From Tagalog to Korean, these Asian Americans are using quarantine to learn their families' languages

“The global crisis has really made people re-evaluate priorities. ... For some people like myself, it might be reconnecting with their roots,” Danielle Colayco said.
Image: Danielle Colayco and her daughter, Audrey
Danielle Colayco and her daughter, Audrey, have been taking virtual Tagalog classes together during quarantine.Courtesy Danielle Colayco

Danielle Colayco starts every day talking to her 5-year-old daughter, Audrey, in Tagalog. She greets her good morning, asks her some simple questions and tells her that she loves her.

The second-generation Filipina American grew up in Southern California, not knowing a word of her family’s language. But during quarantine, she started taking weekly online Tagalog classes through the program Tagalog With Kirby, while her daughter participates virtually through TagalogKids.com.

“I didn’t realize how much I was missing that part of my identity until I started exploring it more,” Colayco, executive director of the nonprofit Komoto Family Foundation, told NBC Asian America. “The global crisis has really made people re-evaluate priorities and what’s most important in life. For some people like myself, it might be reconnecting with their roots as part of self-care, in a way that’s accessible.”

Colayco is one of a growing number of Asian Americans who are using the coronavirus lockdown to learn their heritage language. With so many online communities, Zoom workshops and resources now available, many are using their downtime at home to brush up on language skills to communicate with relatives, reconnect to their heritage or better appreciate their culture.

Yu Li, an assistant professor of modern languages and literatures at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said learning a new language can be particularly beneficial during the pandemic. It can help mitigate feelings of anxiety, depression and meaninglessness by providing an opportunity for growth, self-confidence and a new way of perceiving the world.

“It fits this mode we’re in right now, as we have time,” she said. “It takes us into a different world since we can’t go out. At the end of the session, you feel a sense of accomplishment, having been transported to a different mode of thinking through language.”

Among the other vast benefits of learning a new language are better memory, positive attitudes toward other cultures and greater academic and business achievement.

Tammy Kim is managing director of the Korean American Center in Irvine, Calif., which provides beginner and advanced Korean language classes.Courtesy Tammy Kim

Tammy Kim, managing director of the Korean American Center in Irvine, California, said interest in learning Korean grew when the state’s shelter-in-place order went into effect.

For several years, KAC has offered popular adult Korean-language classes as an official King Sejong Institute designated by the South Korean government. After the program readjusted from in-person classrooms to Zoom breakout sessions, students stayed enrolled and interest remained strong. The center then expanded its weekly classes to accommodate more students across the country.

While most of the students this year are non-Korean — including those who work for Korean companies, want to visit the country or have a strong appreciation for Korean art and culture — Kim, who said she grew up in a “quasi-Korean-speaking” household, said the value for Korean Americans is clear.

“We need to reclaim our heritage, our culture,” she said. “It’s our identity. Without any knowledge of who we are and where we came from, how can we then advocate for our community when it comes to policy, anything along those lines? How do we advance ourselves as a people in this country?”

Kim said one major challenge is avoiding “Zoom burnout” and keeping students at all levels motivated without feeling fatigued. She tries to do this through casual chat rooms on the mobile instant-messaging platform KaKaoTalk and special cultural programming.

Others are turning to less formal methods to learn their heritage language.

The Facebook group Subtle Filipino Traits has become a starting point for those interested in learning ethnic Tagalog. Almost weekly, members from around the world post about their Tagalog exposure and tutoring resources, immersing themselves in popular TV shows and music.

Programs like Tagalog With Kirby, Fil-Am Learners and Suyomano Academy have used the quarantine to expand their platforms, providing downloadable materials for kids or adding cultural classes, such as cooking, cultural dance and mythology.

“Learning our language, traditions and history are all essential to understanding ourselves,” said Jackielyn Junio of Suyomano, which launched in August. “It’s your responsibility to know your history, to learn from your family and your ancestors and learn the histories that link to your existence so that you know how to tackle your future successfully.”

From live podcasts and music classes on JapanesePod101 to supportive communities like the Discord Language Learning Network, interested learners have gotten creative in the quarantine. For these Asian Americans, it starts with a shared appreciation for the language and a desire to pass it down generations. Learning is an opportunity to come together and reconnect with their roots.

Colayco, the mother in Southern California, admits she still has her “training wheels” on when it comes to Tagalog, but learning alongside her daughter has been worth the effort. It has helped her build confidence over the shame she felt growing up of not knowing her family’s language.

"When you raise a child to understand the culture and language, it’s resilience-building," she said. "You instill confidence, which I hope will stay with her as she grows up."

CORRECTION (Sept. 10, 2020, 12 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the name of a Loyola Marymount University professor. She is Yu Li, not Li Yu.