FFE Magazine

Philippine HiStory Today: From ‘Como esta’ to ‘Kumusta’



Magandang araw! Como esta? If you’re not familiar with these last words I used, that’s ‘kumusta’ in Spanish. Both the terms almost sound the same, and for a reason that we’re going to talk about in today’s slice of history.


On two different June days separated by more than a hundred years, two very dissimilar languages were made the official language in the Philippines: Spanish and Tagalog.


If you attended school before the end of Martial Law, then you’re one of the many Filipinos who either enjoyed or hated the required units of Spanish classes in college. Likewise if you’re one of those who grew up using a non-Tagalog language like Cebuano, Ilocano or Bisaya, you’ll also relate to these events in history.


5 June 1754 and 7 June 1940: the days when the law proclaimed Filipinos to speak in Spanish and Tagalog.


Grab a chair and read on…


Spanish education in the Philippines

The arrival of the Spanish and subsequent colonisation of the Philippine islands at first forced the Spaniards to learn the Filipino native system of language called baybayin. However, when more Spaniards came and more Spanish settlements were built, it became easier for the colonisers to use their language to communicate instead of learn the language of the natives.


Baybayin script etched in a sword sheath

Baybayin script etched in a sword sheath


In addition to less interest in learning baybayin and the native tongues, religious groups and the Christendom had a lot to do with how Filipinos eventually acquired the language of the invaders. Salvation meant memorising prayers in Spanish, and getting an education in schools set up by religious groups required the ability to converse in Spanish.


By the 1600s, many universities were founded in Manila that helped spread the use of the Spanish language among the educated classes. However, it took another hundred years for the Spanish King to finally command that the Spanish language be taught in schools.


Sample of a prayer book in Spanish

Sample of a prayer book in Spanish


5 June 1754

On this day in history, the Philippines finally received a royal decree from King Ferdinand VI of Spain saying that Spanish should be taught in all schools for boys and girls. This is one of the early known instances which states that a language must be institutionalised in the Philippines.


What are the implications of this decree? Although there was no command that said Spanish should be made the national language at that time, institutionalising a language meant greater spread of that language, allowing students from every corner of the Philippines with a school equal opportunity in education at least in terms of communication skills.


It also meant that Spanish should be placed in higher regard compared to other native tongues.


Most students in this class photo from the College of Santo Tomas, 1887, look mestizo, showing that education and formal Spanish teaching is accessible only to certain types of people

Most students in this class photo from the College of Santo Tomas, 1887, look mestizo, showing that education and formal Spanish teaching is accessible only to certain types of people


Of course, a decree is just a decree, and in the 1750s we can imagine that teachers and books were hard to come by in the provinces. This meant that the decree had more impact in bigger settlements like Manila, which by then were churning out educated Filipinos who were capable speakers of Spanish. These were the same Filipinos who were able to pursue further studies abroad, the Ilustrados.


Spanish-speaking Filipinos

One perfect example of a man who benefitted from learning Spanish is Dr Jose Rizal. Did you know that his Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, the books that fuelled the revolutionists of the 1880s, were originally written in Spanish? Certainly, Rizal’s Spanish was not perfect. But his mastery of the language was enough to anger Spain and ignite a revolution. Imagine the power of language!


The Ilustrado class were educated in Spanish

The Ilustrado class were educated in Spanish


Growing nationalist sentiments however were about to change the condition in schools. In 1896, the Constitution of Biak-na-Bato stated that the Tagalog language be made the official language of the Philippines. But Spanish still flourished in colleges, especially among the moneyed class. Access to the Spanish language soon became a matter of money, leading to greater divide between the rich and the poor.


By the end of the Spanish colonisation, it is estimated that around 5% of the population can speak Spanish. The defeat of Spain in the turn of the century, however, did not erase the language issue. America came in, and they brought with them English, the new language of the elite.


English in the Philippines

Let’s take a crash course of English in the Philippines because English also has an important role in the story of the Spanish and Tagalog languages. English had a major push as a language of teaching when the American public school system was established in 1901. Remember the Thomasites, the first American teachers? They were brought to the Philippines en masse as established by the Philippine Commission to improve the education system of the Philippines.


In 1918, almost 20 years of education under Americans, around 47% of the population was said to read and write in English.


Thomasites in Benguet

Thomasites in Benguet


The jump in the number of English speakers led lawmakers of the elite class to name English and Spanish as the official languages of the Philippines in the 1935 Philippine Constitution. However, a provision two years later stated that Tagalog must be made the national language of the Philippines.


7 June 1940

Louder calls for independence from the American government led to heightened sentiments toward Tagalog. On 7 June 1940, the Philippine Assembly approved Commonwealth Act No 570, making the Filipino National Language, which was based on Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines.


Now it must be emphasised that Tagalog is just one of the many languages we have in the Philippines. There were no documents that actually mentioned the number of speakers each Philippine language had at that time, meaning lawmakers couldn’t really say which language truly represented the Philippines. So why on earth did they choose Tagalog as the basis of a national language?


The decision was quite unfair for speakers of other languages and has led to discrimination on the basis of language among Filipinos, even today. Ever wonder why many Manileños laugh at how the Bisaya pronounce their vowels? Or why Cebuanos and other Visayans choose to speak English rather than Filipino? Differences in what language we use can really cause a divide, which is why language is an important topic to talk about.


Spanish, English and Tagalog

I will not anymore go into the intricate details involving the law and the languages in our country. But I want to point out that after World War 2 Spanish grew less and less prominent in schools and institutions while English became more and more institutionalised.


What of Tagalog? Speakers of other native Philippine languages were angry at the prestige given to Tagalog as the basis of the national language. This is why, in the law, the name of the national language has been changed multiple times. Do you know the difference among the languages Tagalog, Filipino and Pilipino? Neither do many of our kababayans!


President Manuel Quezon, the ‘Father of the National Language,’ formed the Surian ng Wikang Pambansa in 1937 that aimed to create a ‘national language for the Filipino’

President Manuel Quezon, the ‘Father of the National Language,’ formed the Surian ng Wikang Pambansa in 1937 that aimed to create a ‘national language for the Filipino’


The language issue continues up to today. Last year, there was controversy over the official name of the Philippines: should it be ‘Pilipinas’ or ‘Filipinas?’ The difference is just one letter, but, like the fight over the correctness of the terms Tagalog, Filipino and Pilipino, the arguments are significant because language is a matter of identity.


Mother tongue

Today, there is a whole new dimension to the language issue: mother tongue. Yes, Filipinos speak English and Filipino. But many of us also use other native languages like Cebuano, Ilocano, Bisaya, Kapampangan, Bicol and many more. Under the new basic education programme called K to 12, mother tongues must also be used for teaching.


So many languages to think about! The issue about languages has caused many headaches for lawmakers. But the diversity of languages in the Philippines is also something to be proud of, and learning multiple languages is a prized skill in the globalised world we have today!


Map of the major Philippine languages and where they are spoken

Map of the major Philippine languages and where they are spoken


A person who loves many languages has nothing to lose. On the other hand, a person who loves a language and despises other’s, is being unreasonable. Face it — most of us know at least one person who prefers a foreign language over Filipino. This is a very sad fact, but it does exist… Filipinos who suddenly forget to speak their own language.


If there’s one lesson we can take from the events of 5 June 1754 and 7 June 1940, it’s that language is a powerful tool that can unite and divide groups of people. There’s pride in speaking our native tongue and embracing it, because it is our identity.








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