How I Settled on Nalang

I speak three languages. Ok, more like two and a half. And no, ten years of classroom French, one year of classroom Italian and six-weeks of online lessons of Portuguese don’t count.

English is my native language (even though it’s not the first language I learned), Filipino (Tagalog) is my second (near-fluency, even though it’s the last language I learned), and Arabic is the first language I learned. Due to the Gulf War in 1990, my Arabic fluency deteriorated after I left Kuwait when I was 8 and was gone for 15 months. Clear as mud right?

Not using a language for that long in your child development years can cause you to lose it–fast. Now that I’m in my 30s, I can read and write Arabic, but my comprehension is shit. I really should try to pick it up again…apparently it’s useful now that Middle Eastern people are (stereotypically) dangerous, rebellious and cool.

If you speak more than one language, you’ll know that there are phrases that just don’t translate well into another language. I cannot count the amount of times I’ve said “lost in translation” or “how do you say it…errr– I don’t know” with an inadequate explanation of what I’m trying to convey.

There is a phrase in the Tagalog dialect that is used all the time: ‘nalang’. My classroom Tagalog is weak, so I Google translated it. I also used a Filipino-English dictionary. I found various translations but for the sake of this post, I can argue that a loose translation is ‘instead’. So, to put in a sentence, I would say “instead of going to the restaurant, let’s go to the café”, or “let’s read this book instead of the other one”.

Now, this seems innocuous enough. You’re simply communicating an alternative to whatever decision you’re contemplating. You choose one thing over another.

While I don’t represent all Tagalog speakers in the world, coz you know– there are millions of us– only recently did I notice a pattern of how it is used. I was watching a Filipino movie a while back, and it suddenly hit me: when ‘nalang’ is used in dialogue, the secondary option implies an inferior one. In other words, it invites us to consider settling.

From then, I started to pay more attention to how I used it myself. I noticed that in the many years of speaking the dialect, when something was too hard or out of reach, I used ‘nalang’ when I came up with an alternative that was easier or more accessible. If I was communicating to a Tagalog speaker, I ended my sentence with ‘nalang’.

How is this related to being a blocked creative, you ask.

Well, it affected my self-talk.

‘Nalang’ became a common, default phrase in my daily mental chatter– when I talked to myself in Tagalog of course (most of my mental chatter is in English). It was the default phrase I used when I felt defeated and submitted into a decision that was self-limiting. It was how I understood it when I would justify the (lesser value) decision I was making. It became an inner-dialogue crutch.

I’m sure there are people that use it properly i.e. presenting two options that are of equal value. But the context in which I heard it growing up tells a different story. When my relatives used it, there was an implication of inferiority in the latter option presented.

When I struggle with analysis paralysis and have a tough time making a big decision, sometimes I use the term ‘nalang’ in my head to arrive at a more compelling, low-hanging fruit of a decision. ‘Nalang’ options were the easier, settling options. But not necessarily options that served my best interests in the long run.

I remember applying to graduate school when I was in my early 20s and thought to myself that there was no way I could go to a prestigious American university for my Masters because the cost was exorbitant. So when I was talking to a family friend one day, I remember saying “I’m just going to stay in Canada nalang, and go to a cheaper school”. The grad program I got into was pretty good but the one I was looking at in the States was the best in North America. Even though I used the phrase correctly, it was the insinuation of the (lower) value of the option I picked.

I’m sure that even if you don’t speak Tagalog, there are phrases you use which are self-limiting. An obvious one is ‘just’. I’ve seen a few articles on how people—women especially—need to stop using it: “I just wanted to check” is popular when trying to politely tell someone to do something, and they haven’t done it (“SEND THAT DAMN PACKAGE ALREADY!”). It conveys low confidence and doubt, fearing you’re harassing, bothering or interrupting someone. I used to be guilty of it all the time.

In relation to creativity, I remember sticking to techniques I knew too well when applying make-up, or, as a vocalist, selecting songs I knew made my voice sound good but wouldn’t test my vocal potential: “I’ll just use that make-up brush nalang” or “I’ll just sing this song nalang”. It kept me from venturing outside my comfort zone. These were decisions that were easy and didn’t encourage growth.

Words are powerful. They form thoughts, which paint a picture of our perceived reality. If these words are healthy then bring it on. If they’re negative but constructive then take that mental candy too. But if a feeling of unease follows, then check your self-talk.

Now, I avoid using ‘nalang’ unless it’s simply a blatant translation of ‘instead’. And let me tell you—that shit ain’t easy. Changing your self-talk vocabulary takes mindfulness. It requires consistently paying attention to what you tell yourself because you’re essentially changing your auto-pilot voice. And that bitch is hard to get rid of, just like your Negative Nancy or Debbie Downer voice. Remember that consistency is key.

Moral of the story: we need to stop ‘nalang-ing’ ourselves. It holds us back.

Do you have phrases or words that hold you back? What are they? How do they make you feel?

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