Proverbs in the Intermediate Filipino Language Classroom

Fall 2021 Fellow: Karen Llagas

When asked about goals for enrolling in an Intermediate Filipino class, student responses usually cluster around communication (“to be able to talk with my grandparents…”), identity formation (“to learn about my origins and culture”) and professional and scholarly growth (“to be able to use Filipino as I pursue medicine/law/social work/research..”). The current design of our Filipino courses responds to these student goals by teaching language within a critical pedagogy framework while also using a ‘functional-situational’ strategy that cultivates communicative proficiency. This multifaceted approach is not without complications—there’s often a divide between the students’ expected language output, one that often emphasizes instrumental uses of Filipino, and the critical analyses that are also expected of them, as they engage with authentic texts that engage with Philippine history and society.

This BLC project explores how teaching proverbs can be used as an intervention to engage this tension, as proverbs are one of the most portable ways to critically teach culture in a language classroom. Not only are they succinct, which makes them well-suited in an intermediate language classroom, they also show what is valued in a culture, as well as how people connect those values in their material world. “Proverbs are folkloric metaphors but unlike other oral folklore they are not set apart or restricted to certain domains of usage. They are highly integrated into daily conversation and speech.”  (Penfield & Duru, 1988).

It can also be argued that proverbs—how they are imagined and constructed—exhibit the collective symbolic systems of a nation and its speakers. There are many premises and counterpoints contained in a proverb’s diction and syntactical structures. Thus, proverbs can be employed to bridge the gap between communicative and symbolic literacies in the Intermediate Filipino classroom. They can productively criticize Filipino and Filipino-American culture and society, facilitated by indigenous wisdom contained in them. “Culture in foreign language (FL) education today is no longer conceived as the mere context in which a FL gets learned and used, but a process by which we construct, interpret and negotiate the symbolic meaning of the world around us and of our place within it. An eminently “political” process.” (Kramsch, 2019).

Sample student work from the pilot (Fall 2021) and some instructor reflections:

Proverbs in the Intermediate Filipino Language Classroom

One of the proverbs I used in the pilot was one on the Bahay Kubo (a simple Filipino house made of native materials; literally, a “cubed house”):

Aanhin pa ang palasyo kung ang nakatira ay kwago?  
What use is a palace if an owl lives in it?

Mabuti pa ang bahay kubo, ang nakatira ay tao.
Better to have a bahay kubo if people live in it.

(translation: Karen Llagas)

In this simple utterance, one can sense immediately the tension between an aspiration for a modern, upscale house and the reality that many Filipinos live in houses made of humble, native materials. The word “palace” is especially interesting in a Philippine context because of how singularly unique and out of reach it is, and its associations with Malacañang, or the presidential palace—the most elite of all possible dwellings in Philippine society—housing the presidential family and their entourage. Engaging with this proverb invites us to go beyond knowing the literal meanings of the Filipino words for “palace,” “owl,” “bahay kubo,” and “people;” to interrogate the rhetorical relationships among them, and their connotations and symbolic meanings in Philippine society. An expanded discourse can be a discussion on social class and position, even an opportunity to state and examine both the students’ and the teacher’s positionality and place of relative privilege.

During the pilot, after the initial decoding of the proverb for its literal meanings, students leapt almost immediately to find its equivalence in American culture. They made connections to more traditional American proverbs that express the same idea (“Money doesn’t buy happiness”) but also to the Gen-Z-coined phrase “toxic hustle-culture.”  They expressed all of this during their slide presentation, in which they were free to talk in Filipino and in English.

When I first designed my lesson plan, I have written these as my considerations for teaching Proverbs in the Intermediate Filipino language classroom:

1. Students’ access to communities of native-speakers for research

2. How do meanings & assumptions change in the diaspora?

3. Notions of geographic, cultural & generational distance – how does one engage with proverbs given our limitations of place, time & knowledge

4. Context  – contending & contesting with values contained in proverbs

Reflecting now on these considerations, in future iterations of this lesson, and in particular with this proverb, I would like to explore the second and third considerations more, to probe what it means to engage with this proverb from the periphery and margins of Philippine society. In our discussions, for instance, we can explore where we feel we most belong/feel safe/sheltered/at home. How does this contrast with a society’s or dominant culture’s expectations of “belonging,” in an externally-imposed “palace,” so to speak, and how is it measured in today’s culture of pervasive social media and emphasis on individual achievement? In this way, there might be a more substantial bridge back to the original proverb’s context in Philippine culture.

The full paper will be submitted for publication.