Learning Filipino or Tagalog about fostering family connections, exploring heritage

Statistics Canada released data about language as part of the 2021 census of population. Data suggests a growing number of Albertans have learned Tagalog or Filipino since 2016.

Albertans who know these languages up more than 34,000 since 2016, census finds

Jay-R De Lara, who recently started his seventh year as an educator, has been teaching the Filipino Language and Culture program at Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Edmonton for the past six years. (Nicholas Frew/CBC)

When Jay-R De Lara started teaching about Filipino language and culture at Holy Trinity Catholic High School in southeast Edmonton, he felt most of his students were there for an easy grade.

In the six years since, he's watched his program become an environment where a growing number of non-fluent students are learning Tagalog and connecting with the culture.

"I want to share that knowledge," De Lara said. Holy Trinity, in Mill Woods, has a significant population of Filipino students.

"If they continue to take these classes, they will hopefully retain that knowledge and pass it on to future generations," De Lara said.

In August, Statistics Canada released data about language as part of the 2021 census of population.

Data shows that a growing number of Albertans now know Filipino or Tagalog.

English and Filipino are the official languages of the Philippines. Filipino is based on Tagalog, the language of the Tagalog people.

In 2016, about 99,000 people in Alberta had Filipino or Tagalog as their first language. That number increased to nearly 108,400 in 2021.

Tagalog (Filipino included) is now the language most often spoken at home for more than 69,500 Alberta residents, compared to about 55,100 in 2016, Statistics Canada reported.

But the number of Albertans who know Filipino or Tagalog well enough to hold a conversation went up by more than 34,000 between 2016 and 2021 — increasing from about 138,400 people to about 172,600, data shows.

The Calgary and Edmonton census metropolitan areas have the largest populations of people who know Tagalog or Filipino. But the Brooks area, in southeastern Alberta, has the highest proportion of people who know either language — about one in 10 people, data shows.

For Aliyah Cabie, a Grade 12 student at Holy Trinity, learning Tagalog was a way to connect with her grandmother.

Aliyah Cabie, 17, says learning Tagalog is helping her to bridge a connection with her grandmother. (Nicholas Frew/CBC)

Cabie, who was taught Tagalog as a young child, was five years old when her family moved to Canada.

Now 17, she grew up speaking mostly English. She could still understand Tagalog when she heard it, but she could no longer hold a conversation in her first language.

Her mother, she said, "forced" her to enrol in De Lara's Filipino course, but Cabie said she was "pretty willing," especially after her grandmother — who doesn't know English — moved in.

"It has been very one-sided conversations," she said. "I could only listen."

Cabie can only speak broken sentences right now, she said, but it has been fun bridging the connection with her grandmother.

For Mitzy Dimaculangan, a Grade 11 Holy Trinity student who moved to Canada from the Philippines when she was nine, taking the course was about exploring her heritage.

Mitzy Dimaculangan, a Grade 11 student at Holy Trinity Catholic High School, enrolled in her school's Filipino language and culture class to reconnect with her heritage. (Nicholas Frew/CBC)

"I wanted to reconnect with my language and re-learn all the stuff I may have forgotten," she said.

While English is the other official language of the Philippines, Dimaculangan said not everyone who lives there is fluent or understands it.

Learning Tagalog at school has helped her to communicate better with relatives.

Josephine Pallard, a Filipino community leader in Edmonton, has taught the Filipino language since 1979.

There are multiple advantages to learning, she said, such as forming a personal and cultural identity, increasing opportunities, and bridging connections with relatives.

Above all, though, it preserves a legacy — particularly for younger generations who were born in Canada and to whom Filipino is a foreign language.

"It's keeping the legacy," said Pallard, secretary-treasurer of the Filipino-Canadian Saranay Association of Alberta. She's also principal of the Filipino Language and Culture School of Edmonton.

"No matter where you go, you will never forget where you are from. You will never really say, 'Once upon a time I was.' You will always say, 'I am always a Filipino.'"

For Jeannette Dotimas, the census data serves as a sort of validation.

Dotimas, who was born in Edmonton, spent about four years of her childhood in the Philippines before her family returned to the city.

She recalls some immigrant families focusing hard on integrating into Canadian society, in particular, choosing to speak English at home instead of Filipino.

The census data, she said, makes it "undeniable" that Filipinos are here to stay.

"Language is such an expression of culture in many ways," Dotimas said.

"It gives me a sense of pride … It makes us feel like we're not as much of an outsider." 


Nicholas Frew is a CBC Saskatchewan reporter based in Regina, who specializes in producing data-driven stories. Hailing from Newfoundland and Labrador, Frew moved to Halifax to attend journalism school. He has previously worked for CBC newsrooms in Manitoba and Alberta. Before joining CBC, he interned at the Winnipeg Free Press. You can reach him at nick.frew@cbc.ca.