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Speaking English in the Philippines

By David Haldane

July 8, 2024


It’s both a blessing and a curse. A double-edged-sword, as they say, a blade that cuts both ways.

What I’m talking about is being a native English speaker in the Philippines.

The good thing about it, of course, is that most Filipinos speak English. The bad thing? Just that, well, most Filipinos speak English.

Let me explain.

Growing up in an English-speaking country like the US, as I did, significantly decreases one’s chances of ever learning another language. Why? Because practically everyone in the world speaks your native tongue. Which, I can attest from personal experience, dramatically undermines your propensity and motivation to learn a foreign language.

Not that I haven’t tried. Shortly after arriving in this luscious island nation, I spent several thousand pesos on a self-directed online course promising to teach me Bisaya, the native language of the Northern Mindanao province in which I reside. And I worked on it, I really did. So hard that I was able to complete the first lesson 19 times. The problem was that I could never get to lesson number two.

Believe me, that’s not something I’m proud of.

And so, I did what many expats here do, resigned myself to picking up whatever I could from conversations with the locals. Unfortunately, that turned out to be almost nothing. Because those who felt confident in their English routinely insisted on speaking to me in the only language I already knew. And those who didn’t—which included most of my Filipino wife’s immediate family — just refrained from speaking to me at all. Until eventually, I gave up on the notion of bilingualism, resigning myself to living in my own private mono linguistic world.

Ah, but last year I got a chance to redeem myself. That’s when my adult daughter and I journeyed to Germany where my mother was born. Being the son of a native German, I had studied that language in school. And during a brief sojourn in Berlin 54 years ago, even mastered it sufficiently enough to sustain a six-month romantic relationship with a young woman named Krystal who couldn’t speak English at all.

I mean, pretty impressive, nicht wahr?


 Translation: No way!

Because Germany has changed a great deal since 1970. Mainly in that, almost without exception, everyone there now speaks English. Which meant that they were generally better at my language than I was at theirs. Which also meant that any chance for self-redemption in the eyes of my extremely bright and talented daughter was gone with the wind.

Kind of like in the Philippines.

A recent study conducted by Education First, an international education company specializing in language training, actually ranked Berlin among the world’s top ten cities in English proficiency. And as for countries, well, the Philippines ranked 20th, up from 22nd the year before.

“English is the language of global commerce and culture,” concluded an editorial reporting on the study in this newspaper. “It will be to our peril if we diminish one of the few advantages we have over the rest of the world.”

There are times and places, of course, that, despite everything I’ve said, I would gladly give my left kidney for someone to speak my language. The last time that happened was five years ago, during a 14-hour layover in China with my then-8-year-old son.

“I’m thirsty,” Isaac announced after our 3 a.m. landing at the Chongqing airport.

Ordinarily, of course, that wouldn’t pose a major problem. But this was China, where water can only be purchased with local currency, Visa cards are not accepted, and no one speaks English nor cares to communicate with foreigners who do.

Suffice it to say, it was an extremely long night.

Now safely back in the Philippines, I’ve surrendered the notion of ever becoming fluent in another language. Except, maybe the universal language of Tanduay rum.




David Haldane is an award-winning American journalist, author, and broadcaster with homes in Southern California and Northern Mindanao. His latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon. This column appears weekly in The Manila Times.



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