterte presidency, and our commander-in-chief has managed to curse at Obama, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations. The President’s men have had their turns making pirouettes for the guy, while his supporters remain adamant that we should ignore his dirty language. He’s crass because he’s Bisaya, they say, and we should learn to accept that.

I see how this assertion can be true. For three semesters now, I’ve been teaching college English subjects here in Agusan del Norte, and every day I hear the sharp and accentuated words of Bisaya — sharp and accentuated, I say, compared to the typical calm of Manileño Tagalog or the English that has caught on nationwide with the surge of BPO’s.

When I taught at our region’s state university, the school implemented a watered down version of a speak-English Rule which they called “Willingly I Speak English” or the WISE program. I willingly ignored this “wise” agenda and instructed my students to use whichever language they felt comfortable addressing me with. Oftentimes they answered in English, perhaps owing to the fact that traditionally, one had to answer in the language with which they were addressed. But as the ideas they expressed became more and more complex, they would answer in Bisaya. And whenever I, a native of Manila, couldn’t understand their words, I would ask the class to help me out. I thought it was a fair arrangement; a step forward where English or Tagalog was not unwittingly bestowed a moral high ground.

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My Linguistic History

My journey to Bisaya has been a complicated one. My parents both came from vastly different sociolinguistic backgrounds. My father grew up here in the mountainsides of Agusan while my mother came from a Kapampangan household in Tendido St. near the border of Manila and Quezon City, close to the newly-minted North Luzon Expressway which led straight to their ancestral house in Sta. Ana, Pampanga. The two of them met in UP Law in the 70’s, got married in less than a year of knowing each other, and when they had our eldest brother, decided to converse in English so that their firstborn son would “get ahead of the curve.” It was a common practice in those days among middle class parents. But they backpedaled before our sister, their second child, was born. They decided to talk in Filipino instead, realizing that it would enable their children to communicate better with the people surrounding him. If my brother was to learn English, my parents said, he should learn it the way they did, in school and not at home. Come my turn—their sixth and final offspring—the household was not Bisaya, not Kapampangan, not English. Instead, an unabashedly colloquial Filipino won the language war at home.

This was not without its consequences. I have found that the easier communication lines had made me overly chatty (communicative?), owing to the fact that I shared a small townhouse in QC with five older siblings, my parents, and two constantly warring house helpers. And in my formative years in the ’90s when the Philippine Centennial was all the hype, there was a need to be patriotic and patronizing of anything and everything Filipino. Needless to say, Florante de Leon’s hits, especially “Ako’y Isang Pinoy”, were on loop at home. That period was, for me, an extended Buwan ng Wika. This forced antagonism nursed in me hostility towards the English language. I believed that we were Filipino, brown and proud; there was no need to learn English; English was an inferior language to Filipino.

Soon followed failing grades in English class. In third grade, I received a letter for my parents, notifying them of my dismal marks. English was just not part of my reality back then. Nonetheless, my parents didn’t resurrect an English Rule at home. Things remained the way they were.

A Turning Point

If I were to mark a turning point, it was in fourth grade when my mother brought home a copy of Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World that I began to appreciate the English language. Reading about a boy (my namesake) fixing cars with his father in their Gypsy caravan and eventually devising a way to capture truckloads of pheasants (what that was, a younger me didn’t know) was enough to make me fall in love with books. Books, mostly in English, began to construct my reality. Long story short, what followed was a foray into books—in my early stages, focusing on the ones by our National Artists and local historians—pursuing both my undergrad and my MA in Creative Writing in UP Diliman, and now, teaching in both Father Saturnino Urios University and St. Peter’s College Seminary here in Agusan del Norte. My reality now is one wherein I teach literature and writing, in a language that is non-native to my students, an audience whose language I can hardly speak.

I recognized this contradiction and found that the easiest way out was to learn Bisaya. It was frustrating at first. I felt like I had only recently learned English and yet there I was, needing to unlearn its syntax, its grammar rules, etc. etc. But the rewards, I have found, are infinite. I didn’t even need to unlearn anything.

Elementary Bisaya

My knowledge of Bisaya before moving here two years ago was elementary, consisting mostly of phrases with which to ask for directions, to compliment dishes, and to ask how much something costs. Today, with a lot of help from my (very patient) friends in the faculty room—Cyra, Daisy, Johnrey, and Mike—I learned the words for “underarm” (ilok), “to lie” (bakak), “smooth” (hamis), and “purpose” (pulos). Slowly, I’ve also begun to understand stories of admiration (hearing the phrase, “naka-angay siya sa iya”) and stories of betrayal as well (“naglimbong siya”). Bisaya’s linguistic nuances have broadened my imagination in a way which Tagalog and English have not yet done. Take the phrase, “naglain ang akong lawas,” where “lain” literally means “different” and “lawas” means “body.” Imagine that: taking on a different body whenever you feel sick. Or the word for “life” in Bisaya is “buhi” and the word for “letting go” is “buhian”—amazing how “living” and “letting go” is just a suffix away.

While I could derive meaning purely from context clues before, the meanings I got were only up to the point where context brought me. But now, all of a sudden, people’s realities begin to take a more defined shape, their contexts missing at times for they offer something entirely new. And there lies a bit of joy whenever the people around me—including my students—laugh at how broken my Bisaya is, but at the same time, cheer whenever I get it right. It is as if I’m a child again, learning new words. I find an innocence in Bisaya so different from what people say about Bisaya being, by nature, a scalding language.

It is also a traveling of sorts, a meeting of my reality and theirs. And in this meeting, I’ve learned that it is foolish for people to think that Bisaya (the accent, including) is inferior to Tagalog; nor is it wise to excuse the President as crass simply because he is Bisaya. While cultures are different, Filipinos, Tagalogs, English-speakers, and Bisayas have their shares of potty mouths. There is no denying that, surrounded by fellow yuppies, I hear the cussword “yawa” too many times a day—but such is our generation’s reality.

Languages construct what is true for us. If that is so, then I look forward to the day when we wouldn’t have a plethora of the President’s spin doctors pitting Bisaya against every other language just to make an excuse for the guy to be crass. After all, I thought he was out to unite us.

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Tweet the author @sarhentosilly.

 

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