This new introduction is in order to place the following article in the proper context. Language is an important issue in the Philippines and I see three possible ways to go:

1) Complete Americanization or globalization with some local flavor – make the Philippines like Guam or Hawaii.

2) Complete Filipinization, which is the flavor of many Filipino nationalists, but may not be practicable.

3) Something in between I call pragmatic nationalism with many possible flavors and variations, acknowledging and accepting local identity at some level, still being open to abroad but controlling the access of foreigners to the local scene, for example by speaking their language(s) like the Dutch do, but having an own language or languages for use within the country.

Language is also about one’s own culture and traditions, do people want to preserve them or not? It all ties in with where the Philippines wants to go, my first question in this blog. The following article is a somewhat different proposal to encourage further discussion, to think about all the possibilities.

Most of the more than 100 languages in the Philippines are linguistically classified as Philippine languages, to which certain languages from Sulawesi also belong. Exceptions are the Spanish creole language Chavacano with around 600.00 speakers – and English.  Northern Philippine languages include Ilokano and Kapampangan; Tagalog, Cebuano and Bikol are Central Philippine languages; Maguindanao and Maranao are Mindanao languages. Some Lumad languages lie outside the main language groups. As of 2000, languages with at least one million speakers were:


  • Tagalog with around 26 million speakers
  • Ilokano with around 8 million speakers
  • Kapampangan with around 3 million speakers
  • Pangasinan with around 2.5 million speakers
  • Northern Bikol with around 2.5 million speakers
  • Southern Bikol with around 2 million speakers


  • Cebuano with around 21 million speakers
  • Hiligaynon with around 7 million speakers
  • Waray-Waray with around 3 million speakers


  • Maranao with around 2 million speakers
  • Tausug with around 1.8 million speakers
  • Maguindanao with around 1.8 million speakers

Visayan languages and Tagalog are also spoken much in Mindanao. The national language Filipino is based on Tagalog and is spoken by around 45 million of the ca. 100 million Filipinos. Modern Filipino spoken on the streets is strongly influenced by the Filipino spoken in Metro Manila and spread via television and movies. The official language English is spoken by around 60 million Filipinos with varying proficiency, while Spanish has all but disappeared. Filipinos often code-switch between Filipino or their own local language and English.

Obviously the Philippines lacks a common tool for learning, identification and communication. English is widely used but often badly spoken and used in a perfunctory, shallow way like Latin was used in medieval times. Starting school in a language too different from what one speaks at home hampers true learning and encourages rote. A language closer to what one has learned at home and to what one feels is better for identification and communication. However, Filipino is presently only spoken by less than half of the population. Let us look at the situation:

  • Ilokano is a Northern Philippine language and somewhat different from Central Philippine languages. It is the lingua franca of most of Northern Luzon.
  • Central Philippine languages are very similar. It is therefore not difficult for a Bikolano to learn Filipino. Visayans could easily learn Filipino too but often don’t.
  • The Visayan language subgroup, which is more of a dialect continuum than separate languages, has more speakers than Tagalog and is strongly represented in Mindanao.

The pragmatic solution might be like in Switzerland, to have THREE national or major languages:

  • Filipino/Tagalog would cover most of Luzon except the North plus Mindoro and Palawan.
  • Cebuano would cover the Visayas and major parts of Mindanao.
  • Ilokano would cover Northern Luzon.

In due time, the majority of Filipinos would speak one of three national languages, many at least two. This in conjunction with federalism or decentralization may increase the still weak identification with the country in many provinces. This not in contradiction with building a strong national community, if one overcomes traditional nationalist dogmatism.

The intellectuals that promote languages for teaching should also be more flexible and accomodate more words from living street language without becoming vulgar, in order to increase accessibility and acceptance among the people who are the target audience. The German dictionary Duden is very quick in adapting current terms used in the mass media while still labelling inappropriate street terms as such. Most formal Filipino dictionaries hardly reflect reality, meaning they do not help learn a useful language. And getting it to the children might work this way:

  • teach the first four years in the national or major language used in the specific area, the similarity with the own local dialect would help in learning.
  • learn one other national language starting Grade 5. Ideally Ilokano for Cebuanos and Tagalogs, and Cebuano or Tagalog for Ilokanos to have good coverage.
  • Starting 7th grade, English or Spanish, both global languages. Latin America is now economically resurgent and Spanish is part of the Filipino heritage, just as English is.

In fact I think Spanish is closer to the Filipino soul than English is. But English should not be dropped, it is also part of the Filipino heritage, just somewhat younger. The plurality and the colonial heritage of the Philippines should be recognized and accepted. To form a strong bond that is really lived by the national community. One that is in the end more competitive in a globalized world.

Irineo B. R. Salazar

München, April 24th 2015

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