Seven Things You Should Know About Pilipino Languages

Let's talk about talk. We all know the importance Tagalog plays in Pilipino identity here in the States. You're viewed as "more Pinoy" if you can at least understand the main dialect of the Metro Manila region. Tagalog is the lingua franca (the default universal language) of the global Pilipino diaspora. It unites, empowers, and strengthens the Pilipino.

But you'd be amiss if you didn't give a nod to the dozens of other languages/dialects that the Pilipino speaks. In a land of 7,107 islands, with a history of influences from dozens of kingdoms, dynasties, tribes and regimes over centuries and centuries, the Philippines boasts one of the most linguistically diverse populations in the more developed countries of the world.

I can write novels about this, but here's the run-down on the skills of the Pinoy tongue (wink!):

  • There are eight recognized regional language of the Philippines: Bikol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon (or Ilonggo), Ilokano, Pampango, Pangsinense, Tagalog and Waray. Of the 170 languages spoken on the islands, these have the highest number of native and secondary speakers.
  • The official language of the Philippines is not Tagalog per se, but Filipino: It's the language used in news and official communications by the Philippine government. Filipino has had a bumpy ride toward universal acceptance since it inception in 1959 as "Pilipino", particularly by non-Tagalog speakers, since – let's be honest – it's basically Tagalog. But language evolves, and the government hopes that Filipino evolves over time, adapting more and more aspects of the other dialects.
  • The Philippine languages are Austronesian, which means they're more related to Malaysian, Indonesian, and even Hawaiian than they are to Chinese, Vietnamese, etc.
  • There are Philippine creole languages! Which is awesome. Look up Chavacano. Much like how Haitians speak a French Creole and Jamaicans have Patois, a creole of English, Chavacano is a a dialect of Spanish that arose in the southern Philippines that sounds super fun. (I showed some Latino friends videos of people speaking Chavacano and they were amazed.)
  • The Philippines has its own variant of Chinese called Lan-nang, which has its origins in the islands' trading history with China. If you're a Chinese Pinoy, your family probably speaks it. They might also call it Hokkien or Fukkien.
  • Philippine English is its own variety of English, exactly like Australian English or British English. Lots of Pinoys get heat in the US for speaking English with a Pilipino accent, when it's much more than that. It's the national language of the Philippines, for Hesukristo's sake! School is taught in English. English movies are not dubbed. English is the language of the law.
  • Taglish – mixing Tagalog and English, and switching back and forth between the dialects – is a legitimate and recognized thing, and you shouldn't be ashamed of it (no more "Marunong ko po lang mag-Taglis!"). Pinoys are masters of linguistic fluidity, and you're just as Pinoy speaking in hybrid as you are speaking in pure.

If you're one of the millions of Pinoys here in the US or elsewhere in the world that doesn't just use Tagalog and English, but maybe one or more other dialects at home, it's something to be proud of. These dialects have as rich a history as any other, and should be nurtured and supported. My home is a jumbledunk of Tagalog, English and Ilokano, and whenever I hear strangers speaking Ilokano on the street, I'm reflexively even more informal and familiar with them. Almost as if there was an even deeper level of closeness than the already-close bond of general Pinoy-ness.

Ya feel me? Good. Now you're speaking my language.

Land of 100 Tongues

Language has always been something that fascinated me: the way some languages have words that can’t be translated outside of them, the nuances of languages that are perfected by little sighs or marked by guttural rumbles, others accented by the flourishes of gracefully rolled r’s and still others staccato and marching like Ravel’s “Bolero.” We are lucky in the Philippines to be home to over 100 languages, many of which range in all of those qualities. Some Filipinos refer to them as dialects, but they truly are distinct languages that stand on their own, some bearing similarity to the familiar Tagalog, others completely different from it. My grandmother knows Tagalog, Ilokano, Pangasinan, Kapampangan and Bicolano, on top of learning English upon arriving in the United States. It’s remarkable to me that one could pick up all these languages and it’s an experience I wish I had, to be able to learn them out of necessity as my grandmother did, despite not having a formal education in her life.

I have wondered if being home to 100 languages is perhaps not such a lucky thing. In college, one of the best papers that I wrote was on Philippine culture and its effects on politics during the Marcos regime. I raised the question of whether or not language barriers could contribute to a weakening unified cultural identity. Sure, most Filipinos speak Tagalog, and it is recognized as one of the national languages. But that too presents its challenges. How do speakers of the lesser known languages make themselves recognized? Do they simply let their languages die out? And for the languages that do die out, I can only wonder what histories are lost with them.

Perhaps the stunning diversity of the Philippines is also its unifying force. Even in a country as comparably diverse, the United States can’t say people speak 100 different languages here. There’s something very awe-inspiring about that, and I can only daydream of the different tales that each beautiful language can tell, unbeknownst and unlocked to those who don’t hold its precious written and spoken keys...