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The language of my identity

By Kezia Malabanan

Filipino is my first language. No, it’s not Tagalog; it’s Filipino. It’s my social language. Filipino is what my mom used at home. It’s the language my childhood teachers used to instruct me most of the time, and it’s the language I used to play with my classmates and friends.

English is my second language. My Philippine schooling is based on an American curriculum, thus English became my cognitive language. Whenever I tried to make sense of things in my head, I most likely used English. When I tried to prove a point when arguing, most of the words I uttered were in English or an Anglicized version of the Tagalog word I deemed closest in meaning.

Growing up, though, the bulk of my English usage was restricted. At school, ironically, I felt like I was only allowed to use it freely for school materials and that notorious English-only rule in the classroom (or else, I would have to put money in the jar for speaking Filipino). Most of the time, I felt like English was almost taboo outside of the scholarly context because most people around me thought I was being snobby. Therefore, I used English as the language of my thoughts. My private journals were in English. My daydreams were in English. I also tried to spice up my speech with a failure of an Australian accent that closely resembled, to most of my peers’ ears, a Harry Potter accent.

I guess I was content with that. I categorized my world: Filipino for most social interactions, English for academics and things I didn’t want people to know. The only “public” practice of my English was in the snail mails to a cousin in Australia. However, it was the Internet that provided me the avenue to express myself fully. Oh, the amount of hours I spent conversing with native English speakers in chat rooms and MMORPGs!

And then, I came to Canada. Everything around me was in English. English, which was my language of refuge, no longer felt safe and private. How I longed to be able to think without the fear of people seeing right through me or hearing my unfiltered thoughts!

And then I realized, I have another language I could speak. However, to my disappointment, I cannot express myself in it as much as I was able to in English, especially in writing. For example, it was a struggle to find the right shade of sadness in Filipino, whereas English came more easily: melancholy, sorrow, misery. It was frustrating to stumble with words – perpetually feeling as if my social language was inadequate for what I wanted to say, especially in cognitive contexts.

So, how then, could I call myself truly Filipino? I didn’t grow up in the diaspora wherein it’s justifiable to not be as fluent in Filipino as people from the homeland. I felt betwixt and between. I knew I was Filipino, but at the same time I felt like I wasn’t. It took me over three years to realize it was the perfect opportunity to forge a hybrid of an identity.

So what if I couldn’t express myself in Filipino as academically fluently as I thought I could in English? So what if I Anglicized most of the Tagalog words I know, and then add those to Filipino structure? I’m Filipino because I understand and practice Filipino values and culture. I’m Canadian because I can express why I value being Canadian in at least one of Canada’s official languages. I don’t have to be one or the other. I can be both, and I’m fortunate to have the languages for those identities.

I’m certain that language is not the ultimate link to a culture. It’s one of many. Although, I can’t deny that language is vital to access it. I still feel that my Filipino is inadequate (academically), but for connecting with people, I’m glad I have enough of it.

Kezia Malabanan went back to university to (hopefully) be an ESL/EAL teacher. She is a member of ANAK. To contact the author, e-mail us at