The Philippines first encountered the English language when the United States colonized the country in 1898, after the Spanish-American war. The Americans introduced a democratic form of government, evangelism, migration outside the country, and universal public education. One of the reasons why the Filipinos acquired the English language faster than Spanish was because of American-style universal education.
American soldiers were the first public school teachers in the Philippines. Within a year of occupation, the United States shipped 1,000 American teachers aboard the USS Thomas to the Philippines. Their objective was to establish a public school system and train Filipino teachers. The Thomasites were dispatched far and wide, setting up schools in many villages (baranggay). Within one generation, the public school system produced Filipino teachers and students who were fluent in English.
After the end of American colonial rule in 1946, the public education curriculum continued to be taught in English. Because English preceded Tagalog/Filipino as a national language, it was the preferred language of non-Tagalog-speaking Filipinos for a very long time. English, to this day, is the language of government, law, news and publishing, and education in the country.
Math and science are taught in English. Teachers have resisted teaching these subjects in Filipino because they do not want to retrain in giving instruction in Filipino. It’s also difficult to translate the textbooks from English to Filipino because the Filipino language lacks the vocabulary for math and science.
For practical reasons, the new kindergarten to grade 12 (K-12) curriculum allows teachers to give instruction in the mother tongue (the local language), regardless of the language of the textbook. The Department of Education recognizes 19 mother tongue languages to be used as the language of instruction in multicultural areas.
It is mind-boggling that Philippine K-12 education is delivered in 19 different languages. Instruction in the mother tongue is intended for children in grades three and below because they haven’t mastered Filipino or English yet. As students mature, teachers push children to learn in Filipino and English. There is huge economic incentive to master both languages, especially English. The Philippine government consciously promotes both languages in the education system.
It is nearly impossible to complete higher education without some English competence because textbooks and instruction at university are almost entirely in English. Many vocational courses are also in English. One can expect teachers to use Filipino and English for lectures, but written exams and books are in English, unless the student majors in the Filipino language. For Filipinos, competence in English can reveal one’s degree of educational attainment. Those with poor English skills are perceived as less educated, even if that is not the case.
How Filipinos Speak English
Like other English-speaking Asian countries, Filipinos speak English with a unique flavor. Filipinos have their own expression of the English language, an interpretation that reflects the attitudes, values, and patterns of the culture. There are instances of unique language use and word preferences specific to Filipinos, such as the preference for an embrace rather than a hug. A woman’s purse is only a bag. Sneakers are rubber shoes. Flip flops are slippers, and slippers are sandals. Mr. and Mrs. John are addressed as Sir and Ma’am John. Coca-Cola is Coke. McDonald’s is McDo. There are many idioms and expressions in Filipino English that only Filipinos understand.
|Filipino English||Standard English|
|Open/Close the Lights||Turn the lights on/off|
|For a while||Just a moment|
|Comfort Room or C.R.||Toilet|
|Presidentiable||A candidate for president|
|Carnap||To steal a car, i.e. kidnap, but for a car|
Many English speakers in the country do not realize they’re speaking a special brand of Filipino English until they go overseas or communicate with English speakers from other countries. Suddenly, the Filipino English speaker isn’t comprehensible to the foreign listener.
|Filipino English||Standard English|
|I need to go ahead and find a C.R. It will be just for a while.||I have to leave and find a toilet. I’ll be gone for a moment.|
|You’re giving me a nosebleed. I can pass by your house to talk||You’re confusing me. I’ll drop by your house to talk|
|I’m late because it was so traffic.||I’m late because I got stuck in traffic.|
Filipino languages are gender neutral; there are no “she” or “he” pronouns. There is no word for “brother” or “sister”, only sibling (kapatid). Therefore, it isn’t surprising that Filipinos sometimes confuse “she” and “he”. In addition to the confusion between gendered pronouns in English, Filipinos have a tendency to use plural pronouns in place of singular pronouns.
In Filipino languages, the use of plural pronouns and vague references is a sign of respect. This habit sometimes transfers to the English language. A response to the question “Did John go out?”, may be “They went out.” The singular “he/she” is ignored and replaced with a plural “they”. This is a direct translation of plural pronouns, which, in Filipino language, are used to speak respectfully to an elder or stranger.
It is also considered rude to directly accuse or point towards another person. Instead of saying “John left the door unlocked”, a Filipino will say “Somebody left the door unlocked.” When laying the blame on somebody, one must make the accusation as general as possible. Even physically pointing at a person is rude. Instead, Filipinos look at the accused person and nod toward their direction with their chin or lower lip.
Filipinos also have habit of giving vague, indirect answers, instead of a direct, negative answers. This is a culture trait that sometimes frustrates foreigners, who may view an indirect response as “wishy-washy”. A common negative Filipino response to the question “Does my dress look good?” is “Puede na” or “OK lang” (It’s alright). Offering a clear negative response to an unattractive dress isn’t permitted, as this is viewed as inconsiderate.
Code-Switching Between Filipino and English
Taglish is the child of English and Tagalog. It is commonly used by students and those who want to speak Filipino but have not yet mastered Tagalog and/or English. It is a necessity for language learners, who code-switch from one language to another.
People competent in both English and Tagalog still speak in Taglish. In informal settings and everyday conversation, especially in cities, Filipinos prefer Taglish over straight English because Taglish is more expressive. It is not acceptable to write in Taglish, but the language is prevalent in popular culture, youth culture, internet forums, and advertising. There are regional counterparts of Taglish, such as Visaya-English in the south and Ilocano-English in the north.
There are no steadfast rules of Taglish. It is often the case that when one runs out of Filipino vocabulary, he/she simply replaces the missing word using English. Conversely, when one runs out of English vocabulary, he/she can replace the missing word using Filipino. Speakers may use English for one sentence and Filipino for the next. If one can’t properly express a feeling in English, he/she uses Filipino.
|I stayed up late, kasi I had a deadline, eh.||I stayed up late because I had a deadline (“eh” – a marker to show regret)|
|Here, ba nagcrash yun bus mo?||Did your bus crash here? (“nagcrash” – the English word “crash” conjugated as a Filipino verb)|
Taglish is a mode of convenience, and is in many ways more accessible than solely Filipino or English. Taglish allows the speaker to convey ideas that are better expressed in English, while interjecting Filipino emotions. Similar to other Asian cultures, consensus-seeking and avoiding confrontation are valued in Filipino culture. This value is not reflected in the way the English language is normally spoken. In certain contexts, speaking unfiltered English can seem too direct and rude for Filipino sensibilities. The blow is softened through the use of Taglish.
Taglish liberally uses Filipino discourse particles: context-specific expressions, often without equivalent English translations. Discourse particles express attitude and tone. Some examples of English discourse particles are “hey”, “really”, and “by the way”. Silence fillers like “um” and “ah” are also discourse particles. Filipino English speakers often use Filipino discourse particles, in place or in addition to English discourse particles, in order to manage the flow of a conversation in a more Filipino style. This way, a demand becomes a polite request: “Come, na”; “Do this, na”; “You can go, na.”
Filipino discourse particles can change one’s tone when speaking to someone who is older or younger. An example of this is the use of the polite marker “po” in English phrases: “Yes, po”; “No, po”; “Thank you, po.” Using “po” ensures that even when speaking English, one can acknowledge that the person being spoken to is older or in authority.
A conversation in English with Filipino discourse participles becomes more engaging and inclusive of the listener. The Filipino conversation style has a frequent back-and-forth element, where the speaker constantly seeks agreement with the listener. Consensus is sought out by inserting inquiring pauses and several Filipino discourse particles, such as “ano?”, “diba?”, and “hindi ba?” (equivalent to the English expressions “isn’t it?”, “don’t you think?”, and “agree?”.
The sentences “I didn’t know, kasi. Anybody can make that mistake, diba? Ano…. Sorry, na” translate to “The reason is, I didn’t know. Anybody can make that mistake, is that not so? (long pause) Sorry, na.” “Na” is employed as an emphasis marker. In this context, it is a pleading sound.
A Filipino speaking to a foreigner in English will consciously avoid using Filipino discourse particles. The foreigner will not understand them, and they are not imperative to understanding. However, one will hear the occasional slip, especially of pause fillers and emphasis markers like “na” or “naman” at the end of a sentence. Filipino discourse particles are sometimes used unconsciously as an expression of emotion, much like the English expressions “ouch!” and “hey!”.
Despite its prevalence, Taglish is not considered a language in itself, rather two languages spoken side by side. It isn’t a less prestigious dialect, unlike Singlish. It also isn’t a collection of loan words and phrases in the way that English is adapted in Japan and Korea. Taglish is a true hybrid of standard English and standard Tagalog, or another Filipino language. It is similar to Hinglish (Hindu and English) in India and Spanglish (Spanish and English) in Latin communities in the United States.
Taglish is informal and a more friendly way to speak English in the Philippines. One can expect a news article to be written in Standard English with quotes and interviews in Taglish or Filipino. Interviews on television use Taglish without translations. The same occurs during congressional and court hearings, class lectures, radio broadcasts, and sports commentaries. Advertisements and films with a young target demographic use Taglish to appear more relatable.
Because English is widely spoken in the country, travelers can get by with just English, at least in most tourist areas and large cities. However, they can expect to get stumped when confronted with Taglish; it sounds like English until it doesn’t.
English Language and the International Job Market
As a major international language, English fluency has many advantages. It is the language of the internet, media, science, and tourism. It is the dominant language of business and a prerequisite for anybody joining the international workforce. In the Philippines, English is the language of education and employment. It is also the colonial language; one is seen as having a “colonial mentality” if he/she speaks in English in the wrong situation.
English is integral to the Philippine education system, where, historically, it occupied more classroom time than the Filipino language. Competence in English facilitates employment in the many call centers and BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) companies in the country. English also allows for Filipino employment overseas, in categories from unskilled and skilled labor to professional placement.
While Asian neighbors India, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei model their English on that of the Queen, Filipinos aspire toward an American brand of English. The Philippine’s colonial history with the United States affords Filipinos some familiarity with American culture and language.
The Filipino English accent is often described as “neutral” in the BPO industry. This description means that the Filipino accent is more comprehensible to Americans in comparison with the accents of India and other outsourcing destination countries. The Philippine neutral accent is important, cited by India’s Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Assocham) as a competitive advantage. In 2014, the Indian organization reported a 70% loss of business earnings in the call center industry to the Philippines as a result of the country’s large pool of employable English-speaking graduates.
Call centers and BPO companies account for 7.6 million jobs in the Philippines. The outsourcing industry is comprised of call centers, customer care services, and BPO services. BPO is the outsourcing of non-core business functions, which include software development, accounting, payroll and billing, and collections. BPO companies hire professionals like accountants and lawyers to complete administrative work. Call center companies offer jobs to anybody with at least a high school diploma. Call centers aggressively hire and train employees in competent English communication. The first call center in the country opened in 1992. The call center and BPO industry has grown exponentially since then, boasting a 17% growth in 2016.
There is great incentive for Filipino professionals entering the job market to speak and write in English fluently. The ideal is to speak the language with a “neutral” accent, one that approximates that of an American. Like other international English speakers, young Filipinos struggle to become more understandable to foreigners. This difficulty can be observed among Singaporean, Malaysian, and Hong Kong English speakers, who tone down their heavily accented English dialects when speaking to foreigners.
Philippine Migrant Labor and English
Another employment sector where English-speaking ability is beneficial is overseas employment. A survey of overseas Filipinos estimated 2.2 million active Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) from April to September 2016. Global estimates are higher as they include undocumented Filipinos overseas. Migrante International, an alliance for Filipino migrant workers that operates in several countries, estimates the global number of migrant Filipinos to be 12 to 15 million. The Philippine Department of Labor and Employment placed the global number of OFWs at 12 million in 2012, which is roughly a quarter of the country’s labor force. Migrante ranks the Philippines as the 4th largest labor exporter in the world.
The leading destinations for OFWs are Middle Eastern countries, followed by Singapore and Hong Kong. 85% of OFWs work in other Asian countries. One in three OFWs works in an elementary occupation, while 19% work in services and sales (2016). Professionals make up 9.1%, while technicians and associate professionals comprise 6.6% (2016). Overseas workers remit billions of dollars every year. Among countries with the highest levels of remittance in 2014, the Philippines ranked third, after India and China (Banko Sentral ng Pilipinas). Remittance accounts for 10% of the national GDP.
The top land-based occupations are household service workers, nurses, food service workers, caregivers, and cleaners. All of these jobs require daily face-to-face communication with coworkers, employers, and clients of different nationalities; this makes some competence in English essential. Higher levels of education and English language skills afford Overseas Filipino Workers more job opportunities and higher pay, compared to workers of other nationalities in the same occupation and country. Filipino domestic workers generally earn more than Indonesians, Myanmarese, Sri Lankans, and workers from other Asian labor source countries.
This wage advantage is true for Filipino domestic workers in Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. In Singapore, the average monthly wage for Filipino domestic workers is SGD550 (USD400), while Indonesian workers receive an average of SGD500 (HOME Sg, 2015). The average wage for Filipino domestic workers in Malaysia is USD185, compared to Indonesians, whose average wages range from USD90 to USD175 (Human RIghts Watch, 2011). There is an agreement between the Philippine and Malaysia governments to maintain a USD400 monthly wage for Filipino domestic workers, but the rate of compliance to the agreement is unknown.
In Asian countries, Filipino domestic helpers are sought out as a way to bring English into the home. English-speaking domestic workers help teach English to the children of their employers. They also qualify for other jobs outside of domestic work and earn higher pay in hotels and restaurants, a trend most visible in the Middle East. Many teach English in non-English-speaking Asian countries.
Language-Specific Occupations in the Philippines
A quick search for job openings for interpreters and translators in the Philippines reveals few options. It is difficult to make a career as a Filipino to English translator, as the skill is not in demand. There are occasional job posts for subtitle writers, who write Filipino subtitles for English films. Academic researchers and surveyors in need of local language speakers to conduct interviews sometimes post job openings, but these positions are uncommon and often given to students.
More lucrative translator and interpreter occupations in the Philippine job market are those of Japanese to English, Mandarin to English, and Korean to English. Job posts for Portuguese, Spanish, French, and German to English translators are rare in the Philippine job market, but there is a demand.
While the translator/interpreter market is slow, the market demand for English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers is voracious. A cursory search on a popular classifieds website in the Philippines reveals more than 400 job posts for ESL teachers, compared to fewer than 20 job posts for translators and interpreters. Job listings for ESL teachers invite applicants with varying levels of qualification, including students, graduates without experience, and to qualified teachers. Applicants can work full- or part-time. The only non-negotiable requirement for teaching English is that you speak the language clearly.
ESL students come from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, and Russia. The students either come to the Philippines for classes or take lessons online via Skype. ESL academies are open year-round. The students who enter the country do so with either a student or tourist visa. Student visas require enrollment at an accredited school that accepts foreign students. However, most ESL learners come into the country on a tourist visa and enroll in private ESL academies. Korean and Japanese students hire Filipino tutors to help pass English exams in their home school system. Most learners study with the more modest goal of building enough skill to converse in English.
Student numbers and teacher hiring increase during long school breaks, such as winter, spring, and summer vacations. ESL students encompass a wide range of ages, from primary school to college and working professionals. Some ESL learners come to the Philippines to study for the two most recognized international English exams: TOEFL and IELTS. Exam reviews are more rigorous than regular ESL classes. Both Filipinos and foreign students enroll in exam reviews.
South Koreans make up the largest population of ESL tourists visiting the Philippines by far, followed by those from Japan and China. All three Northeast countries have restrictive labor migration laws. The demand for English teachers in these countries is high, and the costs for an English tutor are prohibitive. Thus, it makes perfect sense to come to Philippines for a month or longer for cheap and effective English lessons.
The Philippines is a multilingual and multicultural country, located in a region considered one of the most culturally diverse in the world. Polyglotism, or having knowledge of more than two languages, is the norm. In Philippine society, a monolingual Filipino will have difficulty in school, making friends, getting a job, participating in community, and even keeping up relations with extended Filipino family members. Monolingualism is not practical and very rare for individuals who grew up the Philippines.
In the Philippines, a grasp of several languages does not make one a “polyglot genius”. This is only an extension of a diverse cultural background. The largest population of bilingual people in the country are most likely ethnic Tagalogs in the Tagalog region. Filipino students are required to learn two to three languages: English and Filipino, plus a mother tongue language. Because the Filipino language is based on Tagalog, there is no need for ethnic Tagalogs to learn Filipino as a second language. Most Tagalogs speak only two languages: Filipino and English.
Ethnic groups outside the Tagalog region typically master three to five languages. Members of any of the majority ethnic groups – Ilocano, Cebuano/Visaya, and Hiligaynon – likely speak three languages. For instance, an ethnic Ilocano will speak the Ilocano language, in addition to Filipino and English. Members of an ethnic group that is not the lingua franca of the region master four languages: the language of their ethnic group, the lingua franca of the region, English, and Filipino. Members an ethnic minority are likely to master five languages: the language of their village, the language of the ethnic majority of their province, the lingua franca of their region, and English and Filipino at school. The farther away an individual is from a cultural center, the more languages he/she will need to learn in order to increase mobility.
There are other reasons to learn an additional language as a child or adult. People who marry outside their ethnic group learn the language of their spouse. Children of mixed marriages learn the languages of both sides of their family. A child who wants to make school friends from different communities learn a new language to do so. Filipinos who work abroad are likely to pick up the host country’s language; this is especially true for countries like Japan and South Korea, where it’s very difficult to get by without any understanding of the local language.
The Filipino languages with which an individual is familiar are a direct reflection of his/her social relationships and the unique cultural space they occupy. Filipinos speak the languages of their family, hometown, and home region. English and Filipino are learned at school but can also be taught at home by parents. Filipino and English are promoted by the Philippine government. Both languages are paramount to success in the Philippine education system.
One can’t make a living as a Filipino-English interpreter because English comprehension is widespread enough to make the job unnecessary. Other than in academic pursuits, there is limited monetary value to speaking several Filipino languages. After all, the Tagalogs only speak Tagalog, and they occupy the most prosperous region in the country. However, there is high social value to speaking the languages of one’s island, wherever in the country it may be. It is very difficult for those who do not speak the local languages to fully participate in society. They often find themselves left out of conversations, unable to haggle at the market, and constantly overlooked.
English is the language of education and government. It grants access to international job opportunities, vast information on the internet, and foreign friends. However, English, like Spanish, marks a colonial legacy. As the Philippines became independent, it needed to promote a Filipino language as part of its nation-building arsenal. Because Tagalog is the language of its capital, Manila, it was chosen as the base language for Filipino. Filipino/Tagalog achieved slow acceptance in the south because it competes with the existing regional southern languages, Visaya/Cebuano, Hiligaynon, and Waray.
To get the best jobs in the Philippines, one must learn English. But English isn’t spoken in the streets. There’s a strange compartmentalization in the Filipino mind that separates the language of business from the language of friends. The rule is to write and read in Standard English for school and work but speak to friends in Filipino. Even in business and classroom situations, Filipinos tend to speak Taglish or another combination of Filipino-English instead of Standard English. In some ways, Standard English still feels foreign, as it is too formal, direct, and condescending as a colonial language. It must be remolded to fit Filipino manners and values.