Un poquito: Why Pinoys do not speak Spanish

Published April 16, 2021, 1:05 PM

by Rom Mallick

And what this says about our understanding of our colonial history

Philippine history teaches us that we have been under one foreign power and the next for the majority of our societal consciousness as a budding nation. There were the Spaniards, the Americans, and then the Japanese—oh, and you might want to add the British who were in Manila for a couple of years, just for good measure. Of these, the longest “reigning,” were the Spaniards, who occupied the Philippines for over 300 years. 

A Spanish mestizo family in the Philippines (National Library of Spain)

Now, the question is: Why is the Philippines not a Spanish speaking country? The answer is not so simple, but pointing to how nuanced our Spanish colonial history is, we can put it simplistically. 

Instead of teaching the natives of these islands their own language, the Spanish missionaries who had first arrived here to spread the Catholic faith decided to learn the major languages they had encountered. There were two, as far as their experts were concerned: Tagalog, which was spoken in most of Luzon, and Bisaya, the language the Spaniards had encountered in Cebu and its neighboring islands (One Spanish chronicler, Pedro Chirino, even compared Tagalog to Latin). It was easier, more practical for the missionaries, who were few in number at that time, to learn the local languages to go about teaching Christian doctrine quickly.

But then, you might ask, in the more than three centuries of their stay in the Philippines, surely the Spaniards would’ve taught their language to everyone, right? Yes and no. Yes, there were Filipinos who did learn to speak Spanish, but they were all from the elite classes, particularly those who lived inside the walls of Manila (Intramuros), but even they had to keep it secret. As late as 1888, just 10 years before the declaration of Philippine independence from Spain, the brave women of Malolos, such as Basilia Tantoco, were still petitioning for their right to education, including the right to learn Spanish. A common misconception about Spanish colonial rule is that, well, it was the kind that occupied the entire Philippines. It wasn’t the case, especially during the 17th and 18th centuries when it was very rare to find a Spaniard outside of major Spanish settlements like Manila and Cebu. 

Philippine Declaration of Independence, dated June 12, 1898
(National Library of the Philippines)

Case in point: The highest ranking government official in towns was the gobernadorcillo, who was not Spanish but Filipino, a local. For most towns, the only Spaniard around was the cura, the parish priest, if at all. A visiting Spanish official, whose job was to collect tributes, would occasionally drop by, having dinner with the gobernadorcillo, whose house was the only one with cubiertos

Another misconception is that the guardia civil, which was instituted only in the second half of the 19th century, were Spanish enforcers. Pinoy films often portray these guards, the villains in many Spanish colonial flicks, wrongly. The guardia civil was not composed of Spaniards. They were Filipino conscripts. 

But just as Spanish as a language was beginning to gain ground, though not as prevalent as it did in our colonial cousins in the Latin Americas, Filipinos were introduced to yet another foreign language—English.

So those who did learn Spanish among the Filipinos were those who had the means to study in colegios in colonial centers, like those in Intramuros. In other words, only the elite, which is why Rizal and his fellow illustrados (which is just Spanish for enlightened) spoke and wrote in Spanish. This puts in perspective the intended audience of their writings—the “Noli,” the “Fili,” every single issue of “La Solidaridad” were all written in Spanish, although the common Filipino of their era did not read Spanish. In contrast, the documents of the Katipunan were all written in Tagalog. Curious, isn’t it? 

Toward the end of the Spanish colonial era, the Filipinos who styled themselves as the elite and rulers of the islands were all speaking the language of the colonizer. Spanish was the language of Aguinaldo and his fellows. Spanish was the original language of the national anthem. Our declaration of independence from Spain was written in Spanish. When the Spaniards left in 1898, Spanish was the language of the Malolos Assembly and the constitution that it produced. 

Poster advertising the Jones Law of 1916 (Philippine Congress)

But just as Spanish as a language was beginning to gain ground, though not as prevalent as it did in our colonial cousins in the Latin Americas, Filipinos were introduced to yet another foreign language—English, which the Americans had quickly wanted to inculcate to the locals when they brought in two boatloads of teachers to the Philippines, almost immediately after the Philippine-American War. Unlike Spanish, English was taught to almost every Filipino, thanks to the public education system introduced by the new foreign power that dominated las islas Filipinas. Still Spanish persisted as a language among the ruling class. Manuel Quezon himself spoke Spanish rather fluently.

Although we never were a Spanish-speaking country, Spanish words have found their way into contemporary Filipino vocabulary. It is said that about 30 percent of Filipino words are of Spanish origin, from day-to-day objects and cardinal numbers to days of the week and months of the year.