OPINION: My language isn’t useless

A drawing of a pair of open lips. Inside the lips is an abstract drawing of a tree with the sun setting behind it.
(Andrea Zheng • The Student Life)

Just two weeks ago, on March 24, 2023, Harvard University announced that it will be offering Tagalog as a course and a preceptor will be teaching it. This is one of the institution’s steps towards expanding Southeast Asian representation. The formalization of Tagalog, along with Bahasa Indonesian and Thai, radically benefits representation for so many Southeast Asian students like myself. 

I was aghast at an op-ed article titled “Why I Won’t Celebrate Harvard for Offering Tagalog” by Eleanor V. Wilstrom, who, while elated at Harvard’s new language offering, begs readers to be active, not passive, and critically evaluate their institution’s lasting colonial mentality. Wilstrom details Harvard’s history of colonizing the Philippines’ education system through implementing English-only instruction. But Harvard is not alone: American institutions have contributed to displacement of indigenous lands, erasure of history and fully supported imperialism in lieu of nation-building. And one of them is my country, the Philippines. 

The discourse coming out of Cambridge, Massachusetts sheds light on the Claremont Colleges’ lack of language offerings and support for Southeast Asian students as well as other underrepresented groups. Asian languages that are offered here include Chinese, Korean and Japanese. Arabic is offered as well. As for other languages, they offer Spanish, French, German, Italian and Russian. 

Similarly, a look through the Asian Studies course offerings at the Claremont Colleges reveals that the department is predominantly East Asia-centric with South Asian course offerings few and far between. This lack of engagement towards Southeast Asian countries’ histories, development and languages makes me question what Asian Studies actually entails. 

As a Southeast Asian student, I once again feel erased — erased and made invisible. 

I am well aware of the Intercollegiate Department of Asian American Studies (IDAAS) offering robust course offerings toward diasporic history, militarism and issues within the Asian American community. However, I believe that the formalization of languages prevents recognition and active consciousness of the violence immigrants or children of immigrants face. 

I am ashamed, at times, when my English isn’t perfect. Children of immigrants often are not taught their parents’ native language to ensure they can assimilate well. What results is a disconnect from our identities and painful attempts to understand our family who may not speak English well. In this way, assimilation is absolutely violent.

On heritage language loss among Asian American youth, scholar Sheryl Lee highlights: “When the language of home, family and community is not represented in the school, Asian American students come to see a part of themselves dehumanized and invalidated, affective experiences that influence and carry throughout a lifetime.” 

Although Lee’s research specifically addresses California K-12 public schools, it still rings true for many Asian American students here in the Claremont Colleges. Tagalog, as well, is one of the top 12 languages spoken and second most-spoken Asian language in the United States — far more common than French, for example. What, then, warrants a language as useless? 

This tongue of mine burns to speak my language. 

Nevermind that speaking a language other than English symbolizes being un-American. Nevermind being told your native tongue is useless even though that’s what you knew of. Nevermind that speaking something else, other than English, means you are talking shit about another person. Every time I meet another Tagalog speaker, I immediately reply in my own broken Tagalog. A rush of familiarity and yearning for the sounds of the country I grew up in until moving to the United States in 2012 come running back, and I’m reminded of my first home, Quezon City. It is beautiful — and liberating — to speak in Tagalog. 

Language connects us to our identity, family and community. The Claremont Colleges have allowed me to learn more about myself through their Asian American Studies program. It is a matter of time, across all institutions in the country, to expand language learning beyond East Asian languages. 

Zeean Firmeza PO ’26 is from Miami, Florida. She enjoys gaming, drinking Jasmine milk tea and going out.

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