Audio only version of the roundtable available on SoundCloud.
Francesca Verceles-Zara: Hello and welcome to &ASIAN’s first Roundtable. Today's topic is going to be about Filipino linguistics throughout the diaspora. My name is Francesca Verceles-Zara. I am Head of Business Development with &ASIAN and a first-generation Filipina based in the United States. I will pass it off to Sean.
Sean Goddard: Hi, I'm Sean Goddard, and I'm half-British half-Filipino. And I'm your co-Head of Content here at &ASIAN. And I'd like to introduce... We have Joaquin Valdes here. Yeah, we're just happy to have you here.
Joaquin Valdes: Hey Sean, hey Francesca, thank you for having me. I'm Joaquin: Joaquin Pedro Valdes is my whole name. But then you can just call me Joaquin, or JP for those who can't pronounce it. I'm pure Filipino; I am an immigrant from the Philippines. I'm currently in the UK in London. I grew up my whole life as a bilingual thinker and speaker, speaking Filipino or Tagalog mainly because I'm from Manila, and English. So yeah, thanks for having me. Looking forward to talking to you guys.
Francesca: Great, thanks for joining us today. So coming from the Philippines, could you give us a little bit of background as to what the linguistic breakdown is in the Philippines as far as like the different dialects, and is Tagalog actually the main language?
Joaquin: Funny you asked that! I mean, I love this topic. Because recently, not too long ago, I facilitated an accent workshop, what I call an accent workshop. But mainly, it's a contextual study- trying to understand the history of the Filipino accent or whatever that means, right? We all have an idea of what the Filipino accent is, or how a Filipino speaks English, because we see it with [American-Filipino comedian] Jo Koy, or you know, how it's represented as a punchline on TV shows or by comedians or whatnot. Or if not a punchline, you have a lot of very famous and notable Filipinos like [Filipino boxer and politician] Manny Pacquiao, or [Filipina singer] Lea Salonga, who I would argue both have Filipino accents. They sound very different, but then they're both equally Filipino accent. So I wanted to study– what is it that makes a Filipino accent? And what defines it and where does it come from?
My interest in this only came about because as an actor in the UK, we're taught, at least we're encouraged to study different accents of the UK. My agent said, “Oh, you should have a Northern accent in your pocket, you should know exactly what the rules are for a Scottish accent, or a Welsh accent or whatnot.” And in my studying different UK and English accents, I realized that I had a sound:. I didn't think I had a sound, but I did have my own sound. And then I went into studying the Filipino accent – a lot of this is going to be a mouthful so I hope that's alright – but a lot of our accent, or when I say a Filipino accent, I mean when a Filipino speaks English, right? A lot of it is really a result of five major factors which I have broken down. These are all theoretical, and I'm currently still studying.
The first one is history, of course; next one is geography; next one is status; next one is generation. And the last one is the diaspora, or the migration. So all of these five factors really affect how a Filipino sounds, or how a Filipino would understand and assimilate the English language. To answer your first question, Francesca: we're coming from an archipelago of around seven thousand islands, and with these seven thousand islands come a plethora of different languages. At least 120 living languages right now, 120 to 187 different languages in the Philippines, but the four main ones are Ilocano, Tagalog, Cebuano, and Hiligaynon. These are the most spoken ones with around four to eight million speakers at any given time. Four different languages that sound very different. So that affects essentially how we understand sound, and how we formulate sounds and words.
Francesca: Great, really great for that background. And I was just thinking about how I grew up: like my mom, her mom spoke Ilocano, and my dad is from Bicol, and he's Bicolano. I'm not really sure what the differences between the two are, as far as just like Bicolano, maybe it's more of like a dialect rather than an actual language. So I'm sort of trying to navigate that. But I was just interested - like for you, where are your parents from, as far as what that breakdown means for you?
Joaquin: So when I teach the accent, and I tailor the accent workshop for the Filipino accent – it's a whole history lesson and I tailor it to actors. A lot of the participants that usually come to that workshop are first-generation and second-generation Filipinos who are now currently living in the US; actually a lot of my students for the last time I did the workshop are from the US. They were the ones that were so interested in learning about the sounds that their parents or their grandparents came to the US with, and some of them are also Filipino-British. So basically, history plays an important role. Then next is geography, and my mum is from the Visayan region [in the Philippines]. So she's Illongo [a Visayan ethnic group], and Ilonggo is a language that's spoken in Bacolod, in Iloilo, in a couple of provinces in the Visayan region.
I'm not sure if you've encountered Ilonggo. But the Ilonggos are known to have a very soft-spoken, very romantic... It's almost like, even if they're insulting you, it's almost like they're sweet talking you. That's how the sound of the Ilonggo, or the Hiligaynon language exists. My dad is Kapampangan. So that's up north, that's in the Luzon region, that's up in the world of Tagalog and – well not even, Kapampangan is a totally different language. That sounds like every time they speak, it sounds like they're scolding you or shouting at you or hurling insults at you. So I can imagine, because Kapampangan and then further up north is Ilocano, and my father-in-law is actually Ilocano – Ilocano, I call it like... like the vowels for Ilocano, those are just little hurdles that they want to kick down, you know, they want to get out of the way. So it's almost like they go from consonant to consonant [demonstrates phonetic sound]. That's what the Ilocano for me sounds like, there's a lot of [demonstrates phonetic sound], it's all consonant to consonant. Whereas Tagalog sounds like they're vowels, and the Hiligaynon is really like they're longer vowels. Suffice to say, my mom and my dad, they didn't work out. They didn't end up together. And I think language and the sound of the words play a lot into... figured a lot into that relationship. But yeah, so that's where I'm coming from. But I was born and raised in Manila. So my Filipino is really Tagalog.
Francesca: It's so interesting to hear because every time I go back home, and like, just to preface I am born and raised in America, I've tried to keep a very close touch with my roots and my parents have sort of instilled that in me. Just like, really trying to understand what it means to be a Filipino, being in touch with the culture and the language. We’d always go back home to the Philippines, like every three to four years. More recently, I've been trying to go back every year, just so I can stay close to my roots and be in the know and understand what life is like in the Philippines because it is very different.
Joaquin: Yeah, and even like – I mean, I could just go on, but then the whole history of how we landed with Tagalog as the “national language” – and I keep using air quotes here – it's quite telling, it's quite problematic. And the reason why they defaulted to it was because they needed something to placehold what the national language was, while congress and the government kind of figured out what they wanted to establish as a national language. They knew what it was called: they wanted to call it Pilipino, which eventually became Filipino when they started introducing softer consonants into the alphabet. They knew what the national language was to be called, which was Filipino – but what comprised the Filipino language? It was still up for debate. Until now, it's still up for debate. It's loose, it's generally based on Tagalog. But then still a lot of Cebuanos, and the Ilocano speakers and the Hiligaynon speakers, and all the other speakers say, “Why is it Tagalog? Why is it Tagalog-centric?” And then it goes into my next problem, which is this whole idea of geography and how everything is so compact in Manila. For a seven thousand island archipelago, everything is jam packed into the centre, or this notion of a centre, which is Manila.
That goes into my next theory about status, about how the Filipino accent or Filipino grasp of English is now determined by whoever in the centre says, “This is how it should sound.” Then you have Manila-centric people or people of higher status, making a mockery of people who don't speak English in the way the Manileños speak English, or how the Tagalog speak English. We're island people, we're archipelagic; we are tribal, right? So then you go into these different tribes and you get all of this animosity for Cebuanos who don't like Manileños, people in Mindanao who always feel that they're so othered from the very Catholic Northern Luzon communities. It's so interesting, because I'm just going to roughly touch on that, because that now establishes the sound of linguistics and the sound of language. And in my workshop – I can't stress this enough – understanding how the Filipino sounds in the diaspora, which is your parents and your grandparents, that whole migration and that whole movement, and when in the history of the Philippines this movement happened determines now the sound of this accent. Tthat's why I go back to why Jo Koy’s [Filipino-American comic] mom sounds the way she does, and why he sounds the way he does when he brings his mom into a skit/sketch. Because that now determines: when did his mom migrate, where did she come from in the Philippines, why did she migrate?
Francesca: Thinking through that lens, there's a specific timeframe like, just to use myself as an example, my parents immigrated to the States in the nineties – you could catch on to their actual accents as they speak and how different it is when we go back to the Philippines and I talk to my titas and titos who also can speak English – you can hear a distinct difference in enunciation and pronunciation. And it's just so interesting how tied to culture: I mean, language is essentially a root of a country's culture. I want to ask you, because you are straight from the Philippines – how does this language or linguistics work into culture? Because I know our culture was almost erased by colonization; how are we making sure to reclaim what was almost lost? Like, is there an attempt being made? Or are we just moving forward with this very, as you say, Manila-centric global culture that we have now? How do the two work in tandem?
Joaquin: I'm currently still learning. Because I might be alone in this and I might be coming from a privileged experience, and that might be taken against me. But then, at least from how I knew it before coming out to the UK – I didn't realize that there was anything to reclaim. I always acknowledged that our history of colonization was really just a part of our history. That's what shaped who we are now. Now I'm extremely happy that we're no longer colonized, I'm extremely happy that we are a sovereign nation. But then I think the journey into finding this identity is still ongoing. What I do realize in terms of linguistics is, and going back to my first story about learning this accent, in learning these different English accents and trying to discover my own sound, I did realize that I am a bilingual speaker and I am a bilingual thinker. And that's what's very unique to Filipinos. Taglish is not an option that they switch on; Taglish is their default. I thought that because I was of a certain status in the Philippines, I always thought that English is my first language. But I can't be more mistaken because yes, I understand and grasp English better than someone who doesn't speak it as often, because that's what I speak first at home, but then compared to someone who grew up in the United Kingdom or United States, I'm a bilingual thinker. I thought that I used to think in English and then have to translate it in my head if I wanted to speak in Tagalog. Because my Tagalog, honestly if you made me speak Tagalog straight... I’m made fun of in the Philippines. People make fun of me and my Tagalog.
Francesca: Granted, I know my parents have tried to instill in me as far as like: “Keekai” – Keekai is my nickname at home – my parents are like, “Keekai, you need to learn how to speak Tagalog so you can get by if you ever go back in the Philippines!” and I’m like, “I’m TRYING but they make fun of me all the time!” And it’s so funny because my cousins who actually immigrated here, who were, let's say, sixteen to seventeen when they did immigrate here, they have a grasp of the language because they essentially grew up in the Philippines: they spoke it, which is normal for them. So whenever I'm communicating with them, because when I'm in New York I live with them, they speak in Tagalog just so I can keep up the practice. And whenever I speak, they just laugh at me the whole time, “Oh my god, it's so cute when you try to speak Tagalog!” So it's so weird, and it's crazy that there's such a large difference just by the timeframe if you’ve actually lived in the Philippines, and how you've grown up in the Philippines.
Joaquin: I think the modern day Filipino, or the current day Filipino, will default to speaking and thinking in two languages. My acting teacher always tells me because we're so used to speaking and thinking two languages, our tongue and our facility – our jaw facility is very lazy, it's very relaxed. Because we have to be relaxed so that we can accommodate two languages. We don't have this stiff upper lip of the RP [Received Pronunciation] accent, or the twang of the American accent. Of course, these are all learnable when you're learning accents, but then for the Filipino, our facilities are generally just very relaxed. And that says a lot about- I mean, I can talk ages about this, because I love it so much, and it's so interesting to me. And going back to your question, I like taking back its agency in the sense that accents, or Filipino accent, or our sound, should not be an object of punchlines, or should not just be an item of othering because all of it is valid; because the accent and the way we speak English is not only because of our colonial history, but it's also about our future. It's also about generations that went to the different countries in the world and started to propagate there: Filipinos who went to the States, the United Kingdom, Europe, Japan, Iraq, and the Middle East... and they built lives there. I mean, that's the story of the Filipino. Now whatever sound they have when they speak English is reflective of that journey.
I just finished a little video – actually, Aimée (&ASIAN writer, a friend of Joaquin) has seen this video I did. I did a little video for the NHS nurses, the Filipino NHS nurses, and I worked with a small theatre company called New Earth Theatre and we gathered some Filipino heritage actors. I think I'm the only immigrant and everybody else was first-generation who grew up in the UK. I basically translated Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 which is the one that goes “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” the most famous love letter of Shakespeare. I translated it into Filipino, or into my Filipino which is Tagalog mainly. And then I had all these other actors speak it in their own different UK or English dialects, wherever they are from, and at the end, the last two lines, I asked everyone to speak that in Tagalog. That came with a lot of resistance because you have these Filipino-British who didn't want to speak Tagalog, or who were very insecure about their own Tagalog. And it was basically a reverse of how a Filipino migrant would feel about their own English.
I love that exercise of them embracing the Filipino language, regardless of how they feel they grasp it, and it was a lot of broken Tagalog, which was perfectly fine and actually added more beauty to the whole piece. Because that was essentially their way to say thank you for everything – for learning our culture, for living here, for taking care of us, and being far away from the comfort of your own home. And it's uncomfortable for us to learn this, these last two Tagalog lines, but it's nothing compared to the discomfort that you're sacrificing for us. So I guess that was the whole message of that little poem.
Francesca: That's so beautiful. It's insane that you actually got people to do that. Because whenever I'm just speaking with my parents, or even my older brother who – he came over from the Philippines, he was born in the Philippines, he came over when he was like six or seven – he held on very well to the Tagalog and he can speak fluently. And like every time that we go to the Philippines together and I try to speak in Tagalog, it's always so broken. He's just like, “haha, you're so whitewashed”... at least I'm trying, the effort is there! I think it's getting over the innate fear of being wrong when you’re speaking – but there's nothing wrong because you're trying!
Joaquin: And it's still Tagalog. It's still Tagalog! It's not any less Filipino than someone who grew up speaking the language. And that's what I'm trying to champion, that that's part of our identity. Yes, we were colonized. Yes, we might not have this unified strong culture yet. But that's part of our story; that's the Filipino story. How many Filipinos are working outside of the Philippines in healthcare, in service work, in elementary work? And that's the official term, in the documents when people migrate. How many of them speak Filipino, but then have to let go of their Filipinoness so that they can find a better life abroad? And these are the stories that need to be told, and these are the sounds that need to be heard.
Francesca: First-gen kids are usually very hungry to learn what their culture is. I mean, I can say that I'm Filipino, but I'm never Filipino enough, and I'm never American enough. So I sort of straddle this line of like, “Who am I? Where do I belong? What is my identity?” And a lot of that is rooted with – outside of just culture, with language – because I can understand Tagalog; I might not necessarily speak it in the best of ways, but it's just like, “Oh, because you can't speak it to this level, then you're not Filipino enough,” or “Because you were born in the States, you're not Filipino enough.” So what I hope is just to have a better understanding and more of a unity to the meaning of being Filipino, because you're not less Filipino for being born in the States, and you're not more Filipino for being born in the Philippines. And there's always push and pull every time I go home, because they’re very distinct.
Like whenever I interact with people, it's very distinct how they're just like, “Oh, we can tell that she is not native from the islands; we can tell that she's from America.” And it sucks. Why create those barriers when I'm trying to learn about my roots and my culture? And I mean, half of that would have to go with decolonization in mind, and trying to undo this indoctrinated mindset that was put on us, which I read a great book about, and really got me thinking about it. But yeah, I just hope for more unity for the future.
Joaquin: I'll tell you, as a Filipino- Filipinos in the Philippines are just happy every time they see a Filipino on the world stage, or world screen, or a Filipino is mentioned– they're going to claim ownership. “Oh, there's a singer on The Voice or on American Idol,” “She's 1/18th Filipino,” “Oh, she's Filipino!” You know, we're just happy every time there’s a Filipino that's mentioned or talked about, even if it's not in the best light. I would say that the only downside of that, is that there's just such a limited... it’s not misrepresentation, but just a limited representation. It's very small right now. In terms of language, how it's limited is we almost only see it as a joke. People only use the accent as a punch line, as a part of a sketch. I'm not knocking on that – those stereotypes exist for a reason, right? I mean, because there is some truth to it; that's what stereotypes are, there is some truth. What I'm saying is that that's not just what the Filipino sound is about. And there are ways to represent the Filipino sound that is more dimensional, that is more complex, that is deeper, and serious as well.
And I think my hope for the future is that we see more work, whether it be in things that we consume, whether it be on streaming devices, in music, in plays, in films, on TV... and at a high standard, an amazing global standard. My hope is that this Filipino sound is better represented on this scale. And we're starting to see it, I'll tell you – this is from my experience in being a theatre actor and eventually a filmmaker, this was not something my parents really completely understood, like “What, are you going to study that? Make that a hobby, and go become an architect or go become a lawyer, go become a whatever.” And that's just not my interest. And I'm not good at that. It took me all of... twenty-seven, twenty-eight, thirty years before I decided to get whatever I had and move to the United Kingdom, which is what I felt was the home and the mecca of historical theatre and the practice of theatre, to try and see where I can fare and how to learn better – and it took a while! Because that kind of opportunity does not come at all in the Philippines.
Francesca: It's wild to just think that you actually took your whole life and immigrated over to pursue the arts when there is such a rich arts and culture base in the Philippines. But because there's no infrastructure –
Joaquin: There's no industry, like... honestly, if there was an industry, if I could make a living as an artist in the Philippines, I would not have left. I'll say that.
Francesca: My friends have said the same thing, it's just such a bummer. When you could literally live back at home in the motherland and be surrounded by everyone, but you’ve got to make a living and you can't do that if you don't have the resources to actually excel and move forward.
Joaquin: I think on a more hopeful note, I think there's a reason why this is the phase that's happening now, because I don't know – I'm not usually a mystic, but then for some reason, I just feel in my gut that we're now at an era in the world, in the narrative, where our voices are a little bit more heard. And our stories are a little bit more sought after. I was just talking to some of my friends here, like, how can there not be a film, or a TV series, or heck- just a song about Filipino nurses. Filipino nurses have been on the front line for any major event where health care, and nurturing, and care was needed. There were Filipino nurses at 9/11, there were Filipino nurses in the London bombing, there are Filipino nurses everywhere during this COVID pandemic. And it's our history of exporting nurses, and being known to be the best nurses there are in the world, going back to the 1930s you know. So it's interesting – why are we not putting these stories onscreen? Those are the questions I like asking because I like watching sitcoms a lot, and there are a lot of references to Filipinos, especially if it's a joke like, “Oh, yeah, he's dating a Filipino whatever.” But then we don't see these people. And I think now we're coming into a time where people want to see and hear these Filipinos, and not just talk about them.
Francesca: I can definitely relate to you, just hearing that. And I mean, just a shout out to Nico Santos [Filipino-American actor] real quick.
Joaquin: Kay, kay, Superstore!
Francesca: Yeah, Superstore! Like, we're coming up. Also the fact that he wasn't portrayed as a Filipino in Crazy Rich Asians, but he was in Crazy Rich Asian – that's huge! We're getting our voices heard. We're having that visibility. And I think we're sort of in that womb state where something great, like a renaissance, is almost going to be upon us. Great Filipino creators and activists.
Joaquin: I mean, just in New York, you got Clint Ramos. I'm not sure if you know, Clint Ramos is a Tony-winning designer. And he's from the UK. He studied in the same university that I went to.
Francesca: Wait, where'd you go? Just out of curiosity.
Joaquin: University of the Philippines, I studied film.
Francesca: Which UP?
Joaquin: Diliman, on the main campus in Manila – ah sorry, in Quezon City. But yeah, so I studied film in UP, and Clint Ramos studied theater. Paulo Tiról is another guy that's in New York, who I love. He's a good friend of mine, another immigrant. He's making waves now as a musical theatre writer, so he's writing new musical theatre in New York, he's based in New York right now. And he's getting loads of attention, especially amongst the Filipino-American actors. And he's writing about Filipino stories, which is so exciting, in the musical theater space.
Francesca: I can’t wait to see them come into fruition – like, I’m there! It's just exciting to see people who look like us finally being represented, and we're finally getting that face time, and we're getting the spotlight on us. It's an exciting place to be.
Joaquin: Yeah, what really humbles me is like, first-generation kids like you. And some of the people I work with are just... I keep going back to it, they're just so hungry, and so interested in learning about themselves and their history. And if we can harness that kind of fascination and interest, and bring it to actual Filipinos who are in the Philippines – I want to show, I want to bring all of my friends and all my colleagues in the Philippines and say, “Look at how interested these people are in our own history that we take for granted; in our own culture, in our own language, and our own sound that we take for granted.” Because we like making fun of each other as well– people make fun of me and my Tagalog, not because I sound American but because I sound higher class or of higher status.
Francesca: Oh man that's like a whole ‘nother conversation.
Joaquin: It's an entirely different conversation. So I'll tell you – even if they make fun of you, there's more of an endearment. Because they know you're American. When they make fun of me, it's less endearing, it's actually a little bit more, you know, insulting. And vice versa, I know a lot of people of my social status that make fun of a lot of people who aren't. It's so unfortunate, and that's why there's this constant disunity. And, I guess my goal, my little goal, and my little dream is if I can just bring about how much I love the different sounds of the Filipino accent into something that unifies it, and that unifies us as a people.
I like doing this thing at the end of the workshop, where I ask some of the participants to speak a Shakespeare speech, whether it's a sonnet, or whether it's Juliet, or Edmund from King Lear, or Hamlet, and to speak it in the Filipino accent.
Francesca: That's amazing.
Joaquin: And I tell you, one of the participants... It got very emotional. Because he spoke – he had a speech from King Lear, and the character is Edmund. And there's a beautiful speech by Edmond, about legitimacy, about being called legitimate, because he's the bastard child in the story. And he's been learning this speech, and he did it at the end of the workshop in the Filipino accent. And after I asked him, “How do you feel?” And he says, “I've successfully othered my dad for sounding like this all my life. And after reading the speech, in this way, sounding like him, it feels like I redeemed him. And I've asked for his own –” it's almost like he asked for his own forgiveness. And it was really, really emotional and it was beautiful... the Filipino accent can be serious, and can be taken seriously.