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My Life in Cebu: Speaking English in the Philippines?

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Today my helper and I went to buy some paint, paint brushes, rollers and “stuff” to paint a room later this week. When we were a block from home I told him, “Let’s leave the paint and stuff in the trunk of the car and we will get it later.” He answered, “Ok,” and nodded his head. When I was parking the car, I said again, “So we will leave the stuff in the trunk and get it later.” Once again he nodded his head and said, “Ok.” As I was pulling the key out of the ignition, he jumped out of the car, opened the trunk and immediately started getting the stuff out of the trunk to carry it up to the 8th Floor. I realized he hadn’t understood what I said at all.

When I was considering retiring in Southeast Asia, and after traveling to various countries over 5 years including Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, The Philippines, China and Laos, I settled on Cebu for the next phase of my life. I chose the Philippines mostly because the people were friendly, the economy was affordable, I liked the women, and most importantly, I believed that most people could speak English.  Of course, the places I traveled to where rather tourist-friendly: Subic Bay, the Makati area of Manila, Cebu City and Boracay. I had read that the language of teaching in schools was English, and in my brief two-week vacations to the Philippines, it seemed like people did indeed speak English.

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But now, after having been here for 7 years, I realize that English is a bit of a mixed bag. Oh, you can usually find someone who speaks enough English to have your question understood and of course sometimes you meet people who speak and understand English quite well. Of course, the farther you get from the city, the fewer people speak English, but even in the city…

I have found that many times I will ask a question, or try to explain something that has two or three steps and that the person, though they say they understand, really doesn’t understand.  It’s caught me quite a few times and sometimes it’s frustrating. Sometimes it’s just what it is.

One of the things I have learned is that Filipinos are often too embarrassed or unwilling to say “I don’t know.” I can ask “Where is the Petrol Station,” and people on the street will point me in some direction or another only to discover that there’s no petrol station down there at all. This reluctance of Filipinos to say, “I don’t know,” has been explained to me as “saving face” or “shyness” but there is quite a range of behaviors that are attributed to “shyness” and maybe there are other behaviors involved. Shyness is sort of the all-purpose explanation. For example, people have said to me, “They don’t want to ride in the car because they shy to you.” Or “they don’t want to talk because they shy to you.” Or “They let you go first because they shy to you.”

So, I am very interested in readers’ experience of English in the Philippines, wherever you live. Do you find that most Filipinos understand your questions, statements or instructions or have you been surprised to find that even though answers are given, the person didn’t really understand you? Of course what you do in this circumstance is to keep asking other people until you find someone who does understand.

More importantly, (to me anyway) what does it mean to be literate in a language, to be able to understand and formulate a response? Of course, I am only talking about spoken language here, not writing, which doesn’t usually come up when I’m looking for directions to get to the BPI Bank or “where can I get my tv fixed?” Let’s describe what I am talking about as “Functional Literacy.”

Functional Literacy is usually defined as the ability to read and speak and understand language with a degree of functionality. For example, interpreting a printed bus schedule. There are people who can read the words of a bus schedule but cannot understand, where it’s going, where the intermediate stops are, what time it arrives at the various destinations and whether or not it only goes on Tuesdays or Thursdays.

I want to say up front that in spoken English, grammar isn’t very important to me; I’m no grammarian and as Mark Twain said, “Ignorant people think it’s the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain’t so; it’s the sickening grammar they use.”(A Tramp Abroad)

For me it is perfectly ok for someone to say, “Me and my brother go to school now.” Even though correct English would be, “My brother and I are going to go to school now.” “Me and my brother” is close enough to communicate.

When I taught in an international school here in Cebu, I had a Korean student say to me,

“Me go bafroom!”

Now it wasn’t too hard for me to figure out that what he meant was, “I need to go to the bathroom,” or “May I go to the bathroom,” or “I am going to the bathroom,” but “Me go bafroom,” is hardly a high or even an intermediate level of oral literacy.

I also had a girl say to me (and this was in Thailand), “We Make Boom Boom?” It was hardly…

“When I look into the limpid pools of your eyes, I see white clouds scout across an azure-blue sky, our destiny waiting, waiting for us join together.”

But that was ok. Both statements make it clear that the person has some interest in engaging with me in some way, though I didn’t make “Boom Boom,” with this particular girl.

When a Second or Third language Learner enrolls at a school you have to diagnose and figure out just what her English Proficiency Level is so that you can know how to teach her. What materials, what activities and what approaches are appropriate? This is a real issue in modern times in the US; my last large school district in Portland Oregon had students who spoke 104 different languages at home, but when they come to school, everything is in English and most of the instructions and discussion are given orally.

For example, here are the levels of English language used in TESOL (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages) programs. ELL’s means “English Language Learners.”

Starting:  ELLs have little to no functional ability to speak English, but may respond to simple commands while listening. ELLs may imitate small chunks of the English they hear as their proficiency grows.

Emerging: ELLs can communicate in basic survival and routine situations and using mostly memorized phrases and simple vocabulary.

Developing: ELLs can use English spontaneously in comfortable social and academic settings, but with frequent errors. Reading proficiency can vary greatly at this level.

Expanding: ELLs are able to communicate in English in almost all typical real-world situations. More nuanced features of language (especially during reading), such as abstract concepts or multiple meanings have not yet developed. ELLs at this level may still have some content-area misunderstandings.

Bridging: ELLs can express themselves in a wide variety of social and academic situations, almost like their native English-speaking peers in most respects. Errors are minimal and do not detract from understanding meaning.

I think a really good example of what it’s like for a non-English speaking student thrown into an English environment is this short 3 ½ minute video. You may have to have to “cut and paste it,” but it’s really good and I know you will want to show it to someone else.

The Importance of ELL Strategies – Immersion (Moises in Math Class)

Now, we are not going to develop a high level of English Proficiency among some segments of Philippine Society. If the school didn’t do it, it is a rather complicated task, to be sure.

But, I am regularly fooled by my belief that the Philippines is an English Speaking country. It is, but only “sort of.”I find myself asking “Entiende ka? Which is a phrase mixing Spanish and Tagalog that means, “Do you understand?” And, going from person to person to find someone who really does understand. Still, I’m never sure.

So what have you experienced about how well people speak English in the part of the Philippines where you are? I would really like to hear your stories.

Of course the solution is to be endlessly patient and helpful to people attempting to speak a language that’s not their own, and I am very curious to learn about your experience with “Speaking English in the Philippines,” and if the people you know, love and interact with in English have gone beyond “Me go bafroom!”

Rob Ashley

After travelling to the Philippines and SE Asia perhaps 15 times between 2007-2011, I decided to retire in Cebu and moved here in August 2011. Things changed fast. A month after I was here I met my wife Rachel; In 6 months I decided I was bored after having taught high school English and in a graduate school of education at a Portland, Oregon university for 30+ years; I looked around; I was hired as the Head of the English Department at a Cebu international school. Rachel and I got married; we bought a condo in Cebu City; we got two cats. After 3 years here I was offered a similar position at a Japanese international school, so we went to Japan. After two years there I was offered another position of Coordinator of Languages at a Vienna, Austria international school. Living in Europe was nice, but Rachel said, “It’s too cold here.” So, finally last August, we returned to Cebu for good, and I really am retired. I have learned that you pretty much take your life with you wherever you go. I have a PhD from the University of Oregon and I’m a diehard Oregon Ducks fan. Likewise an NBA Portland Trailblazers fan, so I am often up at 3 am on Sundays or Mondays to watch football and basketball games. Cebu is home now and many thanks to Bob Martin for LIP and the services and opportunities he offers us Expats.

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Jim D.Rob AshleyPeter DevlinJohn ReyesJohn Barron Recent comment authors
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Luke Tynan
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Luke Tynan

For me, it has not been a problem. But I see it everyday and the way I adapt is make sure my wife or a member of her family is at hand if it is business related at the house. ie fixing the TV or a repair on the house. If I am out and about and just talking with someone as long as we both have patience it seems to work ok and we communicate and it is fun and friend building. Plus I am slowly building my own skills in talking in their language. But I still here… Read more »

Ron Ashley
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Ron Ashley

Luke: That’s a great idea about native English speakers volunteering to help with English in your local school. We would probably have to take the initiative, but I am sure the reaction would be positive. I think when you deal with people that don’t speak English very well, the secret is to just be encouraging and patient. It is a good way to ne helpful rather than to get frustrated. Be well. -Rob

John Reyes
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John Reyes

A well to do Filipino couple was at the table about to have breakfast when the lady of the house asked the katiulong (housemaid) who was standing by to fetch the milk and the strawberry jam from the fridge. In Filipino-accented English, she said, “Manang, please get the milk and jam…”. The maid promptly brought the pitcher of milk to the table and started jumping up and down.

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

John: Ha! We do some jamming at our house too. So many English words have double meanings; it’s not a particularly easy language. About the only time I get frustrated is when I get absolutely wrong info from someone who couldn’t say. “Gee. I don’t know.”

Cordillera Cowboy
Guest

Hello Rob, I saw a news report several months ago, entitled “We’re not as good as we once were”. It claimed that the average English proficiency of Filipinos a generation ago was about first year college level. The current average proficiency of English speaking Filipinos is about at grade 6, according to the report. My observation of my wife and her peers, vs many of the younger Filipinos we meet bears that out. Though I have met several young Filipinos, 20’s – 30’s, who speak fluent, nearly unaccented English. My wife commented that they probably went to UP (University of… Read more »

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

Cowboy: I have also heard this, that the level of English speaking has gone down. You know, so much here are social class expectations. My wife and I just had a conversations about social classes in The Philippines and that they mean different things than just income levels…that there are middle class values. We read something from the Manila Times that said, “But to be middle class is defined on more measures than purely money. There are middle class values which include education and knowledge attainment, a sense of entitlement for one’s position in society [a type of self-confidence], an… Read more »

papaduck
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papaduck

Rob,
Good read! I’ve always encouraged my wife’s cousins to try to improve there English skills so they can get better employment. But so far it’s been a no go. There excuse is always shyness,

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

Papa: Yes…that “shyness” thing is an all purpose reason for not acting, I think. It really could mean anything from “I don’t have enough self confidence” to “I don’t know how”, to “I feel uncomfortable and I don’t like feeling uncomfortable”, or to “I don’t wanna do it. I like laying on the couch” When I taught high school, I didn’t let my students say “I don’t know,” because I learned that students did that so they wouldn’t have to answer. Usually a teacher will just go on to the next person. The student has played me.. So I would… Read more »

Cordillera Cowboy
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By way of recent experiences, I bought a couple bags of dry corn from a neighboring farmer. I took it to a mill to have it ground into chicken feed. The mill was attached to a well stocked farm supply store. When I walked in, a dusty young man, obviously a mill hand, approached hesitantly. A lady, maybe in her 30’s also stood up behind the counter of the store. The boy continued to step hesitantly toward me, but the bearing of the lady told me that she was the one in charge. I looked from one to the other,… Read more »

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

Cowboy: It sounds like she was pushing him at least. Sometimes I am shocked by people who seem to have no expectation for themselves or others. I don’t understand it. Good story. -Rob

Art
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Art

My favorite thing is when I speak Ilongo ( my wife of 30 year’s language) people look at me as if I just spoke some other wordly tongue. The dumbfounded look on their collective face is usually very amusing and frustrating all at the same time. I turn to my wife and I ask if I used correct grammar and pronouciation, which I usually have, and switch to English. Go figure.I really am not sure why I bother learning Ilongo since apparently, with the exception of my in laws, no one thinks those sounds should come from my pie hole.

Rob Ashley
Guest
Rob Ashley

Art: It sounds like you for one are keeping the native language alive. Why people would not want to do this is complex. I would say, keep at it, because you are interested and it’s the right thing to do. Thanks for your story. -Rob

John Barron
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John Barron

Hi Bob,
Just wanted to let you know that i enjoy reading your blogs.
As for English i find that most can speak it but they dont understand the meaning of what they say. Its like they are just auto answers from familar phrases. Btw i live in palawan. Puerto princesa city

Rob Ashley
Guest
Rob Ashley

Hello John: thank you for the compliment. I’ve been to Puerto Princesa a couple of times as recently as last Christmas season. My wife had to get her passport renewed and The Puerto Princesa office was the only one that had any open appointments.I think you are right. It isn’t “functional literacy.” If you look at the chart in my article of ELL levels, it is the first level. Words are just symbols that have meaning. If you don’t know the meanings, it’s just sounds…you know like bak bak bak. Cordillera Cowboy wrote above that he has read that the… Read more »

Peter Devlin
Member

Hi Rob. Before I ever visited the Philippines I worked for two companies in the Middle East, both with high ratios of Filipino employees. Needless to say, their level of English was excellent, otherwise they would never have secured their jobs abroad. Hardly surprising, as English has long been considered the “Universal Language”. Now I live here, there are of course less people that speak English, but that’s not a problem for me. I love trying to speak other languages (never very well sadly!), but it’s fun to try, and local people anywhere you go respect that you give it… Read more »

Rob Ashley
Guest
Rob Ashley

Peter: I agree with you. Not understanding what I say in English is usually a minor inconvenience and there are people here who speak excellent English. Most of my conversations are a combination of English, Spanish, Bisaya and Taglish. It makes for interesting communication. Thanks for you comments. -Rob

Jim D.
Guest
Jim D.

I’ve been married to my Filipina wife for 11 years. She has lived in the US for about 8 years and has a degree from a University in Cebu. She speaks English fairly well but there are a few issues. One that is very prevalent is, I had to learn not to present things to her with choices I provide. An example would be “Do you want A or B?” “Do you want to go to A or B?” The answer is always “Yes”. I have to assume the reason is that she does want one of those choices. So… Read more »

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