A Brief History of the Spanish Language in the Philippines

Queen Sofía of Spain together with young students during her visit in the Philippines. Credits to Fonso Velázquez.

A Historical Perspective
Where has Spanish gone to after almost 5 centuries of use in the islands?- an observer looking at the past and present would then have to ponder.

It has been over a hundred years since the Philippines was a part of Spain. During the mid to latter times of that era, the Philippines had a Spanish speaking majority. Moving forward to the present, the usage of Spanish has waned and has become dormant awaiting its resurgence among today's youth.

A Spanish Speaking Populace


Numerous historians agree that the Philippines was a Spanish speaking majority. During the late Spanish era and more than half-way throughout the American period, Spanish was the common language of the people used either as a primary, secondary or third language among the general populace. This is seen in a variety of studies conducted throughout history where one made by Don Luciano de la Rosa in 1908 indicated that 60% of the Philippine population spoke Spanish as their second or third language. On a different study at the same time, a census conducted by the Americans revealed that 10% of the then Philippine population Spoke Spanish as a first and only language. From these two studies, it can be inferred that altogether roughly around 70% of the 8 million total population of the Philippines in 1910 spoke Spanish as a first, second or third language. In a different perspective, the Philippines was a Hispanophone. Spanish was the language of the people in commerce, education and social interactions. It was the language upon which the populace was educated and means through which it proclaimed its independence. This is confirmed in Henry Jones Ford's report to the United States president in 1916 where in his observation of the Philippines he states:

"Spanish is everywhere the language of business and social intercourse...In order for anyone to obtain prompt service from anyone, Spanish turns out to be more useful than English...And outside of Manila it is almost indispensable. Natives acquiring it learn it as a living speech. Everywhere they hear it spoken by leading people of the community and their ears are trained to its pronunciation."

As a result of centuries of being under Spain it is quite undeniable that Spanish was the lingua franca of the Philippines, and along with it was a population literate of Spanish.

The proliferation of Spanish
The usage of Spanish thrived among Filipinos. Ironically, regardless of the Americanization of the Philippines and the relentless vilification of Spain made by the Americans, it is during the American era when Spanish proliferated in the Philippines catalyzing the golden era of Spanish literature written by native Filipinos. To name a few the Philippines produced writers such as Claro Mayo Recto , Francisco Alonso Liongson (El Pasado Que Vuelve, 1937), Isidro Marfori, Cecilio Apóstol (Pentélicas, 1941), Fernando Ma. Guerrero (Crisálidas, 1914), Gaspar Aquino de Belén, Flavio Zaragoza Cano (Cantos a España and De Mactán a Tirad) and others. Manila, Cebu, Bacolor and many other cities and towns across the Philippines also had its share of writers in Spanish. Additionally, newspapers and magazines in Spanish were also published, there were El Renacimiento, La Democracia, La Vanguardia, El Pueblo de Iloílo, El Tiempo and others. Three magazines, The Independent, Philippine Free Press and Philippine Review were published in English and Spanish.

Suppression of Spanish
 The golden age of Spanish literature in the Philippines occurred because the majority of the Filipinos were literate in Spanish. It was the lingua franca, the language of the people. Understandably, the superintendent of schools for Manila David Prescott Barrows was very much alarmed of this taking place. Where on a certain occasion he narrated:

"...with the increased study and use of English, there has been an increased study of Spanish. I think it is a fact that many more people in these islands have a knowledge of Spanish now than they did when the American Occupation occurred.".

However, Barrows continued that...

"this is not to be worried about as the continued Americanization of the Islands, suppression of Spanish and the far flung location of the Philippines to the Hispanic world would mean that its influence will soon diminish."

The prolific Filipino scholar Guillermo Gómez Rivera elaborates in his "In Statistics: The Spanish Language in the Philippines" that this reveals the "white Anglo-Saxon policy of deliberately isolating the Filipinos from the Hispanic world that they belonged to"

As seen in history, this deliberate isolation manifested in American colonial policies was quite effective in suppressing Spanish. Where in its execution, English was imposed in schools and was encouraged to be used in social interactions. The systematic advancement of English into the mainstream of Filipino society via schools and the tactical dismantling of Spanish was so effective that It was noted In the "La lengua española en Filipinas: historia, situación actual, el chabacano, antología de textos " that the number of Filipino English native speakers was at close to 900,000, while Spanish native speakers were at 750,000 effectively producing more than English speakers than Spanish. Regardless of this, Spanish was still the language of the Philippines to the extent that the district of Ermita even had its own distinct variety of Chavacano, the now-extinct Ermitaño or Ermiteño.

The Battle of Manila and the Decline of Spanish

Towards the mid-century Spanish was slowly being replaced by English as the major language in the Philippines. However, Spanish was still being spoken by the majority. World War II came into the shores of the Philippines and along with it came chaos, destruction and death of millions of Filipinos. It is estimated that around 240,00 Filipinos died in the American air bombing of Manila, a place where majority of the Filipino Spanish speakers reside. In the battles that ensued after, 90% of Spanish-owned buildings and institutions were completely destroyed by both Japanese and American forces, of which Intramuros (the center of Hispanic life in Manila) and Ermita (the cradle of Chavacano Ermitaño) was made flat and destroyed. Consequently, this resulted in the extinction of Chavcano Ermitaño and the collapse of Spanish in Philippine society. After the war, the imposition of English by the Victors as the major language and the subsequent constitutional amendments demoting Spanish as an official language made by past administrations made matters worse for Spanish.

Spanish in Today's Philippines
Presently, Spanish is spoken by a minority of around 3 Million alongside speakers of Chavacano as documented by Instituto Cervantes Manila. At certain points in time, this number was poised to a bearish trend due to simple lack of interest among other things. However, with a surging renewed interest in the Spanish language and multilingualism in general made by pioneers and young people who have the courage, wisdom and patriotism to carry and pass on the torch, an emerging trend of rediscovering the beauty and romance of the language our heroes spoke and by which our independence was proclaimed is resurging and gaining momentum.


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