I have been blessed with the ability to pick up foreign languages quickly. But to be fair, I'm not the greatest at staying motivated for retention purposes. I guess I'd like to think of myself as more of an experiential learner these days. Learning on the fly, out in the world, instead of hunched over a textbook or dictionary. And language is one of the best areas of study for this. I can walk around my city and have constant interaction. There is always someone new around, either a group of young kids walking to school or an elderly woman washing clothes. They are always mesmerized by the fact that I can converse with them in their own language (I'm fairly adept in Tagalog and have picked up a bit of the regional dialect Bicol-Albay from locals). The problem I have is that despite my persistence with Tagalog, a majority of these conversations always resort back to English.
I have asked myself over and over again, "why is this?" American influence back in the early 20th Century? English taught in schools? Their perceptions of me as an English-speaking westerner? Translation problems? Sure, all of these play a role. But when it comes down to it, English is commonly seen as a universal language in our world today (although not by all countries). It's also a way for them to practice their skills, and for many, as a means to a better life.
And we help facilitate this. Through media. Through everyday interactions. And through acknowledging that everyone we meet probably knows at least a few basic words. This is generally true in the US, but when I joined Peace Corps, I anticipated that adopting a new language would be a top priority. However, the Philippines has a rich Americanized past, one which has integrated the English language firmly into its society. Sure, many of the people I work with, mainly impoverish fisherfolk, don't speak a lick. But others, including many of my coworkers, are very skilled. So much so that when I can't think of a word in Tagalog, I use the English equivalent and assume that my counterparts or community members understand me. Hell, half the time I hope that someone else will speak to me in English so my brain can take a rest.
My mental struggle is over the sense of pride identified with language. I have come to appreciate a part of this as many Filipinos have exclaimed to me, "it brings me so much joy to here you speak our language." They genuinely care when foreigners take the time to immerse themselves in their culture, in their life. Even when I was in Bali, the warm look on people's faces when you said "suksma" ("thank you") shared so much of their internal gratitude.
Whether its me sharing a bit of English vocab with my host family or an exuberant friend enjoying a playful conversation with me in Tagalog, the satisfaction I can see on their faces is something I will always hold dear. And it certainly helps keep my experiential studies going ;) Language is quite a powerful tool.