They Don't Speak Spanish in the Philippines?


Panorama of Manila. Photo by joiz on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons license Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0).

The Philippines, a Southeast Asian archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, is like Latin American countries a former colony in the Spanish Empire. The Philippines was under Spanish rule for three centuries, in fact, belonging specifically to the Kingdom of New Spain. During this time, the dominant language of the colonial government in the islands was Spanish, only to be replaced by English, after the Spanish-American War, when Spain ceded control of the islands to the United States for $20 million.

Throughout the 20th century, the use of Spanish declined, particularly after the destruction of the Spanish stronghold in the Battle of Manila. The country's subsequent modernization and World War II left English the nation's most common language.

In 1946, the Philippines gained independence from the United States, but it retained English as one of its two official languages, Filipino being the other. Currently, Filipinos have English or one of the local languages as their mother tongue. It is estimated that less than 1% of the current Filipino population speaks Spanish. 

In 2008, Gaspar Canela wrote in the Reino de Siam blog that the state of the Spanish language in the Philippines was actually much worse because, in his opinion, the Spanish never succeeded in replacing local languages: 


Intramuros. Image by shankar s. on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons license Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Muchos filipinos, los menos estudiados, hasta desconocen que estuvieron sometidos a un reino ibérico durante más de tres siglos. Los estadounidenses, tras expulsar a los españoles, trajeron a Filipinas barcos repletos de profesores de inglés. Tuvieron más éxito que los españoles en extender el uso de su idioma, pero tampoco todos en las islas dominan hoy día la lengua de Shakespeare.

Many Filipinos do not even acknowledge that they were subjects of an Iberian kingdom for more than three centuries. The Americans, after expelling the Spaniards, brought ships full of English-language professors to the Philippines. They had more success than the Spaniards in extending the use of their language, but still not everywhere on the islands does the language of Shakespeare reign. 

Nonetheless, Spanish did not disappear from everything. Traces of the Spanish language are present in the surnames of many Filipinos, in the names of cities and historic sites, as well as on the country's streets and plazas. Moreover, classic Philippine literature was written entirely in Spanish, even during much of the twentieth century. Among the many works of classic Spanish Philippine literature is Noli me tangere, by writer José Rizal, who, scholar say, played a significant role in the consolidation of Filipino nationalism

Rizal, now considered a national Filipino hero, was executed on December 30, 1896, on charges of sedition by the Spanish authorities. The night prior to his execution, he wrote a poem titled “My Last Farewell”, which describes his love for the Philippines. YouTube user Hispanic Filipino uploaded a video where he recites the poem: 

But is Spanish a dead language in the Philippines? Hardly. Spanish remains strongly rooted in the islands, even though it's difficult to notice at first. Guillermo Gomez Rivera, director of the Manila weekly Nueva Era, is optimistic about the future of the language in the Philippines and shares his opinion on web blog, Filipinas Única where he states that Spanish is very easy for any Filipino who speaks Tagalog, Visayan, and Ilokano:

El español es bien fácil para cualquier filipino que hable tagalo, bisaya, bicolano e ilocano porque en estas lenguas indígenas están incrustadas miles de hispanismos. En estos idiomas indígenas todas las prendas que se llevan en el cuerpo se llaman en español: sombrero, camiseta, cinturón […] Todos los muebles y enseres que se encuentran dentro del hogar se llaman en español: cocina, cuarto, sala […] Todo lo que es infraestructura de urbanización se llama en español: […] esquinita, avenida, plaza…

Spanish is very easy for any Filipino who speaks Tagalog, Visayan, and Ilokano because thousands of hispanisms are embedded in these indigenous languages. In these indigenous languages, all articles of clothing are referred to in Spanish: sombrero (hat), camiseta (shirt), cinturón (belt) […] All furniture and appliances that are found in the home are referred to in Spanish: cocina (kitchen), cuarto (room), sala (living room) […] All urbanization infrastructure is called in Spanish: […] esquinita (corner), avenida (avenue), plaza (square)… 

Internet user Neptuno Azul demonstrates this principle with Eloidoro Ballesteros's poetry, written in Chavacano, a creole language derived from Spanish and various local languages: 

Recently, there are signs that interest in Spanish might be rising, thanks to efforts by the Cervantes Institute and other Spanish and Philippine institutions, as well as people who want to rescue the legacy of the Philippine language. These groups even got some official support from the former government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who started the partial reinstatement of Spanish in secondary education in 2009. Outside schools, the business community's interest in Spanish is also rebounding.

One useful demonstration of Spanish as a living language in the Philippines is this YouTube video, titled “Teaching Spanish in the Philippines”, where several Filipino students show what they've learned in school.

Post originally published in Globalizado blog.


  • […] until 1946. As some Filipinos say to explain the dominance of the Catholic religion and the popularity of the English language in the islands: “We spent 300 years in the convent and 50 years in […]

  • Pat Ese

    I speak fluent Spanish and visiting Legazpi, Albay and the driver scream to a motorcycle driver who cut him off (TARANTADO) so I started laughing because in Spanish (Atarantado) means the same.
    Alot of the Spanish/Tagalog words are phonetic the same but written different spelling. Just like expression PUCHA maybe in the accent the “T” was mixed up.

    • RyanF1

      “Pucha” is a purposeful change to enable cussing in polite company. They’re still aware of the version with a “t”. Got the idea from the Americans when they say something else than S.O.B., like “sonofagun”. Not watered-down is the related invective puñeta.

      • Pat Ese

        Thank you just found out the some of the Centro American countries use PUCHICA as a slang way of saying the same. I guess we our ancestors were simulated the same way my Grandma was full Maya Indian Grandpa from Spaniard decedent.
        Is great the some people take pride to keep their roots and work hard keeping their identity.

        • RyanF1

          They won’t use the diminutive form Puchica in ‘Pinas because the full expression is Anak ng pu*a!, which means the same as Hijo de … ! The invective is directed as much as to the figurative good-for-nothing Mother who raised que un atarantado y pendejo as it is to the hiji/hija; hence the words Pu*ang [i]’na mo! or Tu ma'[dre] es una pu*a! which you might hear.

  • Pat Ese

    I took the family to this show in Tampa 2012 wife Filipino family and my mom (Honduras) 70 years old at the time. The Spanish dances section which was about 60 to 70% of the show made my Mom cry because it remind her of her childhood singing alone to all the songs. My wife mom and grandma did not care to much because they did not speak Spanish, they were kind of confuse why the show had so much Spanish influence.

  • Pat Ese

    Another video enjoy…

  • […] były nią do roku 1946. Jak mawiają Filipińczycy, wyjaśniając dominację religii katolickiej i popularność języka angielskiego na wyspach: „Spędziliśmy 300 lat w klasztorze i 50 lat w […]

  • James Segundo

    Philippines exists because of our hispanic legacy. It is one country with one history and one people because it existed underneath Spain. Other than that, there is no reason for the country to exist. All the people who consolidated Philippine nationalism were Spanish speaking
    American colonialism ruined Philippines, it ruined our sense of identity and nationhood and today Philippines is simply a pathetic American wannabe country with no dignifying elegant culture but instead a culture where the only way to appear dignified is by being an American wannabe, otherwise if you act Filipino you are considered old fashioned or poor and uneducated

  • James Segundo

    Hispanic culture is so deeply embedded into our culture that to erase it would mean to erase an essential part of being a Filipino. Filipinos should try to learn and get an understanding of their heritage and recognise who they are before ignorantly judging the Spaniards yet not the Americans who committed similar if not worse atrocities

  • Juan

    The Philippines is already too divided given the many dialects present and then you still want to add Spanish to make things even worse? I mean, cant you get over it already? In the first place, the spaniards never wanted us to learn spanish and now you wanna embed it in the Philippine educational system? No way! And in any way, its just gonna be another “pasosyal” language of those colonial supremacy thinking Filipinos who saythey have spanish lineages cos their surname sounds spanish like wtf. Hey, bitches, reality check, 90+% of Philippine surnames are either Spanish or hispanisized so please, fuck off.

    And to those whocontest, “hey, its gonna be helpful once you go to california cos theres a lot of hispanics outthere” hey! Let me tell you this, we have adjusted so much already! So much that we begin to lose identity. Even americans cant spell “filipinos” right. Insyead, they spell it as “philippinos”. English is alreafy a big adjustment we made. Nuf with adjusting, time to make some identity! Have some pride please!

    • ricardo


      2. The Spanish Language in Hispanic Philippines

      A more enlightening view was that of Carlos Palanca, the most prominent Chinese in the last two decades of Spanish rule. He submitted a memorandum to the Schurman Commission about the main products and languages in the different provinces, Palanca listed 18 provinces as Spanish-speaking with 5 provinces as speaking little Spanish. The rest of the provinces speak the regional language. The Spanish-speaking provinces, the most prosperous provinces, were deeply influenced by the friars and had a significant concentration of Spanish-speaking Chinese and their mestizos. Yet, in the other provinces not classified either as Spanish-speaking or speaking little Spanish, one could find several headmen who spoke fluent Spanish, according to Stephen Bonsal, an American war correspondent who traveled widely in the Philippines. Still another revealing source on the widespread use of Spanish at the time of the American invasion was the fact that American soldiers had to speak crude Spanish, dubbed “bamboo Spanish”, to make themselves understood by the native Filipinos. An important reference on the widespread literacy and, by inference, the wide use of Spanish in the Country, is the 1903 Philippine census. The Census, although deliberately – it seems – not answering Spanish-speaking and writing inhabitants in the country at that time, stated the literacy rate of the Philippines at 20.2% including those who could read and write in any Philippine language. However if the figure includes those who could read but could not write, the same figure jumps to 44.5%. Surely this literacy rate had little to do with the Americans who came to the Philippines only in 1898 and did not start their public school system until 1900. Agoncillo’s statements downplaying the extent of education and the widespread use of Spanish during the end of the Spanish era are debunked by contemporary historical accounts on the subject matter and by even the 1903 Philippine census. Philippine history textbooks give the impression that the transition of the medium of instruction in the public school system from Spanish to English occurred smoothly. By the first decade, American bureaucrats in the Philippines were informing the American authorities in the USA that the Filipinos by the middle of the first decade were already English-speaking. Actually, Spanish grew even more during the 1900-1920 period. Professor Henry Jones Ford of Princeton University in his 1913 secret report on his six months travel and research about the Philippine situation to President Woodrow Wilson, had this to say on the use of Spanish in the country at that time:

      “There is however, another aspect of the case that should be considered. I had this forcibly presented to me as I traveled through the Islands, using the ordinary conveyances and mixing with all sorts and conditions of people. Although on the basis of School statistics the statement is made that more Filipinos now speak English than any other language, no one would think of the testimony of one’s own ears. Everywhere Spanish is the speech of business and social intercourse. For one to receive prompt attention, Spanish is always more useful than English and outside of Manila, is almost indispensable. Americans travelling about the Islands, use it habitually. What is more, they discourage the use of English. This was a development that took me by surprise. I asked an American I met on an inter-island steamboat why he always spoke Spanish to the stewards and waiters, and whether they could not understand him in English. He said that probably many of them could but one would not be treated with as much respect using English and not Spanish; that Filipinos seem to loose their manners using English, becoming rude, familiar and insolent.”

      Professor Ford further underscored the widespread use of Spanish in the country by writing about the existing press thus: “There is unmistakable significance in the fact that there is not in all the Islands one Filipino newspaper published in English. All of the many native newspaper are published in Spanish and in the dialect. The Vanguardia, the Manila newspaper of largest circulation, has a Spanish section and a dialect section, and most of the native papers throughout the Islands follow this practice. The Philippine “Free Press”, the periodical of largest circulation under American control, is published in English and Spanish, and all the American newspapers use Spanish to some extent in conjunction with English. The only purely Filipino paper that uses English at all is the Revolutionary Organ, “The Philippine Republic”, published in Hong Kong. It is in Spanish and English. The avowed purpose being to reach American readers in the interest of Philippine Independence.” It is relevant to mention here that as late as 1930, the Spanish dailies had a much bigger circulation than either Tagalog or English dailies. Noteworthy also is the fact that in the 1930’s there were a few Chinese periodicals in both Chinese and Spanish.

      Another big proof for the prevalence in Spanish over English in 1913 Philippines cited by Professor Ford is the failure of Act No. 190 enacted by the Philippine Commission mandating English as the sole official language of the courts and their records by January 1, 1906. The law was amended several times to accommodate Spanish as co-official language of the courts with English till January 1, 1920. And Filipino legislators and Constitutional delegates made Spanish still an official language in the Commonwealth. Spanish was also heavily used by American and Chinese businessman. Pacific Commercial Company, the largest American trading corporation in the country had the best Spanish teacher under their employ to teach Spanish to new American employees from the beginning to the time when the Japanese came. Meanwhile, the minutes of the Philippine Chinese Chamber of Commerce were in Spanish from their inception in 1904 to 1924, after which Hokien was used. Truly, Spanish was already deeply widespread at the time of the coming of the Americans. Had it been used together with English in the American-controlled Philippine public school system, Filipinos would be like the Puerto Ricans today, speaking both English and Spanish.

      Modesto Reyes Lim in a 1924 issue of the Rizalian Magazine ISAGANI vehemently criticized the imposition of English upon the Filipinos. He wrote: “¿No es acaso de sentido común, que hubiera sido muy fácil propagar más el castellano, que ya se usaba como lengua oficial y se hablada ya por muchísimas familias filipinas dentro y fuera de sus hogares, y del cual contaba entonces el país con muchos literatos, poetas y escritores distinguidos?” (Is it not of plain common sense to know that it would have been far easier to further propagate Spanish, which was already the official language and the mother tongue of so many pure Filipino families, in and out of their homes, and from whom where born so many writers, poets and distinguished men of letters?) “Indudablemente, como dice un ilustre filipino miembro actual prominente de la administración de justicia, que con el mismo tiempo y dinero gastado, sistema y otros medios modernos de instrucción empleados en la enseñanza del inglés, se hubieran dedicado a la enseñanza del español, éste se hubiera propagado en mucha mayor proporción que se haya hoy propagado el inglés.” (There is absolutely no doubt, says a Filipino jurist of today, that if the same time and money, and the same teaching system and methods, now employed in the teaching of English were instead dedicated to the teaching of Spanish, the latter would have been propagated in a much larger proportion in which English has been propagated.)

      Modesto Reyes Lim’s criticism of the teaching of English to the exclusion of Spanish in the Philippines looks overly biased in favor of Español, but the view is the same view of Edgar Bellairs, an Associated Press correspondent, who covered the Philippine-American War and traveled widely in the Philippines. Bellairs, in his book AS IT WAS IN THE PHILIPPINES, criticized the teaching of English over Spanish in Philippine public schools thus: “I lay it down as a proposition that if you start today and teach thousands of children in the Spanish language, in a period of two years, at the expiration of that time, you will have done more good for these people and this country, and the masses of them will have a wider knowledge of their worlds’ history and be more capable of assessing this government than they will ever be at the expiration of 5 years under the present English language system”. It was a mistake to exclude the teaching of Spanish and its use as a medium of instruction in the Philippine public schools system under the Americans. The exclusion led to the ignorance of Spanish by Filipinos, specially historians and journalists, who could, and should, shed better lights on the distorted Philippine past.

      The present ignorance of Spanish by Filipino historians and writers perpetrates the ignorance by Filipinos of many positive and beneficial aspects of Spanish rule in the formation of the Filipino Nation. This ignorance is behind the lack of appreciation for our Spanish heritage and the loss of that precious capital of human hope. It is the task of historians and writers — a task admirably and effectively played by the late Nick Joaquin — to disseminate the need of learning the Spanish language to correct the heavily distorted history of our Hispanic past and to destroy the black legend that falsely says that Spanish rule in the Philippines was mostly evil when the contrary was true.

      By Pio Andrade, Manila (2001)

  • Whors

    “Many Filipinos do not even acknowledge that they were subjects of an Iberian kingdom for more than three centuries.”

    Eeeek! I have yet to meet a Filipino who refuses to acknowledge three centuries of Spanish rule!

    In addition, those who merely dismiss the Spanish as vile colonists whose cultural heritage must be purged are ignorant.

  • antispanish

    Believe me, it’s commendable to be multilingual but spanish is the language of unwashed masses. Southeast asians, who reside in the current economic power center of the world should not buy into the last stronghold of its brutal colonial past. Focus on chinese mahal deep tagalog and all of the beautiful native languages of the country. If you.let the propagandists invade your psyche thru language youre done….you will disappear further than all of your literature has. Reading philippine literature is indistinguishable from any south american. Uplift yourselves. Mahal ki ta. Malay. Bahasa. Ami. No spanish. Do not get deeper into the stockholm syndrome

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