Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Filipino English

I have several topics that I wanted to post about, but I think that this one is needed as a sort of introduction to the wonderful world that is the English of the Philippines.

At least once a semester I find myself stopping my lesson in order to have a conversation with my students about the English of the Philippines. This especially happens during my favorite lesson of the year, when we practice sounding like Americans. I teach this lesson because my city has many call centers that have attractive salaries that my students long for. Before delving into sounding like an American I like to preface the discussion by assuring my students that I consider their form of English on the same level that I would treat British English or Australian English.

When I studied in Singapore there was much debate about Singlish and its validity as a respected form of communication. The government of Singapore had put up signs around the city encouraging residents to "Speak Good English". It is much the same here, where many Filipinos assume that their English is not good enough to interact with a native speaker.

While the English of the Philippines is not as "pidgin-ized" as Singlish, it does take some time to adapt to some of different word choices. One of the biggest things to get used to is that Filipino English on the whole is very literal and very exact. Because of the heavy use of dictionaries, many words are locked into a single meaning and usage that does not allow for many linguistic nuances.

The other thing that effects English is the nature of Filipino vowels and this is something that is true in Hiligaynon, but I'm totally sure if it true of other dialects. In Hiligaynon the vowels I and E are interchangeable as are O and U. The vowels are also only one sound that is of a consistent length. In English though, we have long and short vowels.

The most devastating effect of this can be seen in the word "beaches". Because the vowel sound of long E is not usual in dialect it is often replaced by a short E/I type sound. This changes the word to something like "biches" which is pronounced something like "bitches". So after a vacation my students asked me where I had been and I told them where and then they said, "Oh sir that place has very beautiful bitches." Obviously I was taken aback by this and alerted them to that dangerous misunderstanding.

I'll finish this post with a list of some of my favorite "Filipinisms"
1. Avail- I think the only time I would have used this word in America is if something "was to no avail". Here, you avail when you take advantage of something, like a sale. Signs all over Bacolod encourage customers to "avail of promo rates!"
2. Transfer- During training I had a really bad student who always needed to be moved to a new seat because he annoyed his neighbors so much. But here you don't ask someone to move seats you ask them to transfer. You also don't move houses, because that would imply that the house moves too. Instead you transfer to a new house.
3. Be the one- In general the passive voice is really popular in the Philippines, which is probably an incite into the culture in and of itself. Instead of saying "I'll do X" you would say "I will be the one to do X".
4. A while- Rather than asking someone to wait a moment, or a minute, or even just a second Filipinos will often say, "For a while". This underscores the difference in how Filipinos and Americans view time.
5. The CR- There are so many words for the bathroom around the world, but CR is probably one of my favorite. CR stands for Comfort Room. A bathroom would be a room only for bathing and a restroom would be for resting. Obviously when you use the CR you get comfortable.
6. Ref- Ref is short for refrigerator.
7. Air Con- Shorter than air conditioning, but longer that A/C.

I could probably keep going with more things, but those are the ones that I personally like. Its time to stop writing now because my episode of LOST just finished downloading! Yay!

Friday, February 5, 2010


This story in the BBC has been making me think a lot over the last two days.

In summary, this woman (Boa Sr) on a small island off of India died, which is not particularly interesting in and of itself. She was important though because she was the final speaker of a language thought to be 70,000 years old. Her home, the Andaman Islands south of India, are full of languages that are on the verge of extinction.

The researcher, K. David Harrison, who brought all this to attention is a linguist who says that these languages are something special to be preserved as they hold vasts amounts of untapped knowledge that non-speakers won't understand. This interview has a lot of good stuff in it--if you can sit through the idiotic interviewer. He talks a lot about the link between culture and language and the sort of colonialist mentality we (Westerners) still carry with us when we "discover" something that other people already knew about. Good stuff if you like languages or have to teach another language in a foreign land.

Boa Sr's influence on me is that she has made me re-examine my Peace Corps language experience. In some way I am envious of volunteers in other places who have learned what might be thought of as "more useful languages" (ex. South American volunteers learning Spanish, or French is Western Africa). Wiki says that about 500 million people speak French to some degree. Compare that to the estimated 11 million that speak my dialect--Hiligaynon. My command of the Hiligaynon language probably isn't going to put me on the top of any hiring stacks. I can imagine the interview now:

HR Guy: Well let's see your resume here...Dean's list, grad school, Peace Corps. Oh! Hiligaynon huh? well we've been in demand of a Hiligaynon speaker for years. Thank god we found you!

Yeah right.

But the longer I stay here, and the more I am entrenched in the culture of the Philippines the more I come to love my language. It impresses people that I know what they're saying and it gives me a leg up when meeting new people. My original expectation when I found out that I was coming to the Philippines was that I would learn Tagalog, which serves as the basis for the "national language" Filipino. Kaelin was there with me with my silly Roseta Stone practicing my "batang lalaki" and "Nakasakay sa kabayo ang lalaki".

If I had indeed learned Tagalog instead of Hiligaynon all those months ago in training, and then tried to go around Bacolod speaking to people, they would have thought I was crazy. Even I do it. This girl got on my jeep the other day and started "Po-ing" the jeep driver (Po is the blanket respect word in Tagalog). She may as well have been wearing a sign that said, "I'm not from here." And when the white guy knows that it means everyone must be thinking it.

I could probably spend hours going on about language, but I will wrap up this post so I can get some sleep. Sadly, Ms. Boa's death has brought an end to her noble tongue and the deep culture that I'm sure was associated with it. But it has brought me closer to my own small language and made me cherish it that much more.

Back Again


Wow! its been a long time since that last post about Thanksgiving.

I guess I've been staying away from the blog in order to recollect my thoughts, get some new material, and re-evaluate why I'm keeping this account. For about a week I've actually been WANTING to write something, which stands as a drastic change from before when it was a sort of obligatory gesture to some audience I am probably pretending myself into having...

More to come soon