Dear Charlie,

A few weeks ago, you started kindergarten. You scowled the whole time your Papa and I and Jack waited in line with you for your class room to open. You wanted to go to North Davis, our neighborhood school, but we transferred you to Cesar Chavez, a Spanish Immersion school.

Ngano man? Why do I need to learn in Spanish?” you asked.

“Because it will be good for you, ” I said.

“What does that even mean?” you wailed.

IMG_9263(A photo collage of your first day at Cesar Chavez and Jack’s at Applegate, August 28, 2014.  We couldn’t get a smile out of you.)

Let me explain.

A long time ago, a five year old girl like you also started going to school where all the lessons were taught in English, a language very different from Bisaya, the language she spoke at home and everywhere else. However, unlike you, the girl never questioned having to learn in English. As far as she knew, that was what going to school, learning, and growing up meant.

In kindergarten, the girl’s teacher would hold up a drawing of a thing- a vegetable, fruit, animal- and ask the class to identify it in English. The girl was shy and not one to volunteer even though most of the time she knew the correct answers. One day, however, the teacher held up a drawing of the girl’s favorite vegetable. The girl thought of her favorite meal, talong with ground beef mixed with rice and soy sauce. She thought of the violet talong hanging on the trellises in her backyard. Unsa man na? Unsa man na?, she thought. For the first time, she wanted to know because it mattered to her.

Talong!” the girl exclaimed, forgetting her shyness.

The teacher shook her head at the girl, clicked her tongue to catch the attention of the class, and said, “Eggplant,” her open mouth exposing rows of teeth riddled with dark gray fillings.

“Eggplant,” the girl mimicked, her eager mouth stretching with every syllable.

“Eggplant,” the whole class chorused.

It seemed strange at first to think of the familiar and beloved talong as an eggplant, even more strange to call it that. The talong still looked and tasted like it always did but somehow it no longer was the same talong. But the girl’s mind was receptive and in due time the  eggplant became familiar.  She went on to learn the English words for most vegetables, fruits, and animals; how to count; how to write the alphabets; how to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

So it went. In grade school, the signs in the hallways exhorted the girl and her schoolmates to speak “English Only”. They were instructed to monitor each other in school and to report to their teacher anybody who spoke Tagalog (the national language) or Bisaya (the local language) or Binukid (the indigenous language). Those who were caught were listed on the black board and had the option to either “donate” cleaning materials–floorwax, lampaso (coconut husks for scrubbing the floor), or silhig (broom)– or pay a pretty hefty 10 centavos per word fine (which was also later used to buy floorwax, lampaso, or silhig). The list was always long. The girl was listed. Her friends were listed. Her enemies were listed. Even the teachers were sometimes listed. (Despite this, there was still always a shortage of floorwax.)

In high school, the girl and her friends spent their afternoons crossing the river behind their school.  They would take off their shoes and socks, roll up the waistbands of their uniform, and take off the little bows on their blouses.  Hopping from boulder to boulder was hard.  Straddling a boulder to get to the next was worse.  Still, they were without fear.  Once on the other side, they would pick whatever fruit was in season—passion fruit, santol, green mangoes. Other times they would fill plastic bags with horse manure to fertilize their vegetable gardens. Most of the time they waged war on the students from the neighboring school, especially on the boys who always happened to be fetching water from the river to water their vegetable gardens right when the girl and her friends would show up. There would be hissing and yelling and cursing and throwing of sticks and stones from all directions. “Kapa Mo!” the boys would yell at them. “F*^k You!” the girl and her friends would scream back, raising their middle fingers at the boys. The girls knew how to swear in English and that gave them the edge, made them feel superior and invincible.

Once, suspicious of the girls’ activities, a teacher called on the group to explain. “Why do you girls like to go gallivanting so much? You know many have drowned in that river and eaten by the man-eating carps. Why do your feet itch to cross that river?” The teacher walked over to the girl. “You, go on, tell me…in English!”

The girl scrambled through her arsenal of English words, mentally tried to put them together into sentences before opening her mouth. But the English words slipped in and out of her brain. The task was too hard to do under pressure so she didn’t say anything. Nobody else said anything. The teacher berated them all for being insolent.

Later, in the quiet of the night, the girl arranged the words that remained scrambled in her brain and wrote them down. When she finished, she read out loud what she wrote.  She read it several times. She knew then that she could have done it, explained all in English, and that next time she was asked, she would.

So it went.  The girl and her peers learned in English for years and years. There were good days, there were bad days. But in the end, they learned.

For reasons I will not go into because it is beyond the scope of this letter, the girl and many of her peers eventually left their hometown to try to try their luck in other countries. Those who went to English speaking countries—the U.S., Canada, U.K, etc.– had difficulties but none that was insurmountable. When somebody laughed at them for saying, “let’s go to the bitch” or “you pour the meelk and I will steer” or “buy this, it’s chip”, they, too, laughed at themselves. Then they learned to correctly pronounce beach and milk and stir and cheap. Then they went on to pass licensing exams, earn masteral and doctoral degrees, win awards, found businesses, start families, build friendships, become part of the community.

Those who went to other non-English speaking countries–Saudi Arabia, Germany, Singapore, Japan, Greece, Kuwait, Lebanon, to name a few –thrived as well. After years of learning in English as their third or fourth language, they have developed the ability to learn more languages. They have learned to be open to trying out new sounds, gestures, and facial expressions. They have learned to overcome the fear of sounding dumb/stupid/ignorant/silly while stringing together and articulating what they hope are properly conjugated and tensed verbs. They have learned to choose to speak out, put themselves out there, risk failing or being laughed at or judged, instead of keeping quiet and worrying about what others thought of their accent or grammar. They have learned to be courageous and to continue to forge on. They have learned to be humble and to listen well.  They have learned that world did not and does not revolve solely around them. They have learned to be and now are part of something bigger than themselves.

These are the lessons I hope you will learn while you learn in a different language. Although I care about you learning the academic subjects, I care more about you learning to take risks when you tackle something new, be it language or some other task, especially when it is something you have deemed important to you. I want you to be able to laugh at yourself, learn from your mistakes, and keep on going. Wherever you may roam, I want you to learn to be confident yet humble. These lessons will serve you well in life.

These, Charlie, are the reasons why learning in a different language will be good for you.

(Note well: For the record, there are also very many reasons why learning in English, as opposed to in another language, was bad for the girl and her peers. However, those reasons have mostly to do with the country’s struggle for independence and identity after having been under the rule of the Spaniards (for 300 years or so) and Americans (since the turn of the 20th century and, arguably, until the present). Maybe one of these days I will write you about this but for now we shall focus on the good.)

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