Learn why Filipinos speak English so well!
Las Islas Filipinas.
Pearl of the Orient.
Pearl of the Orient Seas.
Those are just some of the names of the Philippines. But in recent years, the Philippines started to have a new nickname, “Call Center Capital of the World” of the BPO industry. For those who aren’t familiar with BPO, BPO means “Business Process Outsourcing” or the process of hiring a third-party organization/company to do specific business services you would rather not do yourself. And one of these services is Call Center Relations.
“Pearl of the Orient Seas” has a nicer ring to it though.
In 2010, Philippines overtook India for the “Call Center Capital” title and has been in the #1 seat since. Most analysts cite the fact that Filipinos having more “neutral accent” as one of the major factors for this overtake. This just highlighted the question of some people outside the Philippines, “Why do Filipinos speak English so well in the first place?”
It is not a secret that the United States colonized the Philippines. Like any colonial influence, Filipinos didn’t favor English at first. This changed when the Americans brought the Thomasites in the Philippines in 1901. The Thomasites are American teachers who established a new public school system in the Philippines. This new public school system improved the old Spanish system and switched the medium of instruction from Spanish to English. This is when English started to become the “language of the educated”.
This wasn’t an overnight change of course. After all, English is just another foreign language like Spanish. So, why study English if Spanish, the language of the educated and the rich, is an option? Well, unlike the Spaniards, the Americans chose a different yet more effective approach in colonizing the Philippines: Make American Accessible.
Catchy. Don’t you think?
Of course, that included the English language. Although the Spanish did educate the Filipinos (albeit after abolishing the then established Eastern knowledge) during their reign, their main agenda was to spread the Catholic faith. The original plan was to teach the Filipinos Spanish, then convert them into Catholics. But the Spanish friars and missionaries discovered that it was easier if they learn the languages of the natives. So, they studied the languages then used those to spread the word of the Bible
and the King of Spain.
And the rest was history.
It’s all legal
From the get-go, the Americans taught English and made English accessible with their new public school system and trained English-speaking Filipino teachers. It also helped that English had the legal back-up. Since 1571, Spanish has been the official language of government and court offices in the Philippines. That persisted even after the proclamation of independence in 1898 and the First Philippine Republic (1899-1901).
Then, the arrival of the Thomasites in 1901 happened. But it wasn’t until 1935 that the Constitution added English as an official language alongside Spanish. At this point, things are going down for Spanish. By 1987, only English and then Filipino retained their official language status.
(Filipino being an official language is a whole other can of worms. If you are curious about that, check our other blog post: Tagalog vs Filipino: What’s the difference?)
English as Medium of Instruction in Schools
Unlike in some Asian countries, English was taught at elementary schools in the Philippines. It is not only a subject in elementary schools, but it was also the medium of communication in most subjects. The obvious exceptions are Filipino, Araling Panlipunan (Social Studies), and in some schools, Physical Education (PE).
This will continue on to high school and tertiary education where it is almost given that English is the main language of communication except for a number of subjects or courses. Since higher education equates to English proficiency, this only strengthened the prestige of being a fluent English speaker in the Philippines. Not all can have a secondary education, let alone study in universities or colleges.
Exposure outside Classrooms
That being said, English is not limited within the four corners of the classroom in the Philippines. Everywhere you go, and anywhere you look, there’s English. On storefronts, products, commercials for said products, in media, literature, music, internet, colloquial language, etc — English is inseparable from the Filipinos. In some cases, Filipinos themselves find it weird if a Tagalog term is favored over specific English terms in casual settings (but that’s another blog post for another day).
Road Signs: More Fun in the Philippines
Next Generation’s Language
It’s been more than a century since English became the language of prestige and opportunity in the Philippines and since then, at least three generations of Filipinos have been born. If you are raised seeing that people who can speak a particular language will inherently become more successful and therefore happier, wouldn’t you want to teach that particular language to your future child?
This has been the case for Filipino parents for centuries. Back when Spanish was the exclusive language for the educated and the rich, families pool their resources to send their children to Spain or exclusive schools in the Philippines. Now that English is the growing global language and key to working abroad, it became the language of choice.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star. Please don’t jingle(2) in my car.
It is almost impossible to find a child who wasn’t taught the “Close-Open” and the “Beautiful Eyes” trick, or lullabied with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. Every parent is teaching their child English and every child is getting exposed to English literally since they were a baby (or much earlier if the mom is an English speaker).
Now, let’s look at “neutral accent”. In the BPO industry, the neutral accent is defined as “an accent that is not discernable as originating in any specific region”. In American English, the neutral accent is the “General American Accent”, or American accent that you cannot pinpoint the origin. Keyword: American accent, so it is still not “neutral”.
However, to linguists, the neutral accent is just the accent closest or most similar to your own. That’s why there’s the illusion of “not discernable as originating in any specific region”. And that’s why it’s not real. It is impossible to have a true neutral accent. Any person who speaks any language would originate to any specific region after all.
Long story short, Filipinos speak English well because they can copy the “General American Accent”— not because Filipinos have “neutral accent”. So, why do Filipinos speak English so well that they can copy a foreign accent? The short answer is Filipinos like anything American so Filipinos speak English like Americans. The long answer: Filipinos were taught that English is a superior language and they should learn it if they want to succeed in life. Not only that, any other version of English (like Philippine English) is not acceptable. Only “neutral accent” or “General American Accent” will do.
Filipinos speak English and…
That being said, there have been efforts to empower Filipino, and eventually, other languages in the Philippines. In 1974, the “Bilingual Policy” implemented that schools should have two mediums of instructions: English and Filipino. Before 1974, English more or less became the sole medium of instruction in the Philippines since 1901.
Then, under the Republic Act No. 10533 and 10157 (2012-2013), the Department of Education (DepEd) started the Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE). Through this, schools are required to add major regional languages as mediums of instruction alongside Filipino and English. The languages included in MTB-MLE are Tagalog, Kapampangan, Pangasinense, Iloko, Bikol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Waray, Tausug, Maguindanaoan, Maranao, Chabacano, Ybanag, Ivatan, Aklanon, Kinaray-a, Yakan, and Surigaonon.
Just some of the major languages in the Philippines
Of course, these wouldn’t stop Filipinos from learning and speaking English any time soon. English is too ingrained in the lifestyle and culture of the Filipinos. However, whether or not the effort to make Filipinos love their own languages dwindles their love for English, only time will tell.
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