What Does It Mean To Call Yourself Filipino, If You Can't Speak The Language?

What Does It Mean To Be Filipino If You Can't Speak The Language?

NOTE: Filipino and Tagalog are used interchangeably within this essay. Filipino is the official national language, and contains an amalgamation of other major Filipino languages, but Tagalog is also a widely considered term to refer to the national language.

"Conyo. Rich kid. Private school. Elitista. Inglisera"

All of these were titles applied to me growing up in the Philippines, simply because I spoke English better than Tagalog. But the question begs to be asked: What does it mean to call yourself Filipino, if you can't speak the language?

For me, it meant growing up in a household whose language was different from mine.

I was raised in a middle-class family, one that had enough to afford the basic necessities and household help, as many families do. In the Philippines, a good education is the key to a good future, so my parents believed that life’s simple luxuries could wait, if it meant my brother and I could study in a private school that taught English well. Being able to speak English was a sign of better opportunities, and my parents made sure we grew up knowing the language as if it were our mother tongue. My childhood memories were littered with people desperately trying to speak English to us, from my parents, my friends within the neighborhood, and of course, the maids who cared for us while our parents worked during the day.


Shanice Espiritu and her family in the Philippines

A picture of my family outside our old home. I’m the kid wearing a red hat and blowing a horn, while my brother is being carried by my dad. The kid in the background is my cousin.

As a child I remember conversing with our maids who stuttered in their broken English with tenses that could have made any English teacher shudder. "Shan... do you eating... yung baon (food, or other provisions taken to school) mo?" And I would answer with a fluent, "yes, ate, (older sister in Filipino), I already ate my baon." The maid would then take my lunchboxes upon arrival from school while I started on my assignments, all written in English from the first to the last page.

The difference was clear between those who were blessed in life, and those who served the blessed. As a child, I had no understanding of the divide brought about by the things I merely said. This division, however, was most obvious not with the maids, but with my playmates on the street.

"As a child, I had no understanding of the divide brought about by the things I merely said."

The neighborhood we lived in was as typical as can be, small-scale houses clumped together, 2 floors max. It was here we kids played piko, ice-water, hide-and-seek, dug up "treasures" as pretend archeologists, or literally anything our scrubby little selves could think of. My friends were Gracia, Beverly, David, AJ, Kevin, and sometimes Melissa.


A classrom in the PhilippinesOne of my classrooms in De La Salle University. Growing up, there were often signs in elementary and high school saying 'English only.' University challenged me to re-learn Tagalog.

Beverly would fight Melissa because Melissa was a tall, fair-skinned girl with straight jet-black hair, and Beverly was dark-skinned with an apple-cut bob. Melissa would call Beverly "pangit (ugly)," a word I became fairly familiar with, and Beverly would call Melissa "malandi (promiscuous)."

They called each other many names, names that even I as an adult would not have called my foes, hence names I choose to forget. But "malandi" stuck. I always asked Beverly, "what does malandi mean?" but she would never answer, always telling me not to ask my parents. It was late in life when I finally learned what that damned word meant, and what Beverly had been saying under her breath in a childish rage.

Not understanding the language of the streets did not bother me much though, since I spent most of my time in a school that strictly enforced the policy of 'English Only'. Upon arrival in school, one would notice the numerous signs that hinted an entrance to a world divorced from the realities outside. "English speaking zone." "Please speak English inside school premises." "English only please!"

These signs pleaded with the visitor to shake off any other language they know and leave it at the door, except for English. Of course, there were the usual delinquents. Grade 6, 7, and high-school boys who chose to blatantly disregard the rules screamed and laughed at Tagalog phrases and jokes, not knowing that the teachers behind them wrote their names down for punishment at a later time. I, on the other hand, a straight-A student, would not dare whisper a word.

Shanice Espiritu graduating from De La Salle UniversityMe, celebrating my graduation from De La Salle University. Critical experiences in university motivated me to re-learn Filipino.

In fact, I loved English more than Tagalog. I sat in power comfortably as a child who glided through learning English nouns, verbs, conjunctions, and creating worlds through essays while Tagalog took a backseat. I felt there simply was no need to speak and learn this language.

"Would it matter if I was not able to speak to the rest of the population? Would it matter that I could understand Tagalog but not speak it?"

For me, not speaking Tagalog meant being called an Inglisera. The term has been used for anyone who looked Filipino, but spoke like Americans. It was used as a description, but often as a joke. People generally avoided ingliseros and ingliseras. There was also the perpetual "nosebleed.” Filipinos “experience” nosebleeds as an expression because of being unable to process too much English. And of course, who could miss the semi-class shaming that happens, often disguised as jokes, with hints of disdain clear enough to be heard: "Wow, English. Yaman naman. Rich kid."

For me, the labels above were consistently applied throughout my youth.  Not knowing Tagalog meant a divide, as one essay so nicely puts it, between the masses and the ones lucky enough to afford education in another language. But most of all, it meant I was unable to relate with most of the people around me. I was an outsider in my own country.

But most of all, it meant I was unable to relate with most of the people around me. I was an outsider in my own country.

I started feeling like an outsider when I entered college at De La Salle University. Even if the medium of instruction was in English, I was singled out for just knowing English. Professors would switch languages during lectures, and even though I understood both, my inability to articulate thoughts in Tagalog soon proved to be a handicap, especially during presentations.

We visited Cambio & Co.'s partner AKABA and their community of weavers in Ilocos Norte. A photo I took during my visit with Cambio & Co.'s partner AKABA and their weavers in Ilocos Norte. I acted as translator, which helped facilitate communication with the local community.

I took a class called Komunikasyon sa Filipino (Communication in Filipino), and was very discussion-heavy. I struggled from the start, as evidenced by my stutters and constant pauses as my brain failed to summon the right words in front of my classmates and teacher.  “Yung, ano… um, mga hindi… nag-bebelieve sa Diyos… wait, there's a word for it...naniniwala. There, that's the word.” Brief flashbacks of how my yaya (nanny) struggled with English filled my mind as I myself struggled in that moment. More than the shame and embarrassment of being unable to articulate my thoughts, I felt engulfed by a sense of inferiority. 

Was this how a non-speaking Filipino feels when conversing with an Inglisera? Do I make my own fellow Filipinos uncomfortable in their own country?

After that experience and others similar to that, I resolved to re-learn Tagalog. But in my journey to learn my country's language, the lessons I’ve learned go beyond the language itself. I've learned about my culture and what it means to be a Filipino.

Though we can't measure a person's "Filipino-ness" in how well they speak it, there is something inherently important in a knowing the culture's language To know English is to be able to buy from the sidewalk vendor, but to know Tagalog is to be able to understand that he works tirelessly from morning till midnight “para matustusan ang pag-aaral ng kanyang mga anak para sila ay magkaroon ng magandang kinabukasan.” (to support the studies of his children so that they will have a good future.)  

In short, to know the language is to know the people

Today, I am fluent in both English and Tagalog, but of course, I am still more articulate in  English. Not knowing Tagalog does not make me less of a Filipino, but knowing how to speak it gives me a clearer view of this country I live in. This Philippines, with its endless array of languages, all unique in their own, with meanings that, just like English, cannot be encompassed by the Tagalog language alone. If I was given the chance, I would learn as many other Philippine languages as I can to understand my kababayan (fellow countrymen) from all over the country, but as now, re-learning Filipino is just a start.

For me, knowing the Filipino language gives me something to be proud of. It is an identity I share with many other Filipinos, one that makes me distinct from the rest of the world.

But most of all, the language has become a part of me, a means of knowing who I am as an individual, and as a Filipino.

Shanice Espiritu

Shanice Espiritu

Shanice wears many hats, but her favorite is being an advocate of Philippine history and culture. She currently works under the National Commission for Culture and the Arts of the Philippines, and is a slow fashion model and photographer on the side. When not being any of those, she loves making lists, playing the piano, and scheming about how to make the world around her a little more colorful.


  • Reiner

    My sisters and I were all born in the Philippines, my father(both my parents are Filipino), was a US Navy Corpsman.We spent a total of 1 year in Alameda CA where my dad was stationed at the time and the rule of the household was English outside, Tagalog at home. If we spoke English in the house, we were ignored. Ours was the opposite of your situation, my parents saw the importance of making sure that we knew our language, our roots, sand dare I say it, our identity. We moved back tot he PI when my mothers grandfather passed, and spent 7 or so years back in the Philippines. None of us ever had problems with languages and we all returned to the US eventually.

    I cannot express to you how sad it is, to have several cousins who were born in the US, who cannot communicate in Tagalog. The most common excuse parents gave for not teaching their children was " Natatakot kami, baka malito sila". The only words they only knew was first and foremost, cuss words, and of course, the customary food dishes they ate at home.

    Not knowing your language puts a strain on everyone in the family community, although seniors have learned to adapt. The bar is significantly lowered for kids who can’t speak the language, lolo, lola, tito, tita, struggle with their best English to “cater” to the poor kid. At family gatherings, those who speak the langauage definitley engage more with other native tongue speakers, there is an immediate connection vs the others. I always wondered how my cousins can understand Tagalog but seldom able to form sentences to communicate back.

    I have lived here in the US for the significant portion of my life, over 30 years, and I can’t tell you how annoying it is to hear Tag-lish. I come from the province, where there is till some semblance of Tagalog, but I have always told people, including my sisters, if they want to speak Tagalog, speak Tagalog, English if English, but never combine both (there are many modern words such cell phone and technology driven terms, those are OK) For me, mixing languages shows poor grasp of it. Another reason, people tend to think you are more when you speak English, and less if you speak Tagalog (I highly admire someone who knows deeper Tagalog than myself). My travels in the US Air Force brought me to over 30 countries and exposed me to so many cultures, and the one theme remains, cultures from different countries are impressed and very accepting of you when you can speak/communicate in thier language. Learning a language takes effort, applying that language is respect, respect, the ability to conform to the locals you visit. Whenever I go visit the PI, I don’t speak English, I speak pure Tagalog, it wigs out all my relatives since I don’t have an accent in Tagalog, language is about communicating and getting your point accross, not showing off.

    There is a severe epidemic with later generation Filipinos overseas who can’t speak their language, and I mean bad, Future Filipinos without any knowledge or appreciation fo the mother tongue their parents spoke. Language is not only for communicating, it is an identity. In the Philippines, last I checked, over 187, each one unique to it’s people and region.

    As important as langauge is, I think the most crucial bit is that future Filipino kids who can’t speak Tagalog, still know and learn the Cultural Norms, such mano, respectful terms such as po and opo, respecting elders and holding onto spiritual values. You may not speak Filipino, but let your action show you are still one.

  • Jeff

    Totally understandable why filipino parents prefer their children to speak english fluently, especially in a ph society where being equipped with good english puts you in an advantage ika nga (socially, professionally, etc)

    Though i feel pinoy parents are pushing it too far. You go to an Ayala mall and the likes, and you encounter all these pinoy kids speaking in english and sense zero ability to speak tagalog, as if they were discouraged (or at least no effort was made for them to learn tagalog in their household).

    Cant blame these children, they were dealt a colonial mentality card. Quite embarrassing tingin ko lng

  • Jason

    Great article! I’m an American married to a Filipina. I understand (from an academic perspective) that there is a great need to know the language if one is going to fully participate in and understand a culture. I want my son to grow up with an understanding and respect for both of his cultures, American and Filipino. How can we do this with my wife being the only one Speaking Filipino to him? We are considering sending him to stay in the Philippines for a year of school when he is a little older. Other ideas welcome! So proud that you are reconnecting with your roots. This American has learned so much and I have a great respect for your culture and the great things my son can learn being a part of it!

  • Cambio & Co.

    @Denise Yu Thanks so much for your comment! In our opinion, that’s actually what the author is trying to address. She was raised in Manila being forced to speak only English in school, but lost touch with the larger Filipino community as a result. In her article, she is sharing her journey learning Tagalog as an adult and how that has changed her perception of the world around her and the country she’s from. As you said, you definitely don’t need to speak only English to be successful. We completely agree!

  • Denise Yu

    This is the most pretentious article I’ve ever read. Why a lot of Filipinos are ashamed of speaking Tagalog? I highly doubt that being fluent in English will get you further in life. There are so many Asians who are not fluent in English yet are very successful. I am glad that my parents taught me how to speak both English and Tagalog ( and I am born and raised here in Vancouver).

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