The "Bawal Umihi Dito" Sign as a Metaphor of the Pinoy Mentality

One of the many "bawal" signs in the Philippines I remember riding on a trycicle with Tito  Benje, my Filipina wife's uncle.  After overtaking a bus on a double solid line (as Filipinos always do), he said something along the lines of " sa Pilipinas lahat ay pwede", basically meaning that in the Philippines you can do whatever you want and that road signs and markings are, more often than not, mere decorations. Bawal Umihi Dito, Bawal Magtapon ng Basura Dito.... One of the features of the Philippine landscape is the huge amount of signs that remind people that urinating against a public or private wall, on a sidewalk or against a pole and disposing of the garbage on the side of the road, in a river or a canal is not socially acceptable and that the offender might (theoretically) be given a multa, should a  buwaya be around. My bayaw told me in a very straightforward manner that Filipinos love urinating and disposing of their garbage exactly there where a sign s

Can You Learn a New Language Like a Child?

spending months in the Philippines didn't help me learn the language as I was too busy snorkeling and hiking

Much of what I write about in this blog is related to the Tagalog grammar. 

Like many adults who approach the study of a foreign language, I approached the study of Tagalog by using an active hands on approach that entailed digging into the structure of the language and looking for analogies and differences between the languages I already knew and Tagalog.

My stepson, who was 8 years old when he came to Italy, back in 2005, learned Italian in less than 6 months and he accomplished that effortlessly and he even took on an Italian accent, and in only 6 months!

Kids have a biological advantage over adults

Interestingly he did that when he was 8 years old, not 2 or 3, when, according to neuroscientists, infants have a peak ability to absorbe every sound like a sponge, because they use both the left and the right part of the brain and so they are not like adults who are more localized in the "intentional" part of the brain that causes them to have a more analytical hands on approach.

Kids soak in all the inputs they receive and quickly and effortlessly internalize them.

Adults need focus and study.

Children have time adult expats don't have

But let's face it: kids have something else that adults, including adult expatriates who live 24/7 on foreign soil don't have. They have plenty of time at their disposal in which they have nothing else to do but soak in the language: they go to school, they play with local kids, they watch TV and so on.

In theory even an adult who lives in a foreign country is exposed to the language 24/7 and so how come that there are Filipinos who have been living and working in Italy for 40 years who still struggle with the Italian language and how come there are US, Canadian, Australian or European expats who have been married to a Filipina for decades and who have been living in the Philippines for decades who can't speak?

One reason, as we already said, is the biological limitation that neuroscientists talk about: adults just don't have the ability to passively and effortlessly learn a new language. They need an intentional effort, they need time and they need focus.

Everything children do is an opportunity to take in new inputs and learn words and sounds, they spend long hours doing the very things that lead to naturally becoming fluent in the local language.

Adults, including expats who are retired and have plenty of time, focus much of their time and energy on things that are other than learning the language.

Filipino immigrants in Italy spend most of their working time cleaning the house of their employer while their boss is not around. When their boss is around their conversation with him or her is limited to very brief intercourses that revolve around what the boss tells them to do or how much they are going to be paid.

Many expats in the Philippines or even here in Italy (we have plenty of English-speaking expats here, as well as Germans, French, Scandinavians, you name it) work jobs or are into businesses that have very little to do with learning the local language.

Adults have other priorities

And, in much the same way as Filipinos in Italy attend religious meetings in Tagalog, go to Filipino parties, watch Filipino TV programs and chat on Facebook or Skype with their relatives in the Philippines, foreign expats in the Philippines, in Italy or in any other country also spend much of their free time associating with their fellow countrymen.

The "Culture Shock Philippines" book by Alfredo and Grace Roces says the following about foreign expats in the Philippines: "they must have their gin-and-tonics in their private clubs, while bashing the habitat they have themselves chosen to inhabit. They live marching to the beat of a different drummer in a place where there are no drums. They build Little Englands, Little Americas, Little Chinas, light-years away from their motherland, hearts and stomachs living elsewhere".

And it is more or less the same with Filipino expats or with many expats in general: they physically inhabit the local environment but their minds and hearts are not in-sync with the surrounding environment.

And then there is the false myth that by spending months in a certain country with the specific aim to learn the language this is going to magically boost somebody's language skill. But is that really going to happen?

I know Italians who spent months in the Philippines who haven't made much progress with Tagalog, and I know English and American young people who came here to "study" Italian but ended up going to parties, travelling around and going to pubs or just hanging out with friends. 

One of the reasons why immigrants don't make mych progress with the language is because they associate with their fellow countrymen so they physically live on foreign soil but their hearts and minds are in their homeland

I myself didn't learn a lot of Tagalog while on vacation in the Philippines,  precisely because I was on vacation and my focus was too scattered.

Me in the Philippines: not exactly learning Tagalog

Adults are deletion creatures

Another reason that is connected to the fact that adults have limited time and energy is that, while kids absorbe every sound they hear, adults delete a lot because they need to prioritize and learn the terminology that is closely related to why they are in that country.

An English-speaking expat who is doing business in the Philippines only cares about learning the terms that are strictly necessary for his business. A religious missionary is mostly going to focus on "theocratic" terms and so on.

Another reason why adults are much more focused and selective in their approach to learning languages is because they get the general sense of the context in which a new word is being used, so they don't always need to look up the meaning of every single new word or idiom they encounter.

When I read a book in English I stumble upon a lot of new idioms and phrasal verbs but my focus is on getting the message of the book, not on learning new vocabulary. So, if I get the general sense of the context in which this new term or idiom is being used, I don't need to stop and look up its meaning. 

Adults are too analytical

Another way us adults differ from kids is that, while kids are a blank slate, we already have a grasp of the structure of the language or languages we already know and we tend to look for analogies and differences between the target language and those we know already.

For example an English speaker who is learning Italian might focus on how both Italian and English have irregular verbs and on how English irregular verbs have more predictable patterns than Italian ones.

In some cases this urge to always compare and contrast can be useful while in some other cases it can be a huge bog, it can bog you down.

Adults fear feeling awkward

And last but not least an adult has a hard time letting go of his tendency to hold back from freely expressing himself in a foreign language out of fear that a mistake migh ruin his reputation. Kids don't hold back.

What can you do?

So these are some of the reasons why an adult cannot learn a foreign language the way a child does.

Yet, awareness of the limitations that I have mentioned in this article could actually be turned into an asset.

For example, by being aware that one of the stumbling blocks that are holding you back from making progress with the language is the fact that you are spending too much free time with your fellow countrymen, you could take steps to associate more with locals.

And by being aware that kids have a more easygoing and less analytical approach, you could actually cut back a little bit on the hard work of always comparing and analyzing two different languages and just casually spend an hour a day watching TV or reading in the target language and just let the language sink into your subconscious mind.

I did more or less that with Tagalog and, while I cannot claim that I learned it like a child  (on the contrary I often fall into the trap of priding myself for my knowledge of the grammar while there's a lot of basic words I don't know yet), it helped.

Thanks for reading. 


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