For Some Filipino-Americans, Language Barriers Leave Culture Lost in Translation

Dominic Lim stands with his mother, Consuelo Tokita, in front of her Concord home. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

When it came time for Dominic Lim to pick a language to study in high school, he chose French. He chose it not because he was particularly interested in the language, but because the only other option was Spanish.

“I consciously picked French because I didn’t want to learn Spanish and then feel bad that I was learning Spanish, which was so similar to Tagalog …” said Lim. “I know that’s very bizarre but it’s like, if I learned French then I wouldn’t feel so bad that I didn’t learn Tagalog.”

Lim, 41, is first-generation Filipino-American. He never learned to speak his family’s native language, Tagalog.

He loves adobo, sinigang and lumpia. He grew up surrounded by his large extended family, whom he regularly saw at gatherings.

“Going to all these family parties and weddings and everything, you know you hear the older cousins talking to aunts and uncles, but you can’t really join in,” said Lim. “I felt like they probably didn’t respect the kids as much because we couldn’t talk to them in their own language. That was, for me, the biggest, most emotional regret that I have. It’s the most emotional component, for me, of being Filipino.”

Dominic Lim, 41, is first generation Filipino-American. He grew up never learning to speak his family's native dialect, Tagalog.
Dominic Lim, 41, is first-generation Filipino-American. He grew up never learning to speak his family’s native dialect, Tagalog. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

It was this language barrier that made him question what it meant to be Filipino in America, a situation not uncommon among Filipino-Americans (including me). According to the most recent U.S. Census data, only about half of the 1.4 million Filipinos in California speak Tagalog, Ilocano or Visayan.

“Even though I’ve always been proud of being Filipino, I had never really questioned the facets of one’s own racial identity,” said Lim. “But I always thought that the language component of it was sort of the one piece I was lacking.”

While he can understand the language, he often wondered about the stories or conversations he missed out on with his family because he couldn’t speak it back. He tried learning on his own in his 20s, but nothing ever really stuck. He wondered, for a long time, why his parents never taught him the language in the first place.

The ‘Benefits’ of Speaking English

Lim now works as a paralegal at a biotech firm in Emeryville. He was a successful student, in part because his mother was very keen on perfecting his English.

His mother, Consuelo Tokita, is a small woman with a strong Filipino accent. She taught English in the Philippines before the family moved to the United States in 1975, but knew that there was no way that she’d be allowed to teach it here because of her accent.

“I know for everybody coming here to the United States, it’s always a struggle,” said Tokita. “There’s always that portion of being scared. Will my husband get a job? Will I be able to get a job myself? How will I take care of my baby? How will I feed him? Things like that came to my mind.”

From left to right: Dominic's brother John, Connie, and Dominic at 8 years old.
From left to right: Dominic’s brother Joseph, Consuelo and Dominic at 8 years old. (Courtesy of Consuelo Tokita)

For Tokita, being tough about learning English was all about assimilating, and protecting her four kids.

“The fact that I could read, even before I went into kindergarten, really set in motion my academic track throughout my entire life. … It was really important for my mom to do that for me,” said Lim.

Upon arriving to the United States, the family settled down in Newport News, Virginia, where Tokita said she experienced discrimination everywhere from the streets to church.

Tokita’s husband, who passed away in 2005, lost his job 13 times, partly because he had difficulty socializing and speaking English.

“There were regrets also on my part, and I had wished that I had exposed (the kids) to Tagalog,” she said. “But the benefits of talking in English are larger than speaking to them in our language.”

Lily Wong Fillmore, a professor emerita of education at the University of California at Berkeley, studies the benefits of bilingualism. She says there is a lot to gain from knowing more than one language.

“Children are naturally endowed with the capacity to learn as many languages as they have opportunity and social support for learning,” said Fillmore. “Recent research in Canada indicates that full bilingualism may even confer some protection against memory loss in old age. The evidence is very strong that  bilingualism endows children with greater intellectual flexibility and advantages that may last throughout their lives.”

A Residual Effect of Colonialism

Lily Ann Villaraza is a historian who specializes in Philippine and Southeast Asian history. She is also the chair of the Philippine Studies Department at City College of San Francisco, the only department in the country with faculty and a department chair solely focused on the study of the Philippines.

Villaraza said that a Filipino immigrant family’s reluctance to teach a native language is a residual effect of American colonialism, whereby Filipinos were taught to believe that English was the only linguistic gateway to success.

“Parents and grandparents who’ve come here have been convinced that their children and grandchildren only need to know English to be successful,” said Villaraza. “(But) if you learn the language and are able to communicate with people in their primary language, whether it be Tagalog, Ilonggo or whatever, there’s an immediate ‘Oh!’ and there’s an opening up, and a greater willingness to share. And I think that’s what a lot of Fil-Ams are looking for.”

Language and Identity

Niel Calara, 18, was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the United States when he was 15. He knows how to speak Tagalog, but generally chooses not to speak it.

“English became a big part of me,” said Calara, who is in his first year at City College of San Francisco. “Apparently people think I’m whitewashed because I speak English at home.”

Calara was overwhelmed by the United States when he arrived, but he was also fascinated by it. He watched American movies all his life and even contemplated majoring in English. He shifted to English as his primary language, even at home, where his parents continued to speak their native dialect.

But in the process of learning about American culture, the undeniable aspects of his Filipino identity only became more apparent to him.

“I started to imitate them and participate in their culture. But like, if I think about it, I look so different from them,” he said.

In his attempt to assimilate in the way that Lim’s mother hoped her children would, Calara found himself realizing the differences he couldn’t hide from, no matter how good his English was.

“What do I represent, you know? Because I can’t just say ‘I’m white’ because I know how to speak English properly. I can’t just say that because I represent something. There’s something about me that’s original. And I began to question that.”

It was here that Calara began to appreciate those differences.

“For me, I feel like I valued my culture once I arrived here,” said Calara. “I never got to learn the actual value we had, and I thought it was beautiful.”

Language as a Bridge

Vicenta Asuncion, 25, sat in the front of Villaraza’s Filipino Family class at City College of San Francisco. A second-generation Filipina-American, Asuncion lived in Alabama for a few years, where she had something of an identity crisis.

“I didn’t know who I was, because I was the only one with chinky eyes,” she said. “Growing up, I thought I was just a brown white girl.”

Then she moved back to Daly City with her grandparents, whose primary language was Tagalog. It was there that her grandparents would teach her about Filipino culture. But in order to learn from them, she said, she knew she had to be able to communicate with them in their language.

“Listening to my grandmother speak to me in Tagalog and having to sit there and be like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ kind of gave me this sense of disconnection with culture.”

Asuncion began taking Tagalog classes in the second grade. Now, she speaks Ilocano, Tagalog and Visayan.

“Finally being able to communicate with my grandmother, instead of her getting frustrated trying to explain stuff to me in English because she doesn’t speak English very well, being able to hear her and understand everything she’s saying and being able to articulate my answers to her just made everything so much better for me,” Asuncion said. “Language is how you get a foot in the door with culture.”

As for Dominic Lim, he doesn’t think that there’s enough cultural support from the Filipino-American community that stresses learning native Filipino languages. Villaraza is working to change that.

“What I think (people) need to realize is that language is one of the most important gateways for people to have a deeper understanding of who they are and the cultures that they come from,” said Villaraza. “And to not discount that, to believe that there is value in learning Filipino but also retaining the language.”

Lim said he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to reconcile never learning his parents’ native language. His mother reminds him that it’s never too late to learn. But in some ways, he says, it is.

“I think the politics and the relationship between the Philippines and the United States is a long one, and that’s not really our job to sort that out,” Lim said. “But if there has been any regret, it’s because I couldn’t talk to the people I probably should’ve talked to, about the things that might have been important.”

For Some Filipino-Americans, Language Barriers Leave Culture Lost in Translation 26 February,2016Ericka Cruz Guevarra

  • Prudencio

    the only way to be able to learn and talk tagalog is to hang out long enough with tagalog speaking folks.

    • gla

      That is not the only way, but that applies to any language!…

  • gla

    First thing it is important to point out the English is also an official language of the Philippines. I find it sad that a significant number of Filipino Americans never bothered to teach their kids Tagalog simply because they are in America, lol. I definitely admire individuals who seek out to learn their native language no matter what age they are….. Someone like him at age 41 can definitely pick up Tagalog… I mean if white people can learn phrases here and there then so can he. It just really depends on the person. I have a circle of friends from different ethnicity and I noticed that it’s my Filipino friends who simply say “I was never taught Tagalog”.. and don’t do anything about it. My friend who is of Vietnamese descent grew up speaking only English, but when she got older took actions and learned Vietnamese!!! I’m lucky and blessed to have parents who instilled in me the culture and languages (English, Tagalog and Ilocano)…. and honestly even if they didn’t “bother” to teach me… I would definitely try to learn it on my own! Like I said it just really depends on the person! We live in a world where there are many ways to learn a language! LOL So this article just pointed out how he just didn’t really care to learn it.

    • Someone

      On a smaller scale, my mother grew up in Ilocos whereas I grew up in Manila. She never bothered to teach me her dialect nor her culture. I don’t feel lost in any way. I don’t feel unlucky. Actually, I’m happy they removed that burden from me – the burden of learning a language/dialect I won’t need that much.

      I just don’t see why people put too much importance in the culture their parents happened to be born in. I’m still a human being. I’m still me. My family is still my family. I don’t have any identity crisis whatsoever.

      • gla

        Not really sure why you would consider that as a “burden”. LOL Just to be clear my parents never forced the culture and language on me… And I guess you hit it spot on with your comment on why this is such a big issue with the Filipino community. A lot of Filipinos just don’t see the importance of “the culture their parents happened to be born in.”

  • roxie

    I really appreciate KQED covering cultural identity & language. The institutional support for anyone to learn one’s language, history & contributions to greater society is stymied by lack of support & foresight to avail consistent academic & social venues for people to learn such. Where are the resources & policies to offer classes in school K-12, higher education, community centers that will offer Pilipino or otherwise languages etc.? If one doesn’t live near SF/Daly city, there is no access. Rosetta stone?

    • gla

      Ok I get it it wasn’t taught in school so he didn’t learn the language when he was younger. However if he really wanted to learn the language trust me he could’ve! My friend who is Mexican and never spoke a word in Spanish at home (besides the names of foods), learned Spanish when she traveled to Spain while on holiday. Mind you she also learned some Portuguese in Brazil while on vacation!!! My Vietnamese friend who was embarrassed of her “broken Viet” made the decision AS AN ADULT to visit Vietnam where her parents were from. Her two week trip improved her Vietnamese (she claims). So besides Rosetta Stone, traveling can definitely expose you to your own culture! I went to Indonesia for a week and picked up on Bahasa very quick! If I was there for a month, I’m sure I’d be fluent enough to communicate with the locals! Heck, even a friend of mine is so desperate to learn some Tagalog she tuned in on Filipino Teleseryas. But all joking aside, you can either push yourself to learn a language, or you can keep making excuses to justify why you can’t speak a certain language. It’s clear what choice the guy in the article made. He simply believes it is “TOO LATE”. And it’s sad that this is such a big issue in the Filipino community.

      • Beanz

        I think it’s a generational thing. Our parents came here for the American Dream, and in the 70’s and 80’s that meant assimilating. My family joined some community groups, but for whatever reason, I never felt like I fit in. Sometimes I wish my parents taught us Tagalog or Ilocano, but language isn’t the only thing that defines a culture. There’s the food and customs, for starters. It also comes down to what’s important to you. For me, I may never learn Tagalog, but I have my dad’s adobo and pancit recipes, and I’ll pass on to my kids lessons my parents taught me. They’ll learn what being Filipino means to me, and one day maybe they’ll want to learn more.

  • Mel

    My frustration is a bit different. I spoke tagalog and english growing up, but since I never read/wrote tagalog, it’s not always correct (tayo vs kami, maginaw/malamig, etc) … most people get the gist though, and don’t comment at all. Brownie points for trying, right? But every now and then I’ll run into someone who will make fun of me for speaking all ‘bulol’ and suggest I just speak in english. Those ‘titos’ and ‘titas’ often knock my confidence in speaking to strangers … often like that one ‘tita’ who’ll tell you today that you ate too much rice but tomorrow tell you that you haven’t eaten enough. #pinoyproblems

    • gla

      Hey broken Tagalog / Taglish is a start!

    • Someone

      As for me, people make fun of me when I speak in English and tell me “mag-Tagalog ka na lang.”

      It’s just the way people are.
      Funny thing is… it’s called Filipino. Not Tagalog. No one speaks Tagalog anymore.

  • Philip

    I’ve always felt that growing up with one language, has vastly improved my ability to write in a concise manner… because it seems like monolingual people have a better grip on grammar and knowing “what sounds right” when it comes to what words to use. But at the same time, I do understand the glaringly apparent cultural gap that comes with not being able to communicate in my parents’ language.

    I remember as a kid, asking my parents if they could teach me, granted this was in 5th grade, and all they taught me was the alphabet and how to pronounce it ahaha. I only ever retained words that I’d hear the most often, like “tubig” (water) or “tagihawat” (pimple) or “Ay naku!” (Oh gosh), and I can parrot back a Tagalog sentence and read off Tagalog pretty well, but only understand maybe 30% or more depending on the topic. I’ve been to the Philippines five times in my life, and always come back with a new Filipino dictionary but with no means to put it all together, as speaking is daunting with no foundation to start with.

    My biggest problem with Tagalog is grammar (vso word order “Nakita ko siya- Saw I him/her”), word conjugation (kain: to eat, present tense kumakain, past tense kumain, future tense kakain) , and accent pitch (like the difference between bukas meaning tomorrow, and bukás meaning open, as Tagalog does not utilize accent marks like Spanish does ?

    In comparison, my strongest foreign languages, Japanese and Spanish are relatively easy to speak, both because of having the resources necessary to learn the languages in a structured way, Japanese having a huge appeal/learning resource due to Anime ahah, and Spanish being almost English with a phonetic pronunciation in my opinion lol.

    I do definitely feel that knowing how to speak another language puts insight into how other cultures think about things, like with certain concepts that one culture may have a different understanding on, or even why a person learning English tends to make specific mistakes, like why Filipinos tend to mix up “she” and “he” because there is no distinction between the two in Tagalog. I do aim to master Tagalog someday as there are resources like Pimsleur audio and Tuttle books that are sufficient at self teaching, and it would just be awesome to be able to truly speak unhindered with my parents and relatives someday 🙂


Ericka Cruz Guevarra

Ericka Cruz Guevarra is an on-call interactive producer for KQED News. She was an intern with NPR’s Code Switch team in Washington, D.C., where she assisted with production for the Code Switch podcast. Ericka was also KQED’s first Raul Ramirez Diversity Fund intern, and is an alumna of NPR’s Next Generation Radio project at member station KJZZ in Phoenix. She currently studies international relations at San Francisco State University. You can follow her on Twitter @erkagvra or email her at

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