Tahanan days, Tanduay nights

Stephen M. Morrison - The Philippine Star

When I arrived in Manila in February 2020, I had a month to fill and was not sure what to do with it. Now that I had the time, I should probably learn some Tagalog – more than sarap, salamat, sige, talaga and oo. At the time, my other half was the head of marketing for a chain of self-development schools. The school had a program of teaching Tagalog to foreign executives. I signed up.

I was assigned a teacher named Miss Mildred who called me Sir Stephen. A year later and still uncomfortable with the common use of Sir, I now ask people to just call me Stephen or, if that is too informal, then just “SM,” only belatedly realizing I’d renamed myself after a retail empire.

After I’d attempted to learn (and immediately forgotten) Ako ay si Stephen in my first lesson, Miss Mildred outlined the slippery, interconnected pathways between Tagalog, Filipino, Taglish and Filipino-accented English. My mind was boggled. How was I ever going to learn how to speak this language?

In our first class, we found our way to a discussion of the word for house/home. While Miss Mildred explained that bahay literally means “house” in Tagalog, she also introduced the alternate word for home – tahanan – and its deep Tagalog roots.

Discussing tahanan became both an introduction to the idea of root words and also to the deeper, richer meanings behind a seemingly simple word. Miss Mildred explained that the root word – tahan – can imply “to stop crying,” thus a house is a place where you go to stop crying. The closest English idiom I could think of was the less pathos-filled “home is where the heart is.”

My classes with Miss Mildred were soon eclipsed by the pandemic. To keep learning, I watched Filipino films and with the subtitles and the broad, telegraphed acting style, I could mostly understand what was going on. Someone sent me a great article that ran in buzzfeed called “36 Of The Most Beautiful Words In The Philippine Language.” While I’d learned all about kilig, tadhana and even gigil from my Netflix romcom watching, there were so many other wonderful words: harana, halakhak, kinaadman and the lovely marayuho. But I soon realized that learning all those words was like eating kakanin before I’d learned to eat my sinigang.

In the following months my self-taught Tagalog lessons became random and undisciplined. Making sentences that made any sense was like a jigsaw puzzle for which I could barely find the first few pieces, while actually pronouncing a word or sentence with the correct emphasis was completely beyond me. Nonetheless I found fascinating the longer, more conceptual words for what they revealed about the deeper values of Philippine identity.

I watched local TV and listened to the people around me speak Tagalog, Taglish and Filipino-accented English. Thankfully the cadences often used in Tagalog connect with emotion closely, so sometimes I even understood the gist of a conversation, even though I knew few, if any, of the words. Admittedly, I was helped by the English and Spanish words often sprinkled throughout.

My attempts at learning useful phrases to tell people where I was from, or what I’d like to eat, were very slow going – the sentence structures not easily sticking in my mind.

Aside from having a very limited vocabulary, my other hurdle to speaking Tagalog is the accent. The spoken language is so full (to my ear) of unexpected emphasis accents where they wouldn’t normally be in English, even for English words that have been imported into the language. When I say commonly-used English words here, but don’t attempt an accent, often Filipinos look at me with complete incomprehension. When I try to put on a Filipino accent – to aspirate my “paper patterns” or merge my Vs into Bs – I sound like I’m making a joke and grow increasingly self-conscious. Maybe I’ll need an IV drip of Tanduay to remain in a brave enough state of mind to attempt to actually speak Tagalog here.

A few months ago, I made a plan to teach myself three new words a day – drawn from opening a phrase book randomly and/or noting down words as I hear people say them around me. My slowly-growing vocabulary now runs the gamut from basic and useful – ito, tara, iyon and dito – to the more random – bituin, malabanan and paalala. Maybe I now know three hundred words. I can watch It’s Showtime or the local news and have a general idea of what is going on – though that might just be the result of Vice Ganda’s highly communicative face. But good luck trying to get me to say anything out loud in more than a self-conscious murmur; I’m still getting the accent emphasis wrong on maraming salamat.

Since the last lockdown, I’ve renewed my effort at a more disciplined learning approach. I am now using a language app that quizzes me for five minutes a day on new words. Yesterday, I turned on the app to do my second module on Food. Of the ten words the app wanted to teach me, a number of them seemed ridiculous to be learning – bacon, Coke, soda. When the AI teacher pronounced them, I realized I’ll have a hard-time reprogramming myself to reshuffle the emphasis for how to say bacon, Coke and soda with a Filipino accent from my American one.

So, there I sat in my room, listening to my phone app teaching me how to say English words that I thought I already knew in an accent that I’ll probably never master. I soldier on but have little hope I’ll ever become vaguely fluent.

Instead of learning the necessary daily words, I find myself more drawn to the complicated, conceptual and culturally-revealing words. To me the interesting words are the ones with deeper meanings and ones so new to me that I’ll be learning their pronunciations for the first time, not trying to unlearn and relearn formerly American English pronunciations.

Instead, the words I’m finding it much easier to remember are the multilayered conceptual ones: utang na loob (the more traditional meaning), pakikisama, kundiman, kapamilya and malasakit. They’re much easier to pronounce than Coke and bacon. As a bonus, they also help me understand more about the Philippines.

Now I just have to find ways to use them more regularly in everyday speech. Isa pang Coke at Tanduay and maybe then I’ll try to say a few more of these fascinating Tagalog words out loud. Who knows, maybe I’ll even say them with the right emphasis and accent.

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Stephen M. Morrison worked in publishing for many years as editor-in-chief of Penguin Books and later as publisher of Picador. He’s a writer and consultant for the media and publishing industries.


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