Friday, July 8, 2011

Montreal to Mayumi to Madison

My studies have taken me away from Montreal yet again, this time to the Madison, Wisconsin. I'm here to learn Tagalog (or Filipino), one of the main languages spoken in the Philippines. Tagalog was originally spoken by people living on the island of Luzon. The word "Tagalog" come from "taga ilog", which means "people of the river".

So why come to Madison when I live in one of Montreal's Filipino neighbourhoods? Why not just study with a language tutor or focus on language learning during my next field season? In a nutshell, it's because:

  • learning languages is a big challenge for me and the discipline of a formal course is extremely helpful;
  • the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers a special Southeast Asian Languages Summer Institute (SEASSI) that attracts scholars from other American universities, as well as scholars from foreign institutions;
  • UW-M has an excellent collection of Southeast Asian library resources, which are not easily accessed in Canada (or even in Southeast Asian countries);
  • SEASSI is a great opportunity to network with other students and professors studying Southeast Asia. 

I am under no illusions. An intensive two-month course will not make me proficient enough to conduct my research without a translator. Understanding the nuanced meanings of a spoken or written language  (often) takes years of dedicated (informal or formal) study. Learning vocabulary or grammar doesn't confer the knowledge required to decipher culturally-embedded expressions or (in)appropriate ways of asking questions and expressing ideas. The beginner language course will, however, make life a lot easier and more enjoyable during the next field season. And it will open doors. More importantly, it will show respect and facilitate more intimate connections with people.

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Having no background in linguistics or the history of language, I am limited in what I can say about languages in the Philippines. The nation's two official languages are Filipino and English, although there are dozens of other native languages spoken throughout the archipelago. I am unclear of the selection process (and politics) that led to Tagalog and not other languages being named the national language of the Philippines. In an effort to assuage any bitter feelings harboured by non-Tagalogs, government officials decided to call the national language "Filipino", even though it is essentially Tagalog.

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While my life here in Madison revolves around language classes, there is some time for other activities. I hope to share some of them here.

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