International Institute, January 6, 2014 — Let’s be clear, Filipino is not an easy language. For a native speaker of English, it ranks in difficulty only after Chinese, Japanese and Arabic — and that’s primarily because it’s written in the Latin alphabet.
“Otherwise,” says Nenita Pambid Domingo (“Tita” to her students), “the structure of the language is very complicated.” Domingo has been a full-time lecturer in Filipino language, literature and culture at the UCLA Department of Asian Languages and Cultures since 2003.
Each year she engages her intermediate Filipino students in the massive task of publishing Liwanag at Dilim, an online Filipino-English magazine, with contributions from UC Berkeley and other universities across the United States and Japan. The year-long project hones students’ language skills while enabling them to develop vocabulary in areas of greatest interest to them, both personally and professionally.
Taking on a challenge
Also known as Tagalog, Filipino is actually the preferred name of the national language of The Philippines, as specified in the country’s 1987 constitution. Given the difficulty of the language, most students in the UCLA intermediate class are heritage speakers, meaning they grew up speaking the language at home.
For a non-heritage speaker, it is a fearsome task to go from speaking no Filipino at all to helping produce the annual edition of Liwanag at Dilim in a mere year and a half. Yet that’s precisely what Meghan Hynson, a UCLA Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology, accomplished, thanks to two Foreign Language and Areas Studies (FLAS) Fellowships awarded by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education through its Title VI program, FLAS grants are intended to enrich the nation’s pool of area and international specialists.
A student of the music of Southeast Asia, particularly that of Indonesia, Hynson speaks fluent Indonesian. But she needed to complete a second language requirement for her doctorate. Rather than study Dutch — the language of Indonesia’s colonial past — she decided to try her hand at another language of the region.
She began studying Filipino in 2012, when a summer FLAS grant enabled her to complete an intensive beginner course at the University of Wisconsin. She then immediately enrolled in UCLA’s intermediate Filipino class for the 2012–2013 academic year, supported by a yearlong FLAS grant, eventually becoming the English-language editor of the online magazine that year.
“Tita let me tailor a lot of my projects to focus on music and art,” notes Hynson, “so I got to learn a lot more about those things through the class. . . [She’s] great because she incorporates a lot of culture and history into her classes — it's not just language learning, it's a whole big package.”
Still, it was an ambitious undertaking. "Knowing Indonesian coming in helped a lot," she notes, "just in terms of knowing the root words and the affixes [elements placed at the beginning or end of a word stem]. I would have been completely, completely lost otherwise — I was still kind of lost sometimes!"
A magazine as a pedagogical tool
Domingo’s content-based curriculum for the intermediate class responds to a felt need for greater cultural content among her students. Liwanag at Dilim builds on this approach to create a magazine that appeals to language students and the worldwide Filipino community, including Filipinos living in both the diaspora and the homeland.
“It's actually a showcase for the students' work, as well as a way for people in The Philippines to keep abreast of what's happening in the United States,” she notes. The magazine also serves the global community of Filipino teachers by including articles on pedagogy and research, adds Domingo, as there is a dearth of published materials on Filipino language learning.
“It's a bilingual magazine because we are targeting people who may be interested in Filipino culture,” explains Domingo, “but do not speak the language or do not have reading comprehension of the language.” Each article in the magazine is thus published in both Filipino and English, which requires two language editors. For the latest version of the magazine, published in June 2013, Hynson served as the English editor and Gladys Contreras, as the Filipino editor.
Intermediate students create articles for the magazine based on their presentations, papers and class discussions, as well as on 30-day blogs that they must all prepare. Some students write about traditional food and recipes; others write reviews of movies and stage plays; others write about current events, such as propositions that will be considered in upcoming California state elections. There are children's stories, short essays, poetry and short stories, as well as articles on Filipino artists in Los Angeles.
Additional contributions to the magazine come from students in UCLA’s introductory Filipino class, as well as from other universities. Students at UCLA’s partner school in the project — UC-Berkeley — are the biggest contributors to the magazine, but articles are also submitted by Filipino language students at UC San Diego, Osaka Gaidai in Japan, the University of the Philippines, the University of Hawaii-Manoa and the University of Michigan.
All articles are submitted in both languages, then rewritten based on corrections from the editors. "It's a good learning device,” remarks Hynson, “because you're forced to look at your mistakes and fix them.” She notes that in previous language classes, “I've only really had to write in the target language. But going back and translating into English what you are trying to say helps [your language skills] in a different way.”
Domingo confirms that writing articles in both languages is a powerful pedagogical tool. “It functions to help you clarify what you really want to say,“ she remarks. “When you back-translate, you realize, ‘Oh, this has no equivalent in this culture, so how would I say it?’"
The publication is truly a class effort, says Hynson. Although she was in charge of English-language editing, she explains, “We tried to delegate responsibilities throughout the class and spread out the actual workload.”
Altogether, the ninth edition of Liwanag at Dilim contains some 381 articles, the Filipino text appearing first, followed by the English text. Even if you don’t speak Filipino, you can read the magazine in English at the Liwanag at Dilim 2013 website — it offers a wealth of information and insights into the Filipino language and culture.
And be on the lookout for the 10th edition of the magazine in June 2014, when Domingo’s current intermediate Filipino class produces another massive publication. Edited and published at UCLA, the magazine is truly a global undertaking that serves a global audience — another reminder of how the forces of migration and globalization are changing the world.
Nenita Pambid Domingo appeared on the Tim Ferris Experiment, a show aired on the basic cable and satellite television channel HLN, on December 15, 2013. The segment, “Language Learning” (see a preview here), is about learning basic Filipino in a big hurry!