Monday, April 03, 2006

How should a Filipino speak?

The Danes always need a little help in placing me within their social framework. They want to know what I am, and why I am like this. They ask me, "Where are you from?" and I tell them the truth, “The Philippines.” The question that inevitably follows is, “You speak with an American accent; have you lived in the States?” A few people actually assumed I was from the States.

So the strapping young people at Roskilde University (RUC) inquire, as do the body-builder behind the counter at the gym, and librarians and other professionals meeting me for the first time, and even one of my teachers, whom I happily managed to have lunch with at the university canteen after class.

I could shrug and say, “This is a Filipino accent. All my friends in Manila speak like this,” and leave them to wonder.

But I don’t—not anymore—because the truth is, I have lived in the States, as a child; and I do speak more fluently and with a slightly more American inflection than most Filipinos, and after years and years of worrying about it, I no longer feel I have to apologize for this fluency, or be magnanimous about its obvious advantages, or be embarrassed because I don’t sound like a “true” Filipino, whatever that is.

So I tell them the facts—the year in New Jersey when I was nine, and the Americanized subculture of Silliman University in Dumaguete, where I grew up. The school was founded in 1901 by missionaries; within its boundaries American culture has always been something to aspire for and acquire, even during the nationalist seventies and eighties.

The MA students at the RUC are taking a course in postcolonial literature—a required course, not an elective—so they can immediately contextualize American missionary education and understand its impact on the Third World.

At first I found having to explain myself all the time quite unpleasant feelings no doubt shared by many university-educated Filipinos who have lived or traveled abroad. I have a choice, I suppose: I could say—“I am from Måløv town, in København county,” where I live at present. But my politics doesn’t run in that direction—wherever country I choose to settle and, however long I stay, I will always define myself as “from the Philippines,” originally and at the present time.

Furthermore, I have come to the conclusion that their curiosity has little to do with the novelty of a brown-skinned woman equipped with good language skills, than with the global phenomenon of Americanization and the ascendancy of English as a world language. Danes are often remarked to be extremely proficient in English next to other Europeans. They learn it in school at age 9 or thereabouts; my classmates (most of whom are in their 20s) would probably have received instruction in the language a bit later, at age 11 or 12.

For English, in Denmark, is both a second language to the populace and a foreign language in schools—and as such, it is taught with the strictest adherence to pronunciation and grammar. Only two kinds of English pronunciation are accepted in schools—“British” and “American.” What constitutes proper British or American pronunciation is material for an entirely separate discussion, but it has slowly dawned on me that when youngish Danes compliment a foreigner for her articulacy, they are doing so in the context of a strict school-based system that grades their oral proficiency on a standard scale of 1 to 13, a framework in which they, too, are foreigners.

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