Truths About the English Speaking Philippines

A Language Dilemma!

If there is one thing that causes many expats to choose to move to and live in the Philippines during their retirement years (aside from the warm and friendly people), it might be the fact that the Philippines carries the billing of being the most proficient English speaking country in the region… but there are caveats!  The most common form of English spoken is Philippine English (similar and related to American English) which is any variety of English native to the Philippines, including that which is used by the media and the vast majority of educated Filipinos (wikipedia). English is taught in schools as one of the two official languages of the country, the other being Filipino (Tagalog).  Therefore, the Philippines overall tends to be more of a friendly country for English speakers. But it’s not that simple.

Although is has been presumed that nearly 96% of all Filipinos understand the official Filipino language, it’s estimated that only a quarter of the population actually use it in everyday life and tend to use their more regionally dominant language or dialect. Due to this highly multilingual nature of the Philippines, there is allot of code switching going on such as Taglish (Tagalog-infused English) and Bislish (English infused with any of the Visayan languages). In the area in which we live, my wife has heard locals switch back and forth between Waray to Cebuano (Bisayan) to Tagalog… with some Taglish thrown in for good measure.  Code-switching is prevalent across domains from casual settings to formal situations. It’s why I gave up trying to learn the Waray-Waray dialect years ago. As a non-native speaker, it was difficult (if not impossible) for me to distinguish and sort through all the language differences. At my age, it’s just too coplex for me to grasp it all. It was just easier for me to stick to trying to learn one language – A little Tagalog (along with a little beer drinking) goes a long way regardless of where you might hang your hat here.

When majority of a population chooses to use a language other than the official “national language,” it makes for many inconsistencies and a reduced speaking proficiency among all peoples. This factor may be attributed to why the country as a whole has been slow to evolve with the adoption of English as the dominant second language. It’s one of those cases of “When in Rome”  I suppose. Although English might be well accepted here, it is far from being perfected as a second language.

Not Everyone Speaks English!

Mike Cabigon of the British CouncilPh writes that (aside from English speaking countries) the Philippines is known globally to be one of the largest English-speaking nations with more than 14 million of it’s residents having at least some degree of fluency in the language. It is the language of commerce and law, as well as the primary medium of instruction in education. The Philippines’ proficiency in the [Business] English language is a strength that helps drive the economy and has made the Philippines the top voice-outsourcing destination in the world, surpassing India in 2012. I will point out that call-centers here train must their English speaking employees to an effective level of micro language policies, relative to the variety of English spoken in the Philippines.  While it is true that English is an “official” language here, it is similarly true about the low percentage of the Filipino population that is ‘proficient’ in English. Fourteen million proficient speakers out of a population of over 100 million is barely 14% of the total population. So in reality, the number of English speakers in the country is relatively low (yet higher than any other neighboring country) and is a concern of the British Council that the government needs to address the gap in qualified ESL teachers and the issues around ensuring the quality of ESL schools.

Receptive Bilingualism.

What prompted me to craft this post – the English speaking ability of the Filipino population – is due to the many differences in opinions and misconceptions I witness almost daily across the social media spectrum. Remarks I’ve seen vary widely from “I have trouble communicating with most people I meet” to “Everyone I have ever met in the Philippines speaks good English.” Neither one of those two statements are true. In the Philippines, there seems to be many English language deniers; both Filipino and foreigner alike. Some Filipinos actually think that the number of English speaking nationals is much lower than it really is while some non-natives claim otherwise. 

The one thing I will agree with is this: The number of Filipinos that understand English is much higher compared to the number that can speak English. Take a stroll down any street in most any part of the Philippines and you will notice that most all advertising is in English. Most all product packaging is printed in English. Some TV news stations produce their shows in English and Tagalog while some major newsprint publications do the same. From major billboard advertising in Manila to restaurant menus in Cagayan Valley to the mom & pop sari-sari store signage in the south of Mindanao… it’s all in English. My Philippines driver’s license is also printed entirely in English! So… where are all the English speaking people you might ask?

If you ever studied a foreign language during your schooling days – me, I took French in middle school (I believe it was my mother’s idea) – you might still remember a handful of words. But can you genuinly string a coherant sentence together? There is a huge difference between understanding a language and being proficient at speaking that language. This is called Receptive Bilingualism. The majority of the Filipino population falls in the group that knows many words, but cannot verbalize a simple sentence. I tend to be that way with Tagalog, where I might understand a third of a conversation, but could never converse myself. The 1980 census counted the number of Filipinos with some competence in English at around 65%, or some 35 million people. It was learned that English ability ranged from a smattering of words and phrases through passive comprehension to near-native mastery.

English – The Medium of Instruction.

Though English is given much time, focus and priority in education, Filipino is still considered essential. The argument of whether or not English should be the medium of instruction may seem endless. Here in the Philippines, English and Filipino are taught, beginning in Grade 1, with a focus on “oral fluency.”  In Grade 4, the subject areas of English and Filipino are gradually introduced, but now, as “languages of instruction.” It is sometimes the case that multilingual children learn English and happily speak it when they are small, but then something slowly changes and in their teens the children no longer feel confident in using their ‘minority’ language. It happens gradually and is how English proficiency suffers rather than improve.  While historically education in the Philippines has been plagued with high dropout and illiteracy rates, the Kindergarten Act of 2012 and the Enhanced Basic Education Act of 2014 seem to be making an impact on students. Those pieces of legislation extended the required number of years in formal education from 10 to 13, adopting the K-12 model that’s relatively standard around the world.  Currently in the Philippines, the medium of instruction in Science and Technology, Mathmatics, Home Economics and Livelihood Education, continues to be English. To summarize at this point: English speaking ability among Filipinos is directly proportional to their level of education.

Communicating Frustrations.

                               A Bungee Cord

On the topic of expat perceptions of whether most Filipinos speak English (or not), there can be many underlying issues.  It could be safe to say that many, if not most Filipinos understand many English words, and that ability has been derived through many mediums: school, work, advertising, and a long passive process. It is also safe to say that when you ask most any Filipino “How much does this cost,” they fully understand what you are asking and will reply in the simplest of terms. But ask someone “Where would I go to find a bunjee cord?” and you will likely receive only a look of confusion in return.  Ask someone for directions and you might only get the response “Ober Der” combined with a head nod and some lip pointing. One of the biggest frustrations many foreigners have in communicating with Filipinos is that we fail to understand that it is us who have the accent, not them. Throwing around mixed accents of European, Australian, Southern USA and British at them is likely responsible for all their confusion. So to make communications more easily understood, it might be better to try to speak more slowly and pronunciate words using their own accent. Many times I have overheard foreigners speaking to locals the same manner they would speak to their own countryman. If you have ever heard the British Geordie(video ) accent, how could a Filipino possibly decipher any of that when most Brits cannot understand their own kind?  Anybody who has been around Filipinos for very long will be familiar with the mispronunciations of English syllables and the interchanging of ltters like “F” and “P” i.e., “my family is foor” or “I’m hungry por some pood.” We must understand that there have been generations of Filipino learners of English who picked up the forms and rules of English from Filipino second-language  learners trained by other Filipino second-language learners. Hence, the evolution of Pinoy English! Also reffered to as language drift (drift linguistics).

Take President Rodrigo Duterte, who has “positioned himself as the voice of the masses in a world of elitist politicians,” who often holds speeches in a convoluted mix of Tagalog, Visayan, and English.  He has been known to make suggestions to his cabinet that all members should learn to converse in Cebuano to make Cabinet Meetings easier (for him?). Many older Filipinos will struggle with speaking English while the younger folks seem much better prepared to have conversations with. Because the younger folks benefit from more access to international travel and with ample exposure to information technology, and as previously mentioned because English is the medium of instruction in higher learning, most all college level students have become fairly proficient in the English language. Need an interpreter? Just snag a college student and they will be happy to help.

If you are still of the conclusion that all Filipinos speak English, you might be someone who lives near a university in a bigger city like Manila, Cebu City, or Davao! It is true that around centers of higher learning, and also areas that used to be home to American military forces, the prevalence of English speaking people is much greater than say compared to the rural provincial areas. Being familiar with quite a few young folks (elementary children) from my local barangay in Samar, I can attest that by the time some of these kids reach 6th grade, their English skills have already begun to diminish. As I touched on above under “medium of instruction,” where even children sometimes loose confidence in their own speaking ability, diminishing skills can also possibly be attributed to a teacher’s struggles to continue teaching ESL at a more advanced level, therefore regressing back to their comfort level of Filipino or even mother-tounge. This scenario is likely supported (and compounded) by the Department of Education’s (July 2009) move to overcome the foreign language issue by ordering all elementary schools to move towards initial mother-tongue based instruction (grades 1–3).

Nose Bleeds!

Any foreigner who has lived in the Philippines for any length of time is familiar with the term “nose bleed” (pronounced noze-blid). The term refers to the idea that if you think too hard, your nose will start to bleed. It’s an all-to-common expression when engaging a Filipino in conversation where it is easier for them to exclaim “nose bleed” rather that exert the conversational effort. Ha, to some Filipinos, maybe it’s the easier way out! I remember shopping for taco shells, when the isle that had “Taco Shells” listed on the isle menu board had absolutely no taco shells… month after month! On more than one occasion I would ask a store clerk to find me some “taco shells” only to be escorted to the potato chip isle and have them point to the Dorito’s or other snacks.  One store clerk once told me that “We do not sell Taco Shells” so I asked “why would your store advertise taco shells, sell Taco Seasoning Mix and Taco Chili Sauce, and not sell Taco Shells?  That clerk must have felt a big nose bleed coming on because he ran off in search of reinforcements (other English speaking clerks). The bottom line in this scenario is that the stork clerk had no earthly idea of what a taco shell was and simply tried bluffing his way through.

Filipino unfamiliarity with words and terms that might be common to most foreigners can be frustrating, especially with the most common of items. Sometimes it just makes more sense to identify products by learning to describe it in the local lingo. Even better, I learned to arm myself with cell phone pictures of things I mighe be shopping for… it just makes my life easier. Looking for bungee cords, lighter fluid, and STP Carburetor Cleaner have taken me to the limits before I learned that a picture is worth more than forcing someone into a nose bleed.

It Goes Both Ways!

To make life easier here, many expats suggest learning to speak the language. But as pointed to earlier, it might be easiest to just stick with the national language of Filipino. When you make the effort to learn and speak the local dialect, it opens up another level of warmth and friendship among the people. Most Filipinos have told me they respect a foreigner more if they make the effort to integrate into the culture rather than to try to affect change.  One thing I’ve been told is that some expats have trouble finding good Tagalog tutors as nobody seems to want to suffer making a big effort. Some will help, but rarely will they commit long-term to the challenge (unless it’s a paid tutor). This goes back to the idea that while many Filipinos might understand many English words or phrases, they may not converse very well, therefore do not make the best language teachers.

Communications in the Philippines can be quite easy, or it can be a real struggle for some. As someone who has lived in the province for several years, I can attest to how lonely it can be when you have nobody to talk to – or when nobody understands what you are saying. If you have ever watched any of my YouTube videos, you might have seen the one where I ordered 50 bags of sand to be delivered in two weeks, only to receive 150 bags about 10 days early!

If there is one commonality that draws expats living in the Philippines together, it would be good conversation. Food, music, beer, social activities… they are all secondary to having someone to talk to. And if anyone thinks that Filipinos will adapt to foreigners without promise… they’re wearing rose colored glasses.  For a foreigner to make life here a little easier, they must make some effort to learn the language… or parts thereof… or they will struggle with frustration.

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