We have touched on language a little bit under the culture section of Survival Tip #3 and highlighted how this can influence elements of Filipino culture. Now we will look at communication in the Philippines to try and understand the language in a bit more detail.
Communication In The Philippines
I’m not going to give you a lesson here on how to speak Tagalog, but as mentioned in Survival Tip #3, it’s estimated that there are between 120 to 175 languages and dialects in the Philippines. Luckily, just about all Filipinos can speak English. Some speak it better than others but just about everyone is capable. However, with regard to English, this can also lull you into a false sense of security – just because Filipinos can converse in English, it doesn’t mean they fully comprehend what you are saying. Understanding this will help to enhance your chances of survival in this country.
There are two elements to the language “barrier”. Firstly, Filipinos are trying to translate from Tagalog (or their own dialect) into English, and vice versa. Secondly, they don’t think the way we do as Westerners. Filipinos still very much think like Asians. As I often say to people, Filipinos might be able to speak English, but that doesn’t mean they “think” in English, or think the way we westerners do. So many times you will get a very different outcome from what you expect.
One common example is you may ask a question that requires some level of explanation, only to be answered with a “Yes Sir”. This is usually accompanied by a look of confusion or misunderstanding. That “yes” means that they have heard you, and are acknowledging you. However, they may not actually comprehend what you are asking them. This is where kahihiyan, or saving face, can come into it. This is where Pinoys are too embarrassed about owning up to the fact they don’t understand you.
Maybe It’s The Foreigner Who’s At Fault?
I think it’s important we consider that the fault may actually lie with us, the foreigner. We know Filipinos have a much better comprehension and English speaking ability compared to say, Chinese, Thai or Japanese. However, I think we, Aussies in particular, tend to relax a bit. Subsequently, I believe our accent and vocabulary can confuse Filipinos. However, as they are trying to be helpful or pakikisama, and save face kahihiyan, they don’t want to be embarrassed when they don’t understand us, so often answer with a “yes ma’am/sir”. You might find yourself having to ask the same question a few times using different words. This can be rather frustrating, but patience is the key.
I remember a funny story an Aussie mate of mine told me. He went to a shopping mall trying to buy a rain jacket. He went into several stores asking for a rain jacket only to be met with looks of confusion and uncertainty from the shop assistants. After spending a whole afternoon on a wild goose chase, he learned from one of his staff that Filipinos call the item a rain “coat”, not a rain “jacket”. In hindsight, it’s quite funny, but you can see how things can get mixed up. And this isn’t through lack of English ability, just different terminology. Knowing these differences enhances your chances of survival in this country.
When you travel to provincial areas, where all the real beauty and fun of this country is, the literacy standards are lower than in the larger urban areas. This can lead to a lot of misunderstanding, confusion and frustration. So the tip here is to speak to be understood. Filipino English, generally, is very good. However, they do use a different vocabulary. In reality, as mentioned earlier, they are translating out of their natural tongue, into English. They also tend to have an American influenced vocabulary, for example, they say vacation instead of holiday, gas instead of petrol, flashlight instead of torch etc. This can also lead to further confusion.
With up to 175 different languages in the Philippines, it’s not uncommon for Filipinos not to speak the same dialect or language as each other. This means that you can’t totally rely on Filipino-to-Filipino communication either. Patience is the key!
Do I Need To Speak Filipino?
The short answer is no. However, while Filipinos can speak English, if you make the effort to learn even a few words in the local language, it will pave the way for better understanding and increase your chances of survival. This is not only in terms of communication but in understanding the culture through their language as well. Make an effort to learn even just a few words in the local language and you will be rewarded for it.
Filipinos love it when a foreigner makes the effort to learn the language and it gives you plenty of brownie points along the way. Not to mention, it can make things a bit easier when talking to locals. With google translate and the internet readily available these days, it’s easy enough to find a translation for words. However, to gain some popularity with the locals, there are some basic words you should at least try and learn:
Salamat = Thank You
Kumusta ka = How are you?
Oo = Yes
Hindi = No
Kaliwa = Left
Kanan = Right
Diretso = Straight (ahead)
Malamig = Cold
Mainit = Hot
Saan = Where
Magkano = Asking price (how much?)
Gutom = Hungry
Uhaw = Thirsty
Mamaya = Later (wait)
Walang pera = (I have) no money
The above is not compulsory as just about all Filipinos speak English, but it helps you to build some rapport with the locals. Or, you can try Google Translate to help translate some more common words.
For the next survival tip on How To Avoid Scams In The Philippines, please click Survival Tip #6 to read more. If you missed the previous survival tip on Dealing With The Philippines Population, click Survival Tip #4 to read more. If you have any comments or experiences you would like to share about communication in the Philippines, please feel free to leave your comments below. I would love to hear from you.
Philippines Fun Fact:
There are between 120 and 175 individual languages spoken in the Philippines, 171 of which are living while the other four no longer have any known speakers. English and Filipino, based on Tagalog, are the country’s two officially recognized languages (courtesy of https://www.factretriever.com/philippines-facts).