This is how I tell the story. I remember the day I realized I was monolingual. I was three or four years old, and my uncles and aunties had come over to our duplex to hang out, which is what they did back then. We may have had a color TV with three channels. Everyone in the room was in their mid-twenties, recently immigrated. They sat in folding chairs around the sparsely furnished living room of the duplex, chatting and laughing. There was a mellow sizzle and a warm smell of frying onions. It was dimly lit.
I remember feeling perfectly comfortable in the room; obviously everyone adored me. But I remember crawling up into my dad’s lap and telling him I didn’t understand what people were saying. They were not speaking English, he told me, they were speaking Tagalog. Actually, he told me they were speaking Pilipino.
I think I was standing up in his lap and holding onto his shoulders. I want to speak Pilipino, I said. At that point, my dad offered me a choice; he told me they were speaking Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, but they also spoke Ilokano (the official language of La Unión province) and Pangasinan (the local dialect of Santo Tomás, the town my family is from). He said they had been speaking Tagalog, but I told them I wanted to speak Pangasinan. Teach me, I said. I want to speak Pangasinan.
Computer, freeze program.
That is the story I tell when people want to know my origin myth. I think I did a better job of telling it on my grad school application; I got into all four places I applied. The truth is that I don’t remember smelling onions; I just included a warm food smell in the essay as a writing gimmick. I always tell my students that smells are worth 50 bonus points. Always include a smell.
It’s just a myth though! The truth is that I don’t remember onions, but I do remember eating pork rinds from a bag, dipping them in a dish of vinegar with diced garlic and a few shots of tabasco. It may have been too spicy for me at the time, but I remember loving it. In any case, I thought pork rinds might be too risky for the graduate admissions committee, and I know people are not as enthralled with the smell of vinegar as I am.
The rest of it is true. I realized I couldn’t understand my uncles and aunties–my parents, for that matter. I crawled up onto my dad’s lap and I asked why. He gave me a brief overview of the sociolinguistic situation, and I immediately decided I wanted to be mulilingual. Immediately. That’s how I remember it. I remember expecting him to teach me right then and there, and I seem to remember feeling that I didn’t give a crap about English at all.
Of course, now I realize that the demand I was making on my 25 year old dad was a huge request that he wasn’t equipped to fulfill. I don’t think parents (or spouses or siblings or good friends) can easily change the dominant language of their relationship once they have one established. I know how and why my folks couldn’t just up-and-teach me some Filipino.
But I tell this story to illustrate how I’ve always felt about being monolingual from the moment I discovered what it was: I didn’t like it. It made me uncomfortable. I saw it as a deficiency and immediately wanted my parents to fix it for me.
10 years later I had the chance to take French in high school. It wasn’t Pangasinan; I still didn’t speak that. But there was a moment when I told myself, I have to learn French for real, otherwise I’ll be “bad at languages.”
My French teacher gave me the “World Languages Student of the Year” award at the senior assembly, which was wonderful. Now that I looked back on it, it was quite an honor, since I had just finished second year French, and I was only a Junior… and I wasn’t able to take French in my senior year… and I didn’t even feel like I was that good at it.
From there, I remember my friends told me I was “good at languages,” which I thought was silly because a) my French wasn’t great still, and b) I still hadn’t learned Pangasinan. So I’ve always been annoyed with the “good at languages” label. When I got to college and took Linguistics 220, I realized that everyone is “good at languages;” it’s just that some of us have crippling, paralyzing anxiety that causes us to sabotage our own efforts. More on that in another post.