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CIRCA 70s. Dad’s relatives always got a kick whenever we tripped over ourselves in Mandarin. Though their first tongue was Cantonese, Mandarin was close enough, and we got extra pogi points if we didn’t just say those phrases we learned in school, but those that we heard on Chinese movies, like yi lu shun feng (a blessed journey) and starting every greeting with jixiang (good fortune), phrases you don’t even hear in modern conversational Chinese anymore 🙂
With Mom’s relatives, it wasn’t much different. On visits to Legaspi, Naga and Masbate, aunts, uncles and cousins always smiled wider grins whenever we could greet them in Bicol (maray na aga) and appreciate the fresh coconut milk (tipong) that they never ran out of and other fresh fruit and fish that seemed to sprout and jump out of nowhere.
Strangers and acquaintances never fail to become instant friends and intimate bedfellows as soon as familiar words are spoken, sifted from the babel of chatterings and into the dialect of one’s childhood.
It becomes even more personal when the well-worn idioms, sayings and colloquialisms of the same language are spouted, used and re-used, reliving fond memories and recalling a swell of pride for country and village.
JFK did it in Berlin, with one sentence and bonded instantly with his freedom loving West Germans (ich bin Berliner), the vanquished Arantxa Sanchez Vicario forever won the hearts of French Open faithfuls despite losing to Stefi Graf in 1996, when she gave her concession speech in flawless French, and opera babe Hayley Westenra solidified her icon status in China (yes, they love her there) when she sang Yueliang Daibiao Wodi Xin (The Moon Represents My Heart) to millions of adoring Chinese fans. She had an excellent repertoire of arias, but all it took was one simple local song to win them over.
Perhaps it’s overrated, the kinship and affinity that almost instantly attaches when the accents, syllables, sibilants and plosives roll over the teeth and tongue in ways one is used to. But you can’t tinker with human nature.
We once upon a campaign worked for a presidentiable who was a cinch for Malacanang, if hadn’t been for the five-cornered race (all serious contenders) but the fact was, our boss was prepared not just to preach to the choir (his bailiwicks) but to reach out EVERYWHERE. He was equipped to do this, being conversant in Tagalog, Ilocano, Kapampangan and his wife’s first tongue, Ilonggo (you probably guessed who ).
To consolidate his linguistic advantage, he had an Ilokano speechwriter, consultants for Pampango, and his wife’s handlers did his speeches in the Visayas. And he spoke all of them brilliantly. Too bad the fans didn’t translate into votes.
And it’s no secret that bilingual, trilingual and even quadrilingual children are those who become more adept at lateral thinking, and develop sharper skills in cognitive and intuitive learning. Something to do with learning to think and perceive the same concepts in different ways.
Never will we forget our Chinese history teacher who, for all her stiffness and formal airs, gave us the tip of a lifetime : never forget your Chinese, and doors will always open for you everwhere. Keep flexing your Mandarin, and the muscle memory will take care of everything else, be it career, business or your social life.
Well, she hasn’t been proven wrong yet.
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We have been blessed to be able to communicate and think in three languages, but it’s a blessing that needs to be used, developed and sharpened constantly. For after all, language is ultimately a medium with which to deliver the message.
Thanks for your time, maraming salamat and xie xie nin !
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