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Filipino (Tagalog) – the Lingua Franca of a Hugely Diverse Country

Western countries like Canada and the United States pride themselves on being “multicultural”, but I think it`s a myth. In reality all of the various cultural communities merge into the mainstream and adopt its language after usually one generation. But there are (many) countries around the world where the native population is incredibly diverse, consisting of many different regional cultures and languages. These are the true multicultural countries. The Philippines is one of those multicultural countries.

Because I visit the Philippines fairly regularly, I decided to start learning Tagalog as a side project (my main project being French at the moment), and I`ve been at it for a few days and so far it`s lots of fun. I`m learning Tagalog because it`s the official language and lingua franca of the Philippines (along with English). But it is not the only native language spoken there, not even close.

Huge Linguistic Diversity

Philippines regional languages
The largest regional languages in Philippines

There are actually at least 120 distinct languages in the Philippines, and that doesn`t mean dialects of Tagalog – that means distinct languages. Most of the languages are related, but for the most part not mutually comprehensible. And within each language, there can be a lot of dialectal variation too. The dialects are often different from one village to the next. Can you image that? A country that has over 120 native languages that each have multiple dialects. A country where you can drive for a couple hours and no longer be able to understand the local language.

Bridging the Gap

In fact, most of the world used to be like that, and much of the world is still like that. Philippines is like that, Indonesia and Malaysia are like that, Africa is like that. When there is a huge amount of linguistic variation, a lingua franca helps us communicate between language groups. In modern countries, the lingua franca often becomes the official language – and in some countries they forcibly stamp out other languages. A lot of those countries that you think of as having only one language, actually used to have many but they`ve been largely stamped out through law, media, and schooling. But sometimes the influence of the old regional languages can still be seen in a regional dialect of the official language. In Philippines though, the regional languages continue to thrive at home and for everyday communication.

In all of the various regions of the Philippines there are numerous languages, but in every region there is a regional lingua franca – normally the language with the most speakers in that area. So there is a national lingua franca (Tagalog), and a regional lingua franca (which varies). So if we are both from the Visaya region but from different islands and speak different native languages, when we meet we`ll probably speak Cebuano – the regional lingua franca. But if one of us can`t speak Cebuano, then we`ll speak in Tagalog.

Two Official Languages

Manila at nightTagalog is the official language and the national lingua franca because it is the main language of the capital city Manila and the surrounding region, and it is the most widely spoken native language in the country – with 28 million speakers (more than a quarter of the population). Everybody in Philippines learns Tagalog, either as their native language or their second language. And English is spoken by the vast majority as either a second language (by Tagalog speakers) or a third language by others.

English is also an official language, and a large majority of Filipinos can speak it well. I`ve been told that some speakers of regional languages prefer using English to using Tagalog as a national lingua franca, and that English is the real lingua franca. But in practice I`ve never really seen this during my time in Philippines. People from different regions default to Tagalog, and sometimes repeat certain things in English if their Tagalog gets a confused look.

From what I understand, English is used for higher education, academia, and business. I imagine there is still diglossia (switching between languages for different functions), for example 2 academics discuss a research paper in English but when they go on a side tangent they speak Tagalog. That`s my speculation.

What I do know, is that amongst the wealthier middle class people in Metro Manila, there is a lot of codeswitching between Tagalog and English. Since these are the people with the most cultural and media influence, it might create the impression that the whole country is constantly codedswitching with English when they speak Tagalog, but in my experience they don`t. Most Filipinos are not middle class and not from Manila. Tagalog is very much still alive as the lingua franca, with a bit of English thrown in for style and richer vocabulary. For now.

  • Chiradeep Roy

    Sounds very similar to the situation here in India. Urban Indians generally have a good grasp of English and some Hindi depending on which state they’re from. Otherwise, we usually default to our mother tongues.

  • Leira

    It’s so good to know about the language diversity of my own country. When I was little I thought that Filipino is the language only for TVs and news but that all people really speak Cebuano, my native language. Later, I learned in school Tagalog and English since they’re actually part of the curriculum in our education system from Elementary even until College! No doubt, Filipinos can understand/speak fair English (just don’t speak too fast or else we get a nosebleed). For science related subjects, English is the medium of instruction. And your speculation is right! Professors do switch between English and our native language in the course of discussion. However, in taking Graduate degrees, speaking in our native language/lingua franca is discouraged.

  • Kuya Dan

    The system is actually really convenient for ‘language privacy’ XD.

    When my Parents only want to talk amongst themselves. They speak Ilocano which isn’t really a barrier since me and my brother can understand basic Ilocano. The problem is that we tend to not know how to speak Ilocano which is a pretty common phenomenon between Filipino children. Many young Filipino children where I live (in the UK) will understand Tagalog and maybe their parent’s regional language but they respond in English :O It’s pretty odd :/

    When we only want to talk amongst the Family, we talk in Tagalog since it’s the language we all can understand and speak Tagalog.

    And if we want everyone around us to understand, we’d speak in English since we live in the UK.

  • Sapphire Kiss

    It’s funny because sometimes we speak “conyo” where we mix our dialect+Filipino+English in one sentence.

    Anyway, this is a great article.