Why Do You Speak English?

And the American interviewer said,

 “So I see you grew up in the Philippines. Why do you speak English?”

If I were to give her an honest answer I would have said,

“Well it’s actually your fault.”

I speak English because when the Americans colonized the Philippines, they made sure that all the schools taught in English, and that system lingered even after our independence. Science, math, home economics, accounting, and the like were all taught in English. The only subjects that were not taught in English were Filipino and Philippine History.

In Filipino and Philippine History, the teacher lectured in Filipino. When we opened our books though, sometimes they were in English, but we had to recite and write in Filipino. I remember completing those assignments, and I remember feeling weird that after I read my book, I had to translate its contents. I often had an English-Tagalog dictionary with me. It’s not that I did not know the equivalent word, but sometimes the word is at the tip of my tongue, and I still can’t remember it.

I wasn’t alone in my English-Tagalog dictionary dependence. All my classmates were like that too. The reason for this was that it was strange for anyone to speak in straight English, as it was to speak in straight Filipino. Almost everyone spoke in Taglish (mixture of English and Tagalog/Filipino), and so people switched between these languages depending on which word came to mind.

I had an English class where we were punished if we spoke in Filipino. The punishment—we had to sing and dance in front of the class. Our teacher also had to sing in front of the class if she said a Filipino word. The whole class got excited whenever she slipped up.

Sometimes Philippine History was taught entirely in English because most of the history books were in English. The Spaniards wrote a number of history books, which were translated to English. Even Filipinos who wrote history books chose to write in English. An entire history of a colonized society is not even in their language.

Then again, I am writing in English.

My mother and father are Filipino, and so are their mothers and fathers, and their mothers’ and fathers’ mothers and fathers, and so on. Somewhere along that ancestry though are some Chinese, Spaniards, and Indians. Most Filipinos have Chinese, Spanish, and some other foreign blood.

The Chinese came to the Philippines to set up businesses or were kidnapped by Filipino pirates for the slave trade. The Spaniards colonized the Philippines for three hundred years. Foreigners like traveling to our shores and marrying our women (and sometimes our men, but they’re not as popular as the women). Due to this mixture of blood, some people don’t consider Filipino as a race but as a citizenship.

I did grow up in the Philippines, and I love the Philippines, but I love English (I also love Tagalog/Filipino too, don’t worry). The Philippine writing community also seems to love English. If you want to be a writer in the Philippines, oftentimes that means you write in English. I never consciously chose English when I decided to become a writer. It was automatic. When I write, I write in English. Lately, I have written English pieces with a few Filipino words. Again, it wasn’t a conscious decision, I just felt like certain phrases were best expressed in Filipino.

Philippine literature is mostly composed of works written in English. The most prominent newspapers and magazines are in English. That’s the weird thing that Filipinos have—using Filipino to speak, but using English to write. This is not a hard and fast rule, and I’m not saying it’s right, or wrong, I am only saying that this is how things are right now.

There are those who write in Filipino, and some challenge the pride of place English has in the society. I admire them for their nationalism, but I will continue to write in English, as I continue to love the Philippines.

English can create a bond between people, but it can also bring about class division and social hierarchy. English is perceived to be the language of intellectuals. One doesn’t become smart if one speaks English, but somehow Filipinos associate English with intelligence. Maybe it’s because the country’s scientists, politicians, economists, and the like speak in English.

Or maybe it’s because of the telanovellas. The actors on tv speak Filipino, but they burst into English when they need to say something “profound.” Jericho Rosales would be like Mahal na mahal kita, di mo ba yon naiintindihan? Tson’t you know tsat lab is (insert profound English sentences here).

Some people think that those who speak in English are arrogant. They would say, Mag-tagalog ka nga, Pilipino ka diba? There are some people who know English, but are intimidated when someone wants to talk to them in English, especially if the said person is of a higher social class. They say I speak no English, purposely screwing up their grammar even though they know the proper way.

English insecurity sweeps over Filipinos when they speak to foreigners. I have experienced this too. When I talk to my friends in English, I can talk easily, but when I talk to foreigners, I get intimidated, and I unconsciously spew out Filipino words like Harry Potter who did not realize he was speaking Parseltongue.

Some Filipinos cannot speak English well because they come from public schools, which do not have enough money to train teachers to help students learn English. Some can understand English because of school, but they do not practice speaking English on a day-to-day basis because the people that they talk to speak in Filipino.

The Philippines’ relationship with English is complex. There are debates about how this has affected the cultural identity of the society. I don’t really know where I stand. I am caught between two worlds. All I know is I am going to continue writing, and whatever comes out of what I do, if it’s English, if it’s Tagalog, then that is what it is, and that is what it will be, and that is what I am, and that is what I will be.

[1] The proper term for the language is Filipino, but most people call it Tagalog. In the past, there was no Filipino language, but there were many dialects in the Philippines. Former President Manuel Quezon decided to create a national language, which was supposed to be a mixture of all the similar words found in different dialects. Somehow the Tagalog dialect dominated the mixture. Quezon spoke Tagalog. Wonder if it’s just a coincidence? I guess that’s why other Filipinos who speak other dialects resent the national language and prefer to speak in their dialect.

[2] I really love you, don’t you understand that? Don’t you know that love is…Don’t, that, and love are spelled in the way they are pronounced.

[3] Speak in Filipino. You’re a Filipino, right?

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4 thoughts on “Why Do You Speak English?

  1. Very interesting perspective and insight to the role of English in the PI. When I attended Cerritos College here in California, I found myself amongst a large filipino student body, the clear majority of whom knew how to speak Tagalog. They were a very ethnocentric crowd, so to see an amboy like myself dating someone non-filipina was a little awkward, as was the inevitable question which eventually caught up with me:

    “Are you Filipino?”
    “Do you speak Tagalog?”
    (Conversation ends with dead silence accompanied with a slight feeling of disappointment)

    On the other hand, there are those here that try to assimilate as fast as possible to American english, trying as hard as they can to “mask” their accent, which makes it sound even more contrived. Very interesting phenomena.

    1. Hello. I learned English because I had English classes in school. There are also unconventional ways of learning English. Jackie Chan learned English by listening to English songs. You can also try watching movies that are in English. I hope this helps. 🙂

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