Why it pays for Pinoys to learn Spanish

By Ivy Jean Vibar, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Jul 02 2013 06:11 PM | Updated as of Jul 05 2013 07:00 PM

Javier Ruescas, writer and director of the documentary “El Idioma Espanol en Filipinas (The Spanish Language in the Philippines)”. Photo by Rose Carmelle Lacuata, ABS-CBNnews.com.

MANILA – Most Filipinos speak English aside from their native tongue, but only a few can still speak Spanish.

But this is about to change as more and more Filipinos are learning the language -- and not just because of their deep interest in the Philippines’ colonial history. More likely they are motivated by the significant increase in pay due to the knowledge of a foreign language.

A Google search of the keywords “Spanish”, “call center” and “Philippines” yields several pages of search results about job openings in call centers, as well as news articles about how demand in the country for Spanish-speaking or bilingual call center employees is increasing.

However, aside from an abundance of cash, people in the Philippines also study Spanish in order to keep their minds active and be better able to study history.

The Philippines, with its rich and tumultuous colonial history, is a melting pot of cultures. However, due to more than 300 years of occupation, Spanish culture has remained deeply ingrained even in modern Filipino society.

The coming of the Spanish changed many things in the archipelago. Aside from religion, the Filipinos expanded their knowledge about agriculture, trade, cuisine and, of course, language.

But did you know that many of the words in the Filipino language are from the Mexicans, and not the peninsular Spanish?

“I think that there are many words in Filipino Spanish that are typically Mexican, not Spanish from Spain. I think that many of the Spanish loan words in Tagalog are Mexican Spanish,” said Javier Ruescas of the Asociación Cultural Galeón de Manila, writer and director of the documentary “El Idioma Espanol en Filipinas (The Spanish Language in the Philippines).”

This is due to the galleons, Ruescas explained, as goods came and went from Mexico to the Philippines by way of the large trade ships.

“Padre, for example. In Spain, we don’t say compadre for friend,” he cited.

“El Idioma Espanol en Filipinas” premiered at the Instituto Cervantes in Manila on Monday, July 1, right after the Philippine-Spanish Frienship Day, which is celebrated every June 30.

The documentary describes the history of the Spanish in the Philippines and how the Spanish language was -- and still is -- used in the country, through interviews with Filipino Spanish-speakers such as former beauty queen and historian Gemma Cruz-Araneta, anthropologist Fernando Zialcita, former Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office chairman Manoling Morato, former Paranaque Rep. Eduardo Zialcita, academician Macario Ofilada and actress Maggie dela Riva, among others.

Status symbol

When the Spanish arrived in the country in 1521, the natives living in the islands each had their own language, form of government and traditions. Different groups interacted with one another either through trade or marriage, and often, through war.

It was only when the Spanish established a formal government in Cebu in 1565 and in Manila in 1571 that the people came to be known as Filipinos, and the territory, Filipinas.

Despite being under a single government and territory, people living in the country were called by different names, depending on where they were born. There were peninsulares, insulares, mestizos and indios. Only those in the higher rungs of society spoke Spanish, and the indios, or the natives of the country, continued speaking their own language.

Spanish as a language in the Philippines used to serve as a status symbol. Only those from the upper classes, as well as members of the clergy, speak the language. Chinese businessmen use their own language among themselves, and only use Spanish when dealing with government officials. The natives, or indios, only know Spanish from prayers taught by the priests.

The Educational Decree of 1863 established a Spanish public school system in the Philippines. By that time, more people can speak Spanish, especially the children of the principalia and the illustrados, Filipino students who were sent by their parents to Europe to study. This new breed of Spanish-speakers wrote and spoke in the language that they soon recognized as their own.

According to Ruescas, the perception that Spanish is only the language of the elite is “a little bit twisted” because just like in many places around the world such as in Europe or the United States, only wealthy families could send their children to school.

“Normal families or lower-class families, they needed their children to work to make a living,” he said.

“Widespread public education is something of a later period. Who studied, who went to school, who could afford to send their children to school? The well-off families. What language did they study? Spanish. Of course, unfortunately, Spanish is seen as the elite as the language that differentiates the upper from the middle class. But it’s just a historical coincidence,” he explained.

Latinos in Asia

With the prevalence of English and American culture in the Philippines, many people are unaware that there are even Spanish-speakers in the country, who learned the language from their families instead of school.

“I shouldn’t say this because I directed and wrote the documentary, but it’s an eye-opener. When we showed it to about 190 people three months ago, many people were like, ‘Wow, I don’t know this story, I never heard about this, I had no idea that the Philippines had this Spanish heritage, I had no clue that there are still Spanish-speakers in the Philippines, I didn’t know that there are so many cultural similarities between our countries’,” Ruescas said.

“When I studied in Japan, I did a master’s in Sophia University, a Jesuit university, there was a group of Filipino students on an exchange program from Ateneo de Manila. I thought that they were Latinos. Even though they did not speak Spanish, the way they [behaved], their expressions, their tone, seemed very Latino to me even though they were Asian people,” he said.

Meeting the students triggered his interest in the Philippines, though history was already one of his “hobbies.”

“I thought there’s something here of a culture equivalence. ‘We have a similar culture. They don’t speak Spanish, but most of them are Catholics. They have many words in their language that are Spanish, they celebrate Easter and Christmas like us,” Ruescas said.

However, Spanish was still superseded by English as one of the main languages spoken in the country aside from Filipino, due to several factors.

One of the things they found while producing their documentary was that although Spanish is still spoken in homes in the country -- there is even a Spanish creole mostly used in Zamboanga, Chavacano -- the use of Spanish is very rare and not considered the “in” thing to do.

This is because “everything outside” family homes are written or spoken in English or Filipino.

“I guess one of the most interesting things is to hear Filipino parents say, ‘My grandfather spoke Spanish, and so did my grandfather, I’m trying to teach it to my kids, but they’re answering to me in English, because, of course, they’re schooled in English,’” Ruescas said.

“Some families really tried to teach it to the kids but it was impossible beyond as a second language or a foreign language because it’s not used in the public light,” he added.

K+12 program

However, this may soon change due to the K+12 program, which encourages students to learn from primary sources as well as textbooks and classroom discussions. There is a proposal to introduce lessons in the Spanish language as an elective in the curriculum of public high schools.

However, the government previously cited a lack of teachers versed in Spanish as a hindrance to the widespread teaching of the language in schools. Thus, instead of making Spanish lessons mandatory, it was offered as an optional course.

In May 2013, the government said that the Department of Education and Government of Spain are cooperating to further improve the Spanish-speaking skills of teachers in public high schools through training seminars.

The seminars will run until November this year, the government said, and will be conducted in Manila, Cebu and Spain.

Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, next to Chinese. – With Rose Carmelle Lacuata, ABS-CBNnews.com