English and Other Philippine Languages: Battling for Linguistic Stature in the Filipino Society?

 Noel T. Franco Jr.


This paper attempts to describe the status of English (and other languages) in the Philippines. It discusses some legal and socio-cultural factors that may have brought English to being considered an important language in the country. Moreover, it also highlights the proliferation and relevance of Filipino and other languages in the Philippines. The paper concludes by citing the strong hold of English in the Filipino society.

Key words: English, role, status, languages, Philippines, Filipino



English plays a very important role in the Philippines. Historically and culturally, English seems to have overtaken Filipino and other native languages in several areas and aspects of the Philippine society. Though Filipino is the national language in the country, the use of English has a legal ground to be used as a medium in different forms of communication and even in the country’s educational system (The 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines, Article XIV, Sections 6-8). In fact, the Constitution itself is promulgated in both Filipino and English.

This paper attempts to discuss how English seemingly competes against Filipino and other Philippine languages by looking at some historical events and individuals’ notions that led to these languages’ present statuses and roles in the country.


The Spread of English 

The possible first contact of the Filipinos with English can be traced back during the American colonization which began in 1989 when English started to be one of the official (if not the only official) languages of the Philippines at that time. Among other reasons, the use of English during the American occupation was likely caused by the Filipinos’ linguistic diversity; thus, needing for one common, united language. This, alongside other political and socio-cultural events during that time, paved way for the inclusion of teaching of English in the country’s school curriculum (Stevens, 1999).

Even during a few years of Japanese occupation which started in 1941, English was still being used as the official language and favoured by Filipinos (Stevens, 1999; Vizconde, 2006). It was not until 1946, when the Philippines became independent from the United States that one of the native languages called Tagalog, was considered as the official language of the country (Stevens, 1999).

Tagalog was technically known as Pilipino through an executive order of the Department of Education in 1959 and later on became Filipino in 1971 through a constitutional convention (Cruz, 1991). The term Filipino, as Cruz (1991) describes it, is “a future, [Utopina] [sic] Utopian conglomeration of most, if not all, Philippine languages” (p.19).

Approximately from the time the Americans came to the Philippines until before the start of Marcos regime in the 1970’s, there had been a gradual rise in the use of English in several domains of the society. However, when Marcos became the president, there had been an increase in the promotion of English in economic activities and education (Rappa & Wee, 2006 as cited in Dawe, 2014).


English in the Philippine Society

The status of English can be seen in how the people running the educational system of the country have given relevance to it. From primary school to tertiary level, English, is one of the two primary languages used as media of instruction and taught as subjects (Department of Education, Culture, and Sports Order No.52, s.1987; Commission on Higher Education Memorandum Order No. 59, s. 1996).

The slight shift of focus happened just a few years ago when the country’s Department of Education institutionalized the use of mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) from grades 1 to 3 with the rationalization that “pupils who have learned to read and write in their first language learn to speak, read, and write in a second language (L2) and third language (L3) more quickly than those who are taught in a second or third language first” (Department of Education Order No.74, s. 2009, 3-b).

However, this sort of giving importance to the mother tongue at an earlier stage of elementary education did not totally hinder individuals from learning English in the latter stages of their academic life and more so prevent the academic institutions from promoting English particularly in secondary and tertiary levels of education. Philippine universities and colleges still use English to better equip students and make them more globally competitive (Wa-Mbaleka, 2014). The strengthening of the use of English in the Philippines has been a result of a cyclical process starting from it being used as a language of the schools, then later on used by the graduates of such schools who eventually become leaders in business and government, who then promote business and government practices that encourage the use of English aside from Filipino in the educational system (Dawe, 2014).

Have Filipinos fully embraced the use of English in every aspect of their lives? In the study of Vizconde (2006), majority of the participants had a positive perception towards those Filipinos who use English for communication in certain areas aside from their own households. They actually associated English language use with success in one’s profession and social stature. On the other hand, other respondents felt that Filipinos who speak English at home and in other places just want to show off their English language ability and labelled them as exaggerated and overacting. When it comes to using English in teaching other subject areas like Mathematics and Science, all of the student teacher respondents were inclined to using English as ‘the language’ in teaching the said subjects. This is due to the fact that various terms (i.e. mathematical and scientific terms) in these two content areas do not have exact Filipino counterparts; notwithstanding the reality that most (if not all) materials are written in English. Though this is the case, more than half of the respondents still preferred to codeswitch which means using both English and Filipino as media of instruction in Mathematics and Science classrooms in order to secure better student comprehension.

Vizconde (2006) points out that English, in some cases, tends to be more official and more privileged in stature than Filipino or any other languages/dialects in the country. Knowledge of English may serve as a ‘social stratifier’ or an identity marker which means that those who speak the language are in the higher social ranks (Tupas, 2003 as cited in Vizconde, 2006; Bolton, 2008).

Aside from being a medium of instruction in the classroom, English is also used as a medium of communication especially in media. In Metro Manila alone with 14 million population, 27% of TV households subscribe to cable services. Further, there are roughly 73 million mobile teledensity subscribers nationwide (Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia, 2010). Though these figures do not directly present the amount of English media content each household consumes, it can be inferred that a considerable number of Filipinos would like contents other than what the local media provide as most shown in cable channels are in English or with English subtitles.

However, it cannot also be denied that many foreign television programmes or movies being shown on free television or local media are dubbed in Filipino. This case is especially true for cartoon programmes which are meant for children.


Filipino and Other Native Languages in the Philippine Society

But what happens to Filipino (the official language) and 187 languages (Lewis, Simons, & Fennig, 2016) and dialects in the country? Are they given more importance than (or at the very least, the same importance like) English? It is good to note that the Philippine Constitution recognizes the relevance of other major regional languages; thus, paving the way for the creation of a national language commission in order to preserve the various languages in the Philippines (1987 Philippine Constitution, Article XIV, Sections 7-9).

Out of 150 languages in the Philippines identified by the National Statistics Office in its 2000 Census on Population and Housing, Tagalog is the most predominant language with over 5 million households using it. This accounted for more than 35% of the total number of households surveyed in the year 2000. This is followed by Cebuano/ Bisaya/ Binisaya/ Boholano (accounting for 23.7% of the household distribution), Ilokano (8.7%), Hiligaynon/ Ilonggo (7%), Bikol/ Bicol (4.6%), Waray (2.7%), Kapampangan (1.6%), Pangasinan/ Panggalato (1.3%), Maguindanao (1.1%), and Tausug (1%) (Albert, 2013).

It is interesting to note further that there were 45,000,000 L2 users of Filipino in 2013 as reported by Lewis, Simons, & Fennig (2016) while there were 40,000,000 L2 users of English in the Philippines in 2003 (Crystal, 2003 as cited in Lewis, Simons, & Fennig, 2016). Though there is a 10-year gap between the publications of these two sets of data, it is worth looking at the not so big difference (5M) between the total numbers of L2 users of Filipino and English in the country. This narrow difference suggests that there are only 12.5% less Filipinos that have English as L2.

Albert (2013) reported that local languages are being used by business in advertising their products in different areas in the country in order to get higher revenues. He cited that government agencies now see the importance of translating their policies (which are originally written in English) into Filipino and other major languages in the country.

Unfortunately, the comparative data from the National Statistics Office 2000 Census on Population and Housing (CPH) (as cited in Albert, 2013) show that six (6) languages/dialects which were used in 1990 were no longer used in 2000. These languages/dialects were Banuanon (with 120 households using it in 1990), Botolan (with 48), Itbayaten (with 89), Kallahan (with 503), Obian (with 60), and Pullon-Mapun (with 4,274). Moreover, there are languages/dialects which have been reported with decrease of use in the span of 10 years. The top ten on the list are Tagabili (with 99.6% decrease), Atta/ Ata/ Ati (with 70.7%), Batak/ Binatak (with 61.7%), Agta (with 41.8%), Ifugao (with 36.8%), Ilongot (with 27.3%), Tinggian (with 24.7%), Bagobo/ Guinga (with 21.5%), Bontok/ Binontok (with 10.1%), and Sama (Samal)/ Abaknon (with 2.4%).

These findings show that at least 10% of the total number of Filipino languages spoken in 1990 are no longer being used or have decreased its relevance in the communities they were once spoken or given priority to as medium/media of communication.

On a lighter note, there are languages which are reported to have increase of use. The top ten on the list are Kankanai/ Kankaney/ Kankanaey (with 178.4% increase of use), Karay-a/ Kiniray-a (with 92.1%), Manobo/ Ata-Manobo (with 83.4%), Surigaonon (with 57.1%), Tagalog (with 45.4%), Masbateno/ Masbatenon (with 38.5%), Kapampangan (with 33.8%), Zamboangeno-Chavacano (with 32.5%), Cebuano/ Bisaya/ Binisaya/ Boholano (with 29.1%) and Akeanon/Aklanon (with 27.8%). These increases may be associated with some factors like regional migration and inter-marriages (Albert, 2013). However, whatever the cause of the increase in numbers of people using a certain native language, the said increase is a good sign that certain languages in the country are being preserved and given proper recognition.

It is a common knowledge that culture and language are intertwined. In the case of the Philippines, its changing cultural landscape means the country’s broadening linguistic repertoire as well. Through the years, some languages have been merged such as Tagalog and English (Taglish), Bisaya and Tagalog (Bisalog), Bisaya and Bikol (Bisakol) (Albert, 2013). Moreover, some new languages have been formed such as Gay lingo or Bekimon (e.g. “char” or “charot” for joke, “boylet” for boy or boyfriend, “girlash” for girl) and Jejemon [a kind of creative language used in texts or SMS] (e.g. “EyowZ” for hello, “oWkiE” for OK). Furthermore, Filipino languages have borrowed words from one another and from other foreign languages (Stevens, 1999) such as Spanish [e.g. “mesa” for table, “masa” for mass] among others.

However, despite the historical and legal ‘official language’ shifts and the flourishment of other Philippine languages, English has found its way to establish its relevance and to preserve its use in the country. In a micro-level lens, this can be seen in how the English language penetrated the Philippine languages/dialects. Many English words are conjugated in Tagalog (or Filipino) and other Philippines’ native languages (Stevens, 1999). For instance, one may say, ‘Magshishift ako sa ibang kurso’ which means ‘I will shift to another course’. Meanwhile, statistics would give any individual a macro-level view of how engraved English is in the minds of many Filipinos. Bolton (2008) estimated that around 44 million Filipinos (or 48% of approximate total population of the country at the time the survey was conducted) are English speakers. On the one hand, there are less than 25 million Filipinos who have Tagalog (the predominant language) as their mother tongue (Lewis, Simons & Fennig, 2016). It can be seen from these two figures that there are more Filipinos who speak English (as a second language) than those native speakers of Tagalog (which is the predominant Philippine language). Though the point of comparison may not really be appropriate for several reasons, it is still interesting to look at the numbers and see how much influence English has among the Filipino population.


English, alongside Filipino and other languages, has undoubtedly secured a meaningful place in the Philippine society. Though the degrees of support for the use of English may vary from one linguistic group to another, many Filipinos may find the relevance of this language in various aspects of their lives. In fact, Filipinos have already considered English as a language at home, in school, at the workplace, in the media, and in different social interactions. The Filipino language, on the one hand, carries more legal support in order to be considered as the ‘official language’ of the country. However, English may seem to be competing against Filipino (and other native languages/dialects) in terms of stature in the Philippine society as a result of certain historical, social and cultural factors.



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(Noel T. Franco Jr. graduated from the University of Philippines with a bachelor’s degree in Speech Communication(Cum Laude) and earned 45 units for the master’s program in Language Education at the same university. Having been in the teaching profession since 2004, he has handled language, literature, communication and education courses and has also served as resource speaker and trainer in several national and regional training programs in the Philippines. Aside from being a teacher, he also worked as Associate Research Director of the Centre for Research and Publication of Baliuag University, Philippines. His passion for improving the teaching and learning environment in his class has led him to being involved in certain research endeavours which were presented in national and international research conferences. Being a recipient of A.S Hornby Trust and British Council Scholarship, he is presently pursuing Masters in English Language Teaching(with specialism in Teacher Education)at the University of Warwick).


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