How Migrants Can Learn the Local Language

Filipinos buying groceries in the largest multiethnic food market in Rome: Filipino immigrants, as well as other ethnic groups, hardly widen out and reach out to local people

I am Italian, my wife is Filipina and we live in Italy.

Because my wife is Filipina I have been interacting with the Filipino community of Rome since my wife and I started getting to know each other, I am talking about January 2000.

In this post I will mainly be talking about the Filipino community but the habits and the patterns that keep Filipino migrants here in my country from learning the local language are pretty much similar to those that keep other foreign communities from learning it.

Also, what I mean by local language is any language spoken in rich countries that are not English-speaking, as Filipinos and many other ethnic groups are generally fluent in English, so what I am talking about in this post is migrants who work in non English-speaking countries.

What I have noticed during these past two decades is that the vast majority of Filipinos, as well as other immigrants, who have been living here for more than 10-15 years, find themselves in the very difficult position of having children, or even worse, teenage sons and daughters, whose native language is the local language while their parents struggle to engage in a meaningful conversation in the language of the host country.

For example I know a single Filipina mother who has 3 sons who are in their early 20’s and who were born and raised in Italy and they have never been to the Philippines, not even once, in their entire life.

This means that they speak nothing but Italian and they can’t even speak English (the official language of the Philippines, Tagalog is the national language).

Their mother’s Italian is way too basic and therefore this hardly gives her the possibility to have deep conversations with her sons.

Over the past 20 years I have witnessed hundreds of similar situations.

In some cases the children of immigrants do speak the language of their parents to some extent but the big problem is that their parents’ language is not the language of their “heart”, so to speak. It’s a language they more or less know intellectually but it’s not the language in which they express their deepest emotions and feelings. And the language of their parents’ heart is their native language!

It is way too easy to imagine what kind of communication gap this creates.

Make learning the local language your top priority…at least for the sake of your kids

What I find rather appalling is that many Filipino immigrants don’t seem to view learning the local language as their top priority. Their focus is too scattered in way too many directions.

They work hard to buy a mansion in their homeland, a SUV or an otherwise expensive car.

They also try to provide financially for the extended family, and the Filipino concept of extended family is very broad.

In other words many of them seem to be more concerned with material goals than with finding ways to bridge the language and the cultural gap between them and their kids.

On top of that Filipinos, as well as other migrants, do jobs that hardly give them the opportunity to interact with local people.

For example many immigrants clean their employer’s house while their employer is not around, others clean their employer’s office and so on and so while they work they usually don’t interact much with local people.

These jobs are certainly not the ideal setting for learning a new language.

And on top of that most communities of immigrants in my country hardly widen out, as they are pretty much stuck within the circle of their fellow country people.

And yet learning the local language is absolutely indispensable for them, at least for the sake of having deep conversation with their children.

Being busy is not a valid reason not to learn the local language

In my opinion being very busy, as most migrants undoubtedly are, is not a valid reason for not even trying to learn and, if possible, even eventually master the local language.

I became fluent in Tagalog in a couple of years, during one of the busiest periods of my life in which I had zero free time, and I think that foreign migrants can do that too, and all the more so because most of them have high school or even college degrees so they certainly don’t lack the intellectual ability to learn another language. In most cases it’s just a matter of motivation and finding the right method.

As far as motivation is concerned, as I have said, what motivation could be greater for overseas workers than investing time and energy in becoming able to communicate with their children whose native language is the local language?

What about the methods?

Widen out

Let’s face it: most Filipinos who live overseas, as well as other migrants, form a very closed ethnic enclave within the boundaries of the host country.

Here in Italy Filipinos only associate with other Filipinos, Bengali people only associate with other Bengali, so do Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Africans and so on.

Back in the early 2000’s when there were no smartphones and internet was not as widespread as it is now, you could easily spot where a foreign family lived: if you saw a satellite antenna on a balcony you could be 100% sure that immigrants lived in that house. This means that Filipinos and other immigrants watched nothing but TV programs in their own language.

Now that internet is much more widespread opportunities to watch the news, teleseries and so on in their native language abound for immigrants.

This immensely limits their possibilities to ever become fluent in the local language.

There is no way around it: one can only become fluent in the local language by practicing it and this requires widening out and looking for ways to get past the habit of associating only with the immediate circle of fellow countrymen and opening up to watching the news, movies and so on in the local language.

Going to Filipino gatherings as well as watching Filipino movies like “All My Life” or “Anak”, listening to Filipino songs like “Magdalena” by Freddie Aguilar, “Himig ng Pag-ibig” by Asin etc. proved to be great needle movers for me in the direction of learning Tagalog, as busy as I was to really study the language. By simply widening out and being on the lookout for all opportunities to be exposed to the language I made a lot of progress.

Learn everyday vocabulary

Because, as I said, at the beginning of my journey with Tagalog I was way too busy to really study it, the idea of getting myself a grammar book (which by the way was very hard to find in Italy in the early 2000’s) was overwhelming.

So what I did instead was learning as much vocabulary as I possibly could, I mean the most basic vocabulary, the set of words that we use when we deal with the necessities of life.

Everyday we need need things like sheets, blankets, towels, pots and pans.

So what I did, and what foreign immigrants can easily do, and all the more so because they can now do what was not possible for me to do 20 years ago, namely do some little Google searching, is turn dealing with the necessities of life into a language school.

What I used to do was literally sticking post-its on pots, pans, cupboards, walls, doors, windows where I would write the corresponding term in Tagalog.

Only after spending something like 6 months doing that did I begin to glue words together with basic verbs.

Although my native language is extremely tricky, as far as verbs and tenses are concerned, there is the possibility for learners to only use the infinitive of each verb while speaking.

If you speak Italian by only using infinitives, although it sounds terribile, Italians can easily understand what you are trying to communicate.

I think the same can be done with most foreign languages.

So by widening out, by getting curious and by starting out with everyday word groups like parts of the body, articles of clothing, sizes, shapes, textures, colors, directions, familiar animals and birds, parts of a house and its furnishings and all this sort of stuff and only few months later glueing them with very basic grammar, one can at least get started and gain momentum.

You won’t become proficient this way but you will at least gain momentum and eventually your learning process will snowball and snowball and, over time, you will become fluent and proficient, I promise you.

I started out small but, eventually, gained so much momentum and motivation that I got more and more curious to the point that, under many aspects, I can now speak my wife’s native language even better than she does, at least in terms of the grammar.

So, if you are an overseas worker and you struggle with learning the local language, my message is simply this: no matter how old you are or how busy you are you have chosen to move abroad to provide for your children.

The best way you can provide for them is by building a bond with them and if they were born and raised in a foreign country and you struggle with the language you just won’t build a meaningful bond.

When it comes to learning a foreign language age and a busy schedule are challenges that can successfully be met with the right motivation and the right method.

If you make learning the local language your top priority and gain momentum by starting with baby steps you can and will definitely make it.