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By David Haldane

Sept. 27, 2018

It was just another homework assignment. Isaac, my seven-year-old son who recently entered second grade at a private school in Surigao, had to write, memorize and recite a short story in Tagalog.

Tagalog, of course, isn’t the first language of a kid who’s spent most of his life so far in Southern California. But here’s the thing; neither is it the first language of his classmates, most of whom have grown up speaking Visaya. And yet, at St. Paul University Elementary School, they teach it, pray in it, use it to recite the Philippine equivalent of the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the national anthem in it. They also spent every Monday during the first month of school dressed in traditional Filipino garb derived from, you guessed it, the culture of Tagalog.

Historically, the primary practitioners of that culture were the people of what is now Manila and Central Luzon. Having a big chunk of your home territory become the capital of a large country, of course, has some distinct advantages, chief of which is the promulgation of your language and culture as the entire nation’s. And so, it happened that, after decades of twists and turns, Tagalog – now officially called Pilipino – became the country’s legal national language, along with English. That, despite the fact that only a quarter of the population speaks Tagalog as its mother tongue or traces its lineage to the early culture of Manila/Luzon.

Initially, of course, there was some pushback from provincial residents who spoke other languages, most commonly various forms of Visaya. In fact, there are still Filipinos – particularly members of the older generations in the deep provinces – who are less than proficient in Tagalog. In a nod to them, the Philippine National Department of Education implemented a program during the 2012-13 school year requiring public school educators to teach children in their local native tongues during the first three grades. Then, in the upper grades, the languages of instruction become Tagalog and English.St. Paul, the private school my son attends, has opted not to teach the local language at all despite its presence in a city where the primary means of communication is a form of Visaya called Surigaonon.

So, what does any of this have to do with expats in the Philippines, particularly Westerners? Simply this; that, in terms of language and culture, the Philippines is moving in exactly the opposite direction as that of the West. In short, the people, government and educators of this island nation have recognized that unified language and culture make for a unified – and therefore stronger – country.

That was once the underlying assumption of America. The country’s founding motto, after all, was E Pluribus Unum; Out of Many, One. Come to our shores, the Statue of Liberty seemed to beckon, and we will make you a single people. Nowadays, it seems, America’s driving theme is diversity. Come to our shores and we will respect (and let you keep) your own language and culture; no need to adopt ours. Thus, many immigrants come with that expectation. Without wandering too far afield into the treacherous area of politics, let me just say this; I believe it was the negative reaction to that trend that elected the current President of the United States. And it is one of the primary issues fueling the ongoing debate and sharp divisions regarding his presidency. Whichever side wins the argument may ultimately determine the very nature of our native land.

Halfway around the world in Surigao, meanwhile, my young son needed a story for school. So, I helped him write one in English, which his mother translated into Tagalog. Here’s the short version:

There once was a boy named Isaac, who lived in America. He liked living in America, had lots of friends and enjoyed taking long walks in the desert with his mom and dad. One day his parents gave him some surprising news; the whole family, they said, was moving to a faraway place called the Philippines. At first, Isaac didn’t want to go; who would he talk to and what about his friends? Despite his objections, however, the move was made. The first day in his new school, Isaac cried; everything seemed so scary and strange. Then he met a boy who was nice, just like his friends back home. Soon there were other new friends too, and Isaac began to miss his old friends less and less. But who would take him for walks in the desert, he wondered. “Don’t worry,” Isaac’s dad told him, “now Mom and I will take you for walks on the beach instead.”

And so, they did.







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A former Los Angeles Times staff writer and winner of a 2018 Golden Mike award in radio broadcast journalism, David Haldane fell in love with the Philippines on his first visit there in 2003. A few visits later, he also fell in love with the beautiful young Filipina to whom he is now married and, with whom, he has returned many times. David has written extensively about his experiences in the Philippines for several publications including Orange Coast and Islands Magazine. Today he and Ivy, along with their eight-year-old son, Isaac, divide their time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City, Philippines. His award-winning memoir, Nazis & Nudists, recounts, among other things, the courtship of Ivy and finding a place to call home. For David that turned out to be at the tip of a peninsula marking the gateway to Mindanao where he and Ivy are building their dream home next to a lighthouse overlooking the sea. This blog is the chronicle of that adventure.






  1. Luke Tynan says:

    Thank you for the article. And I agree with your feeling about the US and one of the reasons that President Trump was elected and some do not like him. Glad to see your son is beginning to enjoy living in the Philippines. It is a beautiful place with many wonderful people. I love the culture here.

  2. John Reyes says:

    Hi David –

    I wouldn’t be too concerned about the foreign languages your son suddenly has to learn. It sounds daunting at first, but remember that like most 7-year olds anywhere, Joshua is at the most impressionable age. Young kids like that have the natural ability to pick up a foreign language quickly just by being around friends and classmates, though rudimentary and conversational at first. I think in a year or two, you may be surprised at his fluency in Surigaonon. That’s the first step. And, if you plan to be in the Philippines for the long haul, inevitably, he will learn Tagalog as well, mainly through watching television. Correct me if I am wrong, but aren’t MOST Philippine TV shows, entertainment and news broadcast in Tagalog even in Mindanao?

    As regards some Filipinos’ resistance to Tagalog as the unifying language of Filipinos, let me ask, when a Filipino meets another Filipino, strangers to one another, in a foreign country, in what Philippine language do you think they speak? Tagalog, of course. It is the universal language of ALL Filipinos. In all my life in the States, I have never met a Filipino who spoke to me first in Ilokano, or some other Filipino language. It has always been in Tagalog.

  3. Nice story!

    Of course you realize that your son will pick up the local dialect like air. I think Filipino will gradually become second nature as well.

    Up here in the north, some folks have noticed that Iliocano, as spoken by the young people, is becoming somewhat homogenized with Tagalog. Possibly from the influence of TV. Still, Tagalog is rarely used. We have a hodgepodge of dialects in our area. The indigenous folks from the mountains are often proficient in three or more, usually Ilocano, and Tagalog, in addition to their own.

    For myself, I’ve enjoyed traveling in cosmopolitan areas like Europe, where I hear several languages in use. As much as I dislike large cities, I actually enjoy walking around in the big New Jersey city where my Mother-in-Law lives. One block will be full of Filipino businesses, with advertisements in Tagalog. The next, Indian. Then, Arabic. Then Cyrillic. It’s not new. Been that way for generations. Folks there seem to have a wonderful way of both keeping their traditions and getting along.

    Take care,

  4. Brent Johnson says:

    I had always thought Tagalog was pushed as the National language by the Spanish so they could more efficiently communicate with the natives and rule over the Philippines using young “common” language. On a side note, my wife went to St. Paul University elementary, high school, and graduated from the University as well in Surigao.

    • John Reyes says:

      Hi Brent –

      You may be right, but I honestly do not have any knowledge of the Spanish “pushing”
      Tagalog as the national language for the reasons you stated. But, it doesn’t mean it did not happen. They may have “pushed”, but was it actually implemented? In my mind, the national language of the Philippines during the Spanish era was Spanish, officially, and was also the language of law and commerce.

      If there was any “pushing” by the colonizers, it was done with the sword and the cross. The Spanish was successful in converting the pagan natives to Christianity, and through the friars, they were successful in communicating with them through the Church. Tagalog may have been only a dialect spoken in Luzon during the era, and not a language capable of unifying a nation as it does today.

  5. Dave Joellenbeck says:

    Great writing as usual