Although I've lived in Manila for all but four years of my life, I speak atrocious Tagalog (or Filipino, as we are now supposed to call it). Seriously, I can barely converse for more than two minutes without floundering for the right word, and attempting to read in the language involves a sort of mental gymnastics as I struggle to translate into English--more often than not missing the nuances of the writing in my battle with the literal meaning of it.
No one actually spoke to me in Tagalog until I was around nine years old. I kid you not. My mom was a U.S. Army brat who grew up all over the States and to this day speaks worse Filipino than me. ("Kananan! Kananan!" she used to yell at taxi drivers, mangling the word for 'right' as she pointed insistently to the left.) My dad is from Cagayan and speaks only Ilocano and English; and my grand-aunt, who lived with my family till I was twentysomething, spoke Spanish, English, and something known as Ibanag. So the only way everyone could understand each other in my household was to speak English--even our helpers were chosen based on their level of fluency in the language.
Because my mom worked for the U.S. Navy, my brothers and I even started our early school years in the American school at JUSMAG in Quezon City. We were so ignorant of the local tongue that one day, as we were all playing with the neighbor kids in our backyard, my older brother spotted a snake and was literally tongue-tied, trying to remember the Tagalog word for the damn thing. He actually stood right in front of the snake for several moments, thinking: 'Awit?' 'Iwas?' 'Ewan?' before finally giving up and yelling: "Snake!" as he hightailed it for safety.
Unlike people in Hong Kong, Japan, or, notoriously, France, Filipinos will speak to you in English if you address them in that language. Possibly it's an aspect of our hospitality tradition, but regardless of their actual proficiency in English, Filipinos will struggle manfully or womanfully along with the tongue in order to save you from having to struggle in our tongue. They will think it's cute when you mispronounce words, and will even forgive you for singing their national anthem with the ludicrous lyrics 'Lupang Hinarang'. ('Blocked land', as opposed to the more proper 'Lupang Hinirang' or 'revered land'.)
I was so spoiled by this that I actually flunked Filipino in high school the year that we studied the Filipino classic Noli me Tangere. In my defense, I had just returned from two years of high school in Alabama, and was occupied with trying to eradicate my acquired Southern accent, aside from trying to relearn my limited knowledge of the language. Besides, Noli was a stupid, boring book--or so I thought until I finally read the English translation, and discovered that it was actually a pretty damn good read.
It makes me wonder how many other things I miss all the time, having been "brung up wrawng", as they would say in Alabama. Going to U.P. for college significantly improved my facility in Tagalog, but from time to time I still need to have the occasional joke explained to me, or to be told that the song title Tanging Yaman means 'only treasure', not 'stupid treasure'. (Thanks again, Ron!)
At least, unlike one of my old AmBoy friends, I know that the plural for pakwan (watermelon) is not, in fact, 'pak-two'.