Language in the Philippines

The Filipino language is widely spoken in the Philippines, but there are a variety of languages across the archipelago. These may be native to a particular area, depending on the island group. In some cases, a group of slang words and phrases emerged from daily conversations and gave birth to a new type of language, such as conyo. If you search for the origin of the word conyo, the results might surprise you. The meaning of the Spanish word conyo, or coño, refers to the female genitalia. It’s a common Spanish idiom, often tagged as vulgar, that’s usually used by locals to emphasize a certain emotion. Yet in the Philippine context, the word has an entirely different meaning. The word conyo often refers to a language where people speak Taglish — a combination of the English and Filipino languages — in a fussy way. Using this language may also exhibit that speakers have limited knowledge of either language and have to code-switch. The conyo language is prominent among youth in the upper class. It’s usually heard in everyday conversations among high school and college students who study at expensive colleges and universities. It has become more than a language, as the term has been used to describe people as conyo, since these people (who are often wealthy or social climbers) speak this language and have certain characteristics or mannerisms: They are up-to-date with the latest gadgets, do not know how to ride public transport, and own expensive belongings. Because of such observations, some locals have stereotyped people who speak in this manner as “conyo kids,” even when they don’t belong to the upper class. Rich kids, on the other hand, are instantly dismissed as “conyo kids” because of their social status. Either way, there have been negative views about the use of the language or culture of conyo because it suggests that there’s a need to incorporate the English language into the native dialect and that only well-educated people speak it.

I’ve encountered this conyo kids before and there are a lot of them in Manila especially those students in the University Belt. I really find it annoying when these kids speak in this way, it was as if they are faking their tone and accent, but I don’t blame them because it is quiet popular to those rich people to speak in such way. I’ve also became friends with one of those conyo kids before, it’s quite annoying at first until you get used to it and will just ignore their attitude of speaking.

As with any country, fluency in a foreign language depends on the education level and/or the social status of the person. For example, those in the lower class still prefer to use their dialects or the national language when speaking to their child. While those who are in the upper social class made it a practice to speak to their child in English so that it won’t be difficult for them to adjust in the English language, one of my concerns about the child who were taught to speak in English in an early age is that they might have a difficulty in understanding the national language, they might have a hard time writing an essay in Tagalog and that could affect the child’s rating in school. I once encounter this cute little girl while our family have gone to a resort, she’s around 4 to 5 years old and I asked her “Anong pangalan mo?” or “What’s your name?” in English and the person she’s with says she’s an English speaking child, thus I asked her once again and spoke to her in pure English. So if those parents who decided to teach their child to speak English, they should also teach those Tagalog as well. They still live in the Philippines therefore they still have to learn to speak in Tagalog.

Philippine English is not perfect, there are still some Filipinos, even if they were educated ever since pre-school, commit grammatical mistakes. It’s because we don’t often use the language, we only speak English when it is required like in school, in the office or job interviews. There are other reasons as to why some Filipinos can’t speak English well:

First, simply we are not Americans. We are being brought up in an environment designed to speak no other foreign language but Filipino and other local dialects. Since the day that we were born, we became fixated to our mother tongue, the Filipino language. Until we went to school where the English language was formally introduced to us. We suddenly felt the difficulty embracing this new foreign language. Maybe that’s why until now, it’s still never easy to produce that distinct American accent.

Second, we see English as far more complicated than Filipino in both grammar and pronunciation. In Filipino, the vowel “A” has a very stable sound or pronunciation. Pronounced as long “Ahh”, it cannot be pronounced differently no matter what how it is used in a sentence. And that makes the Filipino language a lot easier to learn. Now imagine this: In English, “A” has various sounds. Try to read the following words: mate, mat, father, law, about. You just pronounced “A” in 5 different ways! This only means that the English language needs more time to master it.

Third, some people are just too shy and afraid to be embarrassed when they committed a mistake in speaking English. Filipinos have a culture of making fun of others who are trying to learn and speak English.  Instead of admiring those who are learning a language other than their own, they would rather make a mockery out of them.  It’s really a backward culture when it comes to learning and speaking English. We all have our aspirations to become a better English speaker. But when the time comes that your English errors have already been an unforgettable laughing experience to others, maybe you’ll end up shutting your mouth instead and avoiding even to speak a single English phrase or sentence again.

Fourth, here in the Philippines, the English language has become a distinguishing mark on the socioeconomic ladder. Those Filipinos who can speak English better like a radio DJ associates them to such identities like being rich, a graduate from an expensive international school or maybe someone who belongs to a highly influential clan. Especially if you can put that crisp American accent while you speak, surely, you’ll be an ultimate head-turner in public. But who would dare to speak that perfect English accent when some people around you might come and confront you and sarcastically say: “Hey, are you rich?”

Fifth, when English teachers doesn’t really care about his/her students. Many of the teachers who teach English simply do not have the teaching skills and knowledge. They may have the knowledge, but they do not inspire the students at all and that’s a major reason why many students do not like to study English. Another factor is the school environment itself.  Does the school provide an atmosphere for English learning?  Does it have an English speaking culture supported by its teachers and entire staff?  Does it have a system that promotes English? Let’s face the truth—not all English teachers in schools who have gone through the years of mastering English can help you learn the language easier and become a fluent speaker like them.

But for other people, there is a different dilemma. There is a private school for kids called The Learning Library which teaches Filipino as a second language. Not to foreigners, but to Filipino kids born and raised in the Philippines. In recent years, more and more children, usually from well-to-do families, have struggled with speaking and understanding Filipino.

It is common that Manila’s top-tier private school students converse entirely in English, whether during lunch time or recess. This shows the decline in Filipino language among the students, especially for millennials, it looks like the youth’s proficiency in their own language is rapidly declining, and the sad part is, it’s like they don’t notice it at all. It’s a problem many of Manila’s private schools have not been able to solve, and one that highlights an even bigger problem, which is the widening gap between rich and poor. As private school students speak less Filipino, those in public schools have simultaneously declined in English proficiency.

Unlike economic differences that divide the rich and the poor all over the world, the language divide here often goes unnoticed. Not because it’s insignificant, but because it is so deeply rooted in society, the predictable consequence of class hierarchy, prevailing colonial mentalities, and a badly uneven educational system.

According to a Filipino teacher who has taught at the all-girls private school for 17 years said that apart from the required Filipino subject, all of their classes are in English. She said that the Filipino teachers are the only ones responsible for teaching students to embrace and use the Filipino language. That’s proven to be a problem. She described a situation in which many of their students misunderstand instructions from teachers and have trouble translating between the two languages. They translate literally and don’t read the entire text. So when they translate, it comes out wrong because they do it word for word. Many don’t know the Filipino translation for even simple words. She marked it up to a lack of exposure to Filipino, something she believes has only worsened in recent years as the internet has made it possible to stream Western entertainment popular with Filipinos.

The language problem, is difficult to spot early on, because children can usually get by with the little Filipino they do know. Further, English is so widely spoken in the Philippines that parents often feel no sense of urgency when it comes to teaching their kids Filipino. The parents’ role is important here, because the school and the home are a partnership, the two should support each other in encouraging the child to embrace using the Filipino language.

The mindset stems from a colonial mentality still common in Filipinos. The Spanish enslaved us physically, but the Americans enslaved us mentally and emotionally. That’s why until now, we still really love America. That’s why until now, our minds and hearts are still slaves to America. The United States setup the public education system in the Philippines to teach English while instilling American values. Although there were issues of whether English was the best language for education in the Philippines, local languages were not used as medium of instruction. In the first place, teachers were trained to teach in English, and there was a lack of materials in the local language. In addition, the American colonial government insisted on the use of English as a medium of instruction, hence, prioritizing its colonial agendas and shaping a flexible nation of ‘brown Americans’ who would be able to participate in a society determined by colonialism. English was pushed as the primary language of literacy with local languages as supporting languages to teach character education, good manners, and right conduct. American language policy and planning then led to English as the major language of higher education, socioeconomic, political opportunities while local languages were restricted to other functions. The Philippines gained independence from the US in 1946, but there was no independence from English language. Today, “good education” is often still associated with “good English,” which is a huge misconception.

They think language is what will elevate you as an individual, but your language is not the basis of your intelligence. Language is a medium to deliver ideas, it is not for elevating ideas. More than learning to read and speak Filipino, the value of learning the language is that it will allow the people to better understand all kinds of individuals whether they are rich or poor.

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