Tagalog for Dummies
Native English speakers are used to being around people who speak the language with an accent, poor grammar, or weird, foreign-sounding expressions. We don't think much of it beyond the standard: "I wish they would learn to speak English."
But this is not always the case when English speakers try their skill at other languages. There are some obvious stereotypes that are well known. I have found some to be true, and others not so. But that is just one man's experience.
I have had a few run-ins with the uncharitable French who treat non-French-speaking foreigners with a certain Gallic disdain. But I hasten to add that they are overly forgiving of their linguistically challenged foreign friends!
The Italians pour out lavish praise on the visitor who blurts out even a simple phrase or two from Italian for Visitors, and the Germans politely just switch to English. The Japanese have a totally exclusive club; and no matter how well one masters the language, they are never even permitted an application form. The Japanese-speaking foreigner is just that – a foreigner above all. A Gaijin he will always be.
The Chinese club is different. I guess they feel that if anybody is willing to go through the language hell of learning to write the zillions of characters that they had to pound into their heads as children, then they merit a lifetime honorary membership. Of course, if one joins that club, he or she must be prepared to get wrapped up in all the traumas and dramas of membership!
But in my experience, Tagalog takes the cake. Like Dutch, Danish, and Lithuanian – not only do few even attempt it, most don't even know what it is! It is formally known as Pilipino, the national language of the Philippines.
For centuries the Filipinos have used their language as a sort of refuge. They just assume that absolutely nobody can understand them when they talk among themselves. Generally speaking, they are right. But now and then, a foreigner manages to learn it. This is very unsettling for them.
As a rule, the only westerners who study Tagalog, or the other languages of the 7,000-plus islands of the Philippines, do so to fulfill missionary callings. But even at that, when a Filipino hears his secret language coming out of the mouth of a white person, or Kano, he or she generally freaks out. Kano is short for Amerikano, a term used for all white people, much to the chagrin of Europeans, Brits, and – above all – Canadians.
There are three stages of reaction to a Kano learning Pilipino. The first stage is amusement. The first three months of language school are considered to be a lark. “Like, isn't that cute? Look, the Kano is learning a few words and phrases.” And any attempt to use those first simple phrases are met with polite giggles and encouraging little comments like: "Oh, you speak such good Tagalog!" Don't fall for it!
After the six months of the daily grind, and after mastering two of thirteen verb prefixes, one may feel his wings a bit and begin using the language with a fair degree of skill – albeit in conversation and not for abstract philosophical discussions. But, at this point the reaction is quite different. "Oh, you make so many mistakes when you speak Tagalog!" But, they do feel the need to help, and constant corrections are the order of the day.
At the end of a year, and with the necessary fluency to keep up and use the language effectively enough to communicate, the third and final reaction sets in. That's when they use a famous expression: "Hindi binili kayo ng buhay!" That is a high compliment, and one must really take it with humility, as they would never say it unless they meant it. Gone are the days of false flattery and condescension. This expression means: You can't be sold alive. It refers to ang baboy (a pig). Fat, happy, and ready to become dinner, the pig is oblivious to the farmer and merchant discussing his value and price. He is being sold alive. The implication of the compliment is beyond saying, "You're better than a pig." It means you have joined their Filipino club, and are privy to their secrets. But, I assure you, that moment comes with a chaser. "Now we will have to be careful what we say around you!" You better believe it.
There is really only one compliment superior to this, and it is the one that is said behind your back. If it ever reaches your ears ... believe me, it makes the struggle of learning worth it all.