Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Code Switching

My cowsin C and I have always been very linguistically aware kids. She was always better at understanding Tagalog than I was, given that her parents spoke Tagalog to each other. My parents spoke Pangasinan to each other, but they used it as a secret language; it wasn't until my late 20s that I started picking up on the gist of their conversations. When both H and I were both studying Tagalog, we all decided to speak Tagalog once in the car. It lasted for a few minutes, but after a while it sounded so... artificial... to hear us all speaking Tagalog with each other, we had to stop. We might as well all have been speaking French.

Ilocano was the most secret of all languages; we heard it only in certain contexts. If you ask any of my parents their ethnicity, they will claim to be Ilocano. One time C told Grandma R that she didn't like Ilocano; Grandma R slapped her!

However, the ones that grew up in Sto. Tomas are linguistically Pangasinan. Sto. Tomas was originally in the Pangasinan province, but the border was redrawn, and they were lumped in with the Ilocanos. I think a lot of my ancestors actually moved to Sto. Tomas from Ilocos Sur.

My parents usually speak Pangasinan to each other, and fellow Tomasinos, which I always look forward to hearing. But sometimes, they will switch into English or Tagalog, often to clarify or to be extra emphatic. And other times, they will just plain speak English or Tagalog, out of habit. A couple times, I have asked them, "Why aren't you speaking Pangasinan?" Usually, they don't know why.

Auntie R sometimes talks to little-ol'-me in Pangasinan, which I like; it makes me feel like a country kid, or like I'm hearing a secret. The Manila relatives often don't know anything about Pangasinan, not even relational titles (e.g., "there's no such thing as 'kuyang.'")

Anyway, my parents' generation has been using languages all our lives to include us, exclude us, bring us closer, and alienate us in a very fascinating way, and it's very second-nature to us, all of us. It's funny, some of my co-workers are very conscious about switching to a common language as soon as someone new enters a room, as a courtesy... Me? I neither switch to include, nor do I care if other people switch. I actually feel the opposite; it feels a little shady to me to always compulsively include everyone, unless they are actually joining the conversation.

Which brings me to a point: I once asked, "Why aren't you speaking Pangasinan?" And the answer was, "Because your Auntie X is here, and she doesn't speak Pangasinan." So they are total courtesy switchers.

Now, I'm being honest when I tell you that it has NEVER in my life occurred to me that I would say, "So, I'm here, I don't speak Tagalog, why don't you switch to English." I have always preferred to listen, catch the gist, and when important, to pretend to understand. I have asked for translation, but I have never asked for them to switch to English. I don't recall any of my cowsins ever asking our parents to switch to English, either. Why not?

And why would they automatically switch to Tagalog to include Auntie X but not switch to English to include me or my cowsins? It can only be a kind of multilingual family sociopolitical explanation.

So me, I don't courtesy switch, and I have no expectation that anyone will do a courtesy switch on my behalf. I've also been known talk to people in languages I know they don't speak... usually just a greeting, sometimes an urgent imperative... because I know they're going to understand from the context. And some of them get flustered, but usually, they do get it. Because communication is 80% paralinguistic anyway. (Did I just make up that statistic?)

Anyway, the reason I started writing this epic post is because I just found a list of language games on wikipedia. When cowsin C and I spoke Pig Latin to each other, our parents were totally baffled! As Filipino English speakers, they had zero comprehension of Pig Latin, which delighted us, but pissed them off. That was hilarious. We both got really good at Pig Latin, but eventually we stopped because it made them uncomfortable.

When H became a Spanish speaker, we started speaking Spanish to each other, and my dad actually told us not to speak Spanish, because we could be telling secrets. Of course, H and I were like, ha ha yah right, but it was fascinating to me that both in this case and in the case of Pig Latin that some multilinguals could have the same irrational insecurities as the English-Only monolinguals.

Basically, we are only allowed to speak a language they understand.

So it's funny to me that my cowsins might be more linguistically progressive than my parents' generation, even though we were much less linguistically versatile.


:: jozjozjoz :: said...

I know what you mean about feeling "artificial," I feel that way when I speak Chinese to my brother.

JohnXXV said...

there is a Pangasinan wikipedia at http://pag.wikipedia.org . we are building it up such that people could reconnect to their roots through language.