There’s a nice story by Patricia Leigh Brown in today’s NY Times about Michael Cox, a Santa who talks to kids in their own languages:

This evening, amid frilly tulle snow and Muzak carols, Santa alighted at the Hilltop Mall with a melting pot in his sleigh.
“Maligayang Pasko,” said Michael Cox, 46, the multilingual Santa Claus, to 3-month-old Ghenne Delfin, speaking Tagalog, the language of the Philippines. “Merry Christmas.”

The North Pole may not be known for its diversity — if holiday television specials are to be trusted there are just elves, reindeer and the Clauses. But as the Santa fluent in eight languages took his seat at the center of the mall on a green wing chair in a wooden castle, the North Pole was transformed into California, with Christmas greetings in Spanish, Italian and Arabic:
“Feliz Navidad.”
“Buon Natale.”
“Idah Saidan wa Sanah Jadidah.”
Here in Richmond, across the Bay from San Francisco, it can be easy to disbelieve. This is a place that, when it attracts notice, it is usually because of its high crime rate or industrial pollution. But Richmond and surrounding communities like Hercules and Pinole have long been a portal for Filipinos, Mexicans, Chinese, East Indians and other newcomers who bring their languages, traditions and expectations of a better life.
“Namaste,” Santa said, greeting 7-year-old Chandi Kaushari and her two younger sisters in Hindi. Chandi confided a wish in a universal language. “Barbie,” she said…
In Tagalog, Punjabi, Hindi and Arabic, in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin, girls in velveteen dresses and boys teetering on their fathers’ shoulders knew Santa Claus was speaking especially to them.
“They seem to spark up more,” Mr. Cox said. “He cares about them. He speaks their language.”
To parents like Jai Kaushari, a 28-year-old salesman whose daughters, Chani, Roshni and Kajal, speak Punjabi and Hindi at home, Santa’s linguistic gifts mean a lot.
“They understand him,” he said, standing beside the crackling video-screen fire. “So they trust in Santa.”
“Habla español?” Santa asked Danielle Sanchez, 3, as she climbed into his lap with a look of trepidation. “Cinco for Santa!” he said. And she gamely gave him five.
“Ilang taon na sya?” he said in Tagalog to Nancy Delfin, a 29-year-old sales manager, asking her the age of her daughter Ghenne.
Ms. Delfin said she appreciated hearing the language of her parents and grandparents in this public place. “Especially for little kids who aren’t able to visit their homeland, this is like speaking to a Santa in their hometown,” she said.

Yeah, yeah, Tagalog isn’t “the language of the Philippines” (it’s the official “national language,” but there are lots of others, and Cebuano has more native speakers), and being able to say a few phrases in a language doesn’t make you fluent, but I’m going to cut the Times some slack on this one, since they’re not trying to give us a linguistics lesson, just a feel-good story. Maligayang Pasko!


  1. Cebuano was indeed the language with the most speakers in the Philippines, but Tagalog surpassed it in the 1970’s or 1980’s (don’t remember offhand).
    The 2000 Philippine census for Visayan languages is very flawed; Cebuano went down from 16 million speakers in 1995 to about 11 million or so in 2000. Many, clearly, were lumped into “Bisaya” just like other Visayan such as Hiligaynon or Waray-Waray. Tagalog, OTOH, had 20 million in 2000 but I think the statistics may be inflated.
    Maligayang Pasko / Malipayong Pasko / Maogmang Pasko / Naimbag a Paskua / Mayap a Pasku to you. 😀

  2. Thanks for the update — but if the stats for Tagalog are inflated (which seems plausible), how can you be sure it’s now the majority language (which is obviously the impression the inflation was meant to produce)?

  3. Maligayang pasko at manigong bagong taon!
    There’s a strong Tagalog bias in the Philippines that’s questioned by some scholars. Even the formation of Filipino, the national language is problematic, since it’s mostly composed of Tagalog words.

  4. I base this on the fact that Metro Manila is home to many “immigrants” coming from non-Tagalog regions in the Philippines. Many of these people have children whose become more fluent in Tagalog than their parents’ tongue.
    My family’s an example. My paternal grandfather is the the child of a Cebuano father and a half-Tagalog/half-Ibanag mother. My paternal grandmother immigrated to Manila from the Bicol peninsula but her father has Ilokano roots. My maternal grandmother is half-Tagalog and half-Bicol.
    With the exception of my paternal grandmother, they consider themselves native speakers of Tagalog and don’t speak the non-Tagalog languages well at all. Their children – my aunts and uncles – speak only Tagalog and virtually all of my cousins and siblings no longer speak Tagalog due to living in the US.
    In any case, I think Cebuano & Tagalog are still neck and neck with Tagalog having the advantage. Based on what I know about the census, I look at the statistics with caution.

  5. Here are the statistics, if you are interested.
    Tagalog speakers: 23.8%
    Cebuano speakers: 24.4%
    Tagalog speakers: 29.7%
    Cebuano speakers: 24.2%
    Tagalog speakers: 16,911,871
    Cebuano speakers: 14,713,220
    Philippine population: 65,036,621
    Tagalog speakers: 20,044,487
    Cebuano speakers: 14,486,196
    Boholano speakers: 1,434,529
    People on the island Bohol speak a Cebuano dialect. So I guess that should be: 15,920,725
    Tagalog: 21,485,927
    Cebuano*: 10,030,667
    Ilokano: 6,920,760
    Bisaya: 5,778,435
    Hiligaynon*: 5,773,135
    Bikol: 4,583,034
    Waray-Waray*: 2,567,558
    Kapampangan: 2,312,870
    Boholano*: 1,837,361
    Pangasinan: 1,362,142
    Maranao: 1,035,966
    Maguindanao: 1,008,424
    Kinaray-a*: 1,051,968
    Tausug: 918,069
    *Refer to themselves as Bisayas. Tausug is technically a Bisayan language but Tausugs don’t consider themselves as such (the word is synonymous with Christian); they’re more partial to their Muslim roots.
    There are about 30 more groups that call themselves “Bisaya.” So the Bisaya you see in the list could be any of those.

  6. the word is synonymous with Christian
    Which word? (And thanks for all the great info!)

  7. Bisaya’ is synonymous with Christian for some Tausugs. However, technically, Tausugs are the descendants of Visayan-speaking people in northeastern Mindanao – where Butuan City is.

  8. What does manigo mean?

  9. Rica Llorente says

    Do you have the percentage of the Philippine population who speak English based on the Philippine Census 2000?

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