Do Filipinos Speak Spanish? (They Used To)

avatarMille Larsen
4 mins read

The Philippines was a Spanish colony from 1565 to 1898 - a period in which the Spanish language was extremely important and, in the later period, very common all throughout the country. Spanish remained an official language until 1987, but with the departure of the Spanish colonizers, the Spanish language has become gradually less wide-spread in the country.

Today, most languages spoken in the Philippines are rich with Spanish loan-words, and a Spanish creole language called Chavacano is even spoken in certain regions. Proper Spanish is not a widespread language in the Philippines today, however, and only about half a million people of the 110-million population speak Spanish at a native-like level, whereas 3-4% of the populations speak intermediary Spanish.

But how did it end up that way?

The Rise And Fall Of Spanish In The Philippines

Before the arrival of the Spanish, the archipelago which today is known as the Philippines spoke a wide range of different languages. The main language of Luzon, the island where the capital, Manila is situated spoke Tagalog, which is the ancestor of the modern Filipino language, but the other islands spoke several hundred local languages.

When the Philippines became a Spanish colony, the Spanish language became a sort of lingua franca which could be used to communicate across regional barriers that used to be limited by the knowledge of the local languages.

In the beginning, Spanish was spoken only by few locals, however, since the Spanish colonial forces preferred to deal with locals, preach religious sermons, and teach in local languages which the Spanish colonizers learned in great numbers.

In the 19th century, the Spanish made public school attendance mandatory and the teaching of Spanish, despite a lack of teachers, became increasingly effective. By the end of the 19th century, around 60% of the Filipino population spoken Spanish at a high level.

With the American dominance of the Philippines which began in 1898, Spanish continued to flourish, while the English language didn't seem to gain much traction. At least in the first couple of decades. Gradually, the American government started to force media outlets to publish their content in English as opposed to Spanish and public schools where made to switch instruction to English. This, along with an American attempt to demonize the Spanish language meant that the English language saw a boom in the Philippines by the 1940s.

With the Japanese's attack of Manila in the second world war, the Filipino center of Spanish-speaking culture was destroyed and with over a million Spanish-speaking Filipinos dead, Spanish quickly became less dominant in the country.

In the 50's 60's and 70's, American and English pop culture further popularized the English language in the Philippines and, finally, in 1987, Spanish was removed from the constitution as an official language.

Can You Get By In The Philippines As A Spanish Speaker Today?

Traveling in the Philippines while relying on Spanish to communicate with locals will not get you very far. Under 0.5% of the Filipino population speak Spanish at a native-like level and some 3% speak it at an intermediary level. Chavacano, the Spanish-based creole language spoken in some Filipino regions is spoken by under a million, and you might be able to communicate with them while speaking Spanish, but this only brings the percentage of Spanish speakers up to a shy 4%.

Some urban centers, such as the capital, Manila might have a slightly higher concentration of Spanish speakers than the rest of the country, but I wouldn't count on relying on Spanish anywhere in the Philippines.

So your best bet is probably English!