Name: Mark Ong
Nationality or Ethnicity: Filipino of Chinese origin (Chinese Filipino/“Chinoy”)
Where do you live?: Manila
Languages: English (native), Tagalog (native), Philippine Hokkien (heritage languages/fluent), Mandarin Chinese (fluent), Japanese (fluent), Korean (conversational), Spanish (proficient), Brazilian Portuguese (conversational)-
Currently learning (regularly): Russian (conversational), French (conversational), Polish (basic), Italian (basic), Bahasa Indonesia (basic), Quechua (basic).
I also learn other languages irregularly through friends, programs, or books as a hobby and pick up as much as I can.
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
Well, I belong to the Chinese minority in the Philippines, a group that comprises only roughly 2% of the Philippine population. In our community, it is quite common to learn/speak three to four languages and code-switch naturally without giving much thought or effort.
Strangely though, even if our community has always been innately multilingual, actively learning other foreign languages was largely seen as an oddity (these days not so much anymore, thankfully). I was always an odd child. Aside from the usual obsession with video games, my best friends back then were my encyclopedias, and I would marvel at books and articles talking about geography, world history, zoology, and other branches of science and social studies. Growing up, I was severely bullied for showing interest in these topics and discouraged from “being weird,” which in turn had contributed to struggles with anxiety (which I was not aware of, as topics concerning mental health were considered taboo before). To cope with the emotional pain and stress, instead of hanging out with my peers, I would go to the local bookstore and spend an hour or so each day in the travel and language section reading phrasebooks. On many occasions, I was even compelled to buy some of the books because the staff had started noticing that I only went there to read and then leave empty-handed.
When I graduated high school and entered university, I met some international exchange students for the first time, and it hit me… I wanted to see if the phrases I had learned were correct. I started with the simple greetings, and it turned out well. The students were quite impressed by my efforts, and I was able to make a few friends out of them.
The whole experience inspired me to take a semester abroad as an exchange student, and I opted for Japan. There, we were required to take an intensive Japanese course that allowed us to immerse ourselves fully in the local environment, and upon our return to the Philippines, we were already conversationally fluent. A few days after I got back, I met up with a Japanese exchange student who was studying at our university and spoke to her in nearfluent Japanese. She was extremely surprised and started to tear up, telling me that it was “amazing” to hear me speak to her in her native tongue after months of communicating only in English. Moreover, one day, I got home from my university classes and decided to play my old Playstation games, which were mostly in Japanese, for old times’ sake. I was so shocked to find out that I had understood almost everything after years of frustration and trial-and-error; the whole experience was intensely impactful that I found myself sobbing happily in front of the TV, much to the confusion of my family.
Soon, our university started having an influx of Korean students enrolling in our basic English program. Most of them did not speak any English, and it was really difficult for us to communicate with them. I soon learned that the Korean grammar was largely similar to the Japanese grammar, so I decided to self-study the former to better understand and communicate with the students. Within a few months, I was picking up the language quite quickly.
Upon graduating from university, I became more and more interested in learning different languages, but I was never really confident enough to get out of my comfort zone and learn non-Asian languages seriously. It wasn’t until I went to Poland for a volunteer program in 2016 that I started exposing myself to European languages. I had learned a little bit of Polish over the Internet prior to the program, and I found it particularly helpful in communicating with the locals and making new friends. When I returned home, I started learning Spanish by myself and with a little help from some friends I had made over the Internet and soon, Portuguese. A year later, I reconnected with an old Spanish friend who had studied at my university and some Brazilian friends I had met in Japan two years prior speaking their languages, and it felt absolutely wonderful finally being able to communicate with them in their native tongues.
I soon started seeing the value of learning languages, and decided on a career change. I then took different accreditation courses, got my proficiency test certificates, started my postgraduate studies in anthropology, and worked as a foreign language instructor. I now work as a freelance language instructor, combining my training in anthropology and my passion for language and culture, and I hope to set up my own language consultancy firm and engage in many different language and heritage preservation projects in the future. Who would’ve known that the very thing that indirectly brought misery upon my adolescence is now the foundation of my career and purpose in life? I’m sincerely looking forward to see how far I can go with every new language I learn.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Russian and French. These two languages have always been my Achilles’ heel (especially French) because I had always thought back then that their grammar and their pronunciation were something I could never achieve learning. Despite having friends whom I can practice with and a multitude of resources to study, I always fear not being able to get past my personal learning block. I’m extremely grateful to have native Russian and French-speaking friends who are very supportive, and I make sure to study and practice the two languages whenever I can.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
This is quite a tough question. As a budding future anthropologist, I believe that it is important to understand where people are coming from, and I always make it a habit to learn the native language of the people I meet. Even if I travel to a country, region, or visit a community for only a few days, I’ll always expect to meet a local and even attempt to make friends with them. That being said, as of now, there’s not really a particular language I’d wish to learn because I’ll keep learning whatever I can, whenever I need it or feel like it. However, as someone from a cultural and ethnic minority in my country, I always value the importance of preserving one’s own heritage. So I guess I can say that I’d love to learn more minority and indigenous languages in the future.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
Oh, I used to have my biases, but now, I really can’t answer that. I guess having learned or attempted learning many different languages and having grown up speaking four languages, I’ve become a chameleon of some sort, adjusting myself to the situation or the cultural environment. That means there are times that I would find someone speaking Spanish particularly attractive and then suddenly find myself craving for an hour of non-stop Japanese podcasts. How one sees languages is not only subjective in terms of personal taste, but it depends on the mood, the situation, and many other factors. This is the reason why I always find a great deal of charm, appreciation, and appeal in every single language.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
I think it’s being able to break cultural and social barriers and make new friends along the way. I feel that every time I do so, I understand other people so much better. I also particularly love the moving feeling of reuniting with an old friend speaking to them in their language. Once, I almost cried when I reconnected with an old Brazilian friend speaking Portuguese after years of communicating in English (now, we just mostly speak in Portuguese).
6. Some people say the world is really just going to have a few languages left in a 100 years, do you think this is really true?
Well, yes and no. I’ve lived through it as a member of an ethnic and cultural minority in the country. I only started actively learning my heritage language, Philippine Hokkien, when I was sixteen years old, and now I see the importance of preserving one’s heritage and identity after having lived my first years thinking that I could largely get by in life with English alone. I grew up surrounded by four languages, and in my social circle, people can mostly manage in just two. As a matter of fact, my younger extended family members largely only speak English. However, now that I offer private conversational Philippine Hokkien classes to those (especially younger ones) who want to reconnect with their roots and immerse themselves into the Chinese Filipino community, I feel that there’s hope in reviving minority languages. So yes, it is sadly possible given that influential and powerful institutions and policy-makers continue to exert their linguistic hegemony, both directly and indirectly claiming that the standard language or a certain language is “more useful”, “more practical”, or even “cooler”. But given that the younger generation is also more self-aware and gives particular importance to preserving their identity, compounded by the ease of information sharing in the age of fastevolving, modern technology, there’s a high chance that these minority languages will be preserved and even strengthened in the future.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Stay curious and inspired! The world is so much more colorful and beautiful the more languages you know (even if they’re just a few phrases). There’s only so much you can get from knowing one language, so imagine how much you can achieve by learning another (and another… and another!). Think of it like a video game played in real life. Every single word you learn is a power-up, and every proficiency level achieved is a key to the next stage after having defeated the boss. Moreover, you’ll be surprised at how quickly strangers become friends just because you took the time and effort to learn something in their language. Nothing beats the smile you put on another person’s face after having greeted them in their native tongue.