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  • My first few years of life was without television. The way I came to know English was through old western movies shown in run-down bedbug-infested movie houses that ranked of beer and mothball heavy curtains on its screen. John Wayne movies were a favorite of my father's. As her little girl, he would take me with him to these movie houses on those rare moments that he was home.

    He was a compulsive gambler, my father. Sometimes, when my mother has run out of money and food to feed us seven children, she'll take me with her to one of those mahjong houses, to get my father. She relied on me to charm him back home with my mixture of affectionate cajoling, exaggerated story-telling and dramatic begging. In the end, my father would give in to my mother and me, probably because I have embarrassed him enough among the other mahjong players with my stories of scandals of our neighborhood and my sharp, unapologetic tongue.

    On those moments that he'd come home early enough, he'd take me and my mother to the movie house. Due to the marathon mahjong games, he'd soon be snoring very loudly (there were not too many people who watched old John Wayne movies, so we were never escorted our of the place) but I was always curious to ask my mother why there was smoke around and above the trains or why the cowboys had "can-opener gears" on their boots and pretty much everything else that was happening in the story.

    But my mother didn't speak English. Nor were there equivalents of names of the things being shown in the Filipino language. Not understanding the western movies. yet yearning to brag about my little luxury of seeing them on the big screen, I pretended to know how to speak the language and retell the stories to my playmates when I would come home.

    I articulated syllables that had no real meaning, with exaggerated inflections and a lot of nasal twang that, to me, was how American English sounded. Soon, my playmates, not to be outdone, and perhaps realizing that they were only made-up words, started speaking "American Western English." Not long after. we all "spoke" English. It didn't matter that we really didn't understand each other and that our lip-and-lingual movements (that we were not used to) were a tiring and tiresome exercise.. After all, we weren't really meaning to mean anything.

    And thus is how the game of "Speak English Only" started among me and my very young friends..

    The Soundcloud link to the NPR podcast:
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