Friday, October 17, 2008

English and Tagalog and Cebuano

While in the Philippines, I noticed language. Particularly the use of different languages.

Owing to nearly fifty years of American rule, the English language is ensconced in the Philippines. English is the language of higher education and government. There is also the Filipino language, also called Tagalog, which is what most Filipinos from the northern part of the country speak as their native language. In Cebu and the Camotes, most people are native speakers of Cebuano, which is distinct from Filipino/Tagalog but the two languages are closely related. I never figured out how to tell the difference between written Tagalog and written Cebuano.

The Philippines is one of those places where everyone with education is expected to be functionally bilingual. It's not the first country I've been to where that's true. In Sumatra practically everybody speaks fluent Indonesian even though the local language in the area we visited is Minangkabau. But Minangkabau and Indonesian are quite similar languages (though being able to speak one doesn't mean you'll be able to understand the other). In Taiwan, most people have at least a good knowledge of both Mandarin and Taiwanese (but not everyone is fluent in both), but again those languages are fairly closely related.

In the Philippines, a huge amount of the local TV that we saw assumes the viewer is perfectly able to understand both Tagalog and English, two languages which are utterly unlike one another. We even saw a TV drama with conversations where one character speaks English and one Tagalog. Local Tagalog (or Cebuano; I wasn't sure which) newspapers have stories in which certain expressions, or even whole headlines, are entirely in English. On the boat back to Cebu I sat behind a woman who was reading a romance novel; although mostly in Tagalog (or Cebuano) there was so much English that some pages seemed to be over 50% English.

The Wikipedia articles on Englog and Taglish are illuminating.

In one restaurant in Cebu City, on the radio station they had on, every advertisement was in English. And in every advertisement they spoke American English without even a hint of a Filipino accent.

But although nearly every person we encountered in Cebu City spoke good English, once we left the city we began to encounter communication problems. I can safely say that not every resident of rural Philippines is a fluent English speaker. Yet most official-looking roadsigns we saw were only in English. I'm still wrestling with whether that seems elitist or not. Everyone who went to school learned some English, and many people can probably read English better than they can speak it, so maybe not.

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