At work I am sometimes asked to review documents or emails written in English. My co-workers also turn to me for confirmation when they are not sure a word is in the correct conjugation or when they want to ask for more suitable words to use in particular cases. They put their faith in me because, as they say, I am a “native speaker”.
Personally, I feel it is naive of them to trust someone just because they are native speakers. I have found that a lot of people aren’t very good at proper and formal speech/writing in their native languages, so the “native speaker” criterion for me just isn’t enough. But I’m not writing this to talk about whether or not trusting native speakers to proofread formal documents or emails is a good idea. Rather, I just want to talk about my uneasiness with being dubbed a native speaker of the languages I speak.
According to the definition given in the online Cambridge Dictionary, I’m not a native speaker of English. The language spoken in my family was Bisaya. I learned both Filipino and English in school. As a child, I used to be amazed at other children who spoke English with their parents at home. And I remember at school, anyone who spoke English outside of class would be laughed at, ridiculed, or bullied by the other kids for being “pretentious”, because speaking English somehow equated to being rich, smart, and fancy.
Even the definition given in Merriam-Webster still doesn’t qualify me as a native speaker of English. There are many languages from the Philippines but English isn’t one of them. Granted, English is currently one of the country’s two official languages. My city’s local language is Bisaya, and our dialect is heavily influenced by the one used in Cebu City. The national language of the Philippines is Filipino, a standardized language based from Tagalog with influences from various regional languages in the country. Like English, I learned it in school and unlike English, I can actually use this definition to call myself a native speaker of Filipino.
Unfortunately, I am more comfortable speaking English, and without a doubt, I can read and write in English a lot better. And I mean a lot. My Filipino grammar is good, if I do say so myself, but my vocabulary is just terrible. Thanks to relatives living in various parts of the Philippines and going to college in Metro Manila, my speaking skills did improve, though. If it’s just a casual conversation, I mostly don’t have problems anymore.
This definition from Oxford, though, may qualify me as a native speaker of English, depending on how you define “earliest childhood” (yes, definition recursion!). But let’s just say that I do fit this definition. Even though I only started regularly conversing with other people in English after I got into college, I regularly wrote in English ever since I could write. I wrote for the school paper, in online forums, my blog posts, and in writing contests. For fun, I wrote (bad) stories, (horrible) poems, essays, and letters. And despite almost never saying a full English sentence (besides greetings) outside of school before college, I did say and hear English words within Filipino and/or Bisaya sentences.
For most of my life, conversing in English never really meant to speak only in English. It meant to speak mostly in English and use English grammar but with a word or two from Filipino or Bisaya. To speak in Filipino meant to use it as foundation and borrow its structure but use English or Bisaya words here and there. Likewise, speaking in Bisaya meant I will probably throw in an English or Filipino word in every now and then and that’s still okay. No one really cares.
I will just accept definition number 3 and call myself a native speaker of English. But what really unnerves me more than that? Being called a native speaker of Bisaya.
It scares me that I pass all three of the above definitions to be called a native speaker of Bisaya. Because like I said, I usually speak in Bisaya with a lot of Filipino and English words mixed in. And I can’t even say “that’s okay because almost every language now has some English and/or other languages mixed in it” because I probably can’t last 1 minute talking to someone in Bisaya without saying a non-Bisaya word.
I tried writing a small conversation just off the top of my head using only a single language. I know, I know. A lot of words in one language, even if they are now considered part of that language, aren’t really from that language. But let’s forget about all that because I just want to keep this simple. I finished a small conversation in English easily, and though it was stiff-sounding and not something I would say in a real conversation, I also finished one in Filipino. Heck, I even almost finished one in Japanese! (Before I forgot the Japanese word for “order” and had to stop.) But I couldn’t even finish the third line in Bisaya.
There doesn’t seem to be a language I am actually confident enough to say I’m a native speaker of. Sometimes I wonder if I can just opt out of having to tell people my native language. I never know what to say when they ask me. And sometimes, people have certain expectations of you when you say you’re a native speaker of X. Even though I know people always make mistakes in spelling in grammar because of various reasons, sometimes I feel pressured at work to always use “perfect” English. I’ve probably made several mistakes already, I still get nervous whenever they ask me to review things. I have this irrational fear that one day, my co-workers will send something I reviewed to our US branch, the people there will say “Why didn’t you ask a native speaker to check this?”, and my co-workers will just be like, “We thought you said you spoke English. Weren’t you a native speaker?”.
In terms of my ability to express myself though, I’d say English, Bisaya, and Filipino, in that order. Still better when I can freely use all three.