How English in the Philippines developed through the years

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The history of how English in the Philippines started can be rooted back centuries ago when the Philippines became a colony of Spain and the USA. For about 500 years, the Philippines slowly developed from becoming a country with no primary language to becoming a multilingual nation with over 170 languages including English.

The Philippines first became a Spanish colony in 1521 for 300 years. Yet, despite ruling the country for three centuries, it could not do something that the Americans did in just 50 years. In contrast to the Spaniards who called Filipinos ‘Indios’, the Americans made the Filipinos understand with affection and heartily welcomed Filipinos as one of their own. The Americans called Filipinos “little brown Americans.” Thus, less than half a century later, the Filipinos built strong ties with them. Subsequently, they adopted the American form of government, embraced the American dream, and spoke the American language.

Interestingly, the Americans’ means of attack and assimilation was not through religion, but through Mass Education. In the annals of Philippine’s history, the Americans’ contribution to education was the best. Americans established schools in the Philippines and used English as the medium of instruction. In 1946, after the USA granted its independence, many Filipinos have actively campaigned for the Philippines to become the 51st state of the USA.

Today, English has become the Philippines’ official language in law and commerce. English in the Philippines took the nation to the global setting, as it’s now become the primary language for schooling. Filipinos use English via the mass media, the arts, social, business, and political interaction. The language continues to be a strong thread that binds the Philippines and the USA.

Why has English become so easy to learn and so easy to use in the Philippines? The following statements could surely tell us why.

1. The Americans continue to influence the everyday lives of Filipinos in many ways.

One major reason why English in the Philippines continued flourishing is because of the strong American influence on Filipinos. Filipinos patronize everything that’s from America – TV shows, movies, music, fashion, etc. Although the Philippines has several local TV networks, some Filipinos would still prefer watching American TV channels. Name a famous talk show host or maybe an American actor, and they surely know all of them!

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2. For most Filipinos, English is not seen as a foreign language but a second language.

In a country with more than 110 million people who speak no less than 8 languages, English is the Philippines’ second language. However, in some areas, English is even more popular than Filipino, the country’s official national language. It might surprise you, but some would even consider English as their first language.

The prominence of English in the Philippines is viewed as a “bittersweet” American influence. Sweet because it’s an international language. Bitter for some Filipinos are already losing their national Filipino identity because of it. For instance, some Filipino children speak English like American kids but don’t know even a single Filipino word at all.

Long before children start schooling, some Filipino children are already responding to and speaking English words. Parents would coo their kids such baby talk as “close-open” (opening and closing of the child’s hands). Sometimes, they even ask babies to do “beautiful eyes” (fluttering the eyelashes in what is supposed to be a cute manner). Besides, some parents would prod their kids to exhibit their intelligence by correctly answering simple questions. Some common questions are “Point your nose, mouth, cheek, etc.?” or “Where’s the dog, cat, moon, etc.?”

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3. English is the primary language in all Philippine Schools.

The Philippine education system has been using English as its primary medium of instruction. Filipino students must learn English from elementary to university level for them to understand their lessons at school. Because of this system, schools are reinforcing to students the notion that English is easy and available all the time. Consequently, learning English in the Philippines is an essential part of its education system. It is a tool for learning and a medium of communication.

Usually, before a Filipino child enters the nursery, he or she has already built a vocabulary of English. This includes body parts, names of animals and objects, action verbs, simple adjectives (dirty, good, bad). A typical Filipino child in a nursery school already knows polite expressions, nursery rhymes, and asking basic simple questions.

Additionally, for most middle and upper-class Filipino children, learning English always begins at home. Adults would teach English through snatches of English words and phrases heard over the radio and on TV. To a middle-class Filipino child whose parents are English speakers or have access to the internet and e-gadgets, English is not an alien tongue. Filipino children may not understand the fine distinction of the English language, but they’re starting to get familiar with it even at a young age.

4. English is important to the Filipino masses seeking employment abroad.

Filipinos’ skill and their cheap labor are in demand globally. But apart from that, other nations also applaud Filipinos outstanding command and comprehension of English. These innate qualities of Filipinos made them highly-requested in the manpower industry anywhere in the world. Why? Simply because foreign employers can easily communicate with them. English, after all, is a global language and luckily, Filipinos unraveled this code quite early and easily.

Unlike before, several agencies abroad are now considering the English proficiency level of all its applicants. This means that having a good English command is one of the primary requirements when going abroad. Most employers would prefer English-speaking workers even in countries that use another language like the Middle East, for instance.

5. English proficiency is associated with academic prestige and intelligence.

English in the Philippines is the language of power and progress. It is valuable not only because it is functional and practical but because it is an affordable item. It is a skill that can be used to increase one’s position, respectability, and marketability. In most cases, the better one’s ability to understand and use English, the better one’s chances of career advancement. This is true for both extremes of the socio-economic ladder.

Moreover, having a good command of English is a very important factor if you want to work in a good company in the cosmopolitan business district. And if you want to work overseas or migrate, you also need to pass several English proficiency tests like IELTS or TOEIC, for example. With the growing demand for English services, the establishment of ESL schools continued rising in recent years to cater not just to Filipino students but also to foreign students.

The challenges towards the use of English in the Philippines.

Although the English language catapulted the Philippines to the echelon of the most popular countries to learn English, the prominence of English in the Philippines is also facing several challenges. Among these are the following.

1. Purists and nationalists wanted to erase all traces of American colonial influence.

Filipino purists and nationalists are protesting for years to erase all American influence. They knew that the English language, rather than the dreams, can be so difficult to delete. Some Filipino activists viewed Americans, until today, as traitors and opportunists who have killed and enslaved Filipinos. Just like the establishment of US military bases, the English language had also become a symbol of the subtle but strong dominance of America. If not because of Mount Pinatubo’s eruption and the strong-willed Philippine Senate, the US Military bases would’ve never vanished. However, obliterating English is another matter.

2. The government wanted to replace English with Filipino as the medium of instruction in schools.

Although most Filipinos who understand the Filipino language are literate to it is not their mother tongue. Many of us have little use for it unless traveling to other areas in the country. Besides, the Filipino language is only of use when watching local movies and TV programs and reading comics and tabloids published in Manila. In recent years, the government has already been pushing campaigns to ‘filipinize’ the medium of instruction in school, law, and commerce. However, this campaign has not met with so much enthusiasm for success.

Explicitly, the Filipino, the national language, is 95% Tagalog spoken by those who live in Manila and its outlying areas. On the other hand, the rest of the country speaks their own dialects or languages. The “use-Filipino” campaign became unsuccessful since most Filipinos consider it as a form of domination by those living in the seat of political power.

Meanwhile, the use of English in the Philippines as the medium of instruction has been running for years already. In the Philippines, education receives the lowest budget yearly from the government. The long use of English textbooks and instruction would scramble the Philippine education system. Why? Because not many Filipino books are available and there are only less qualified teachers who could speak Filipino.

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