What happened to Spanish in the Philippines?


The Philippines was conquered by Spain and became a colony for 300 years.  Because of that the Spanish have left a tremendous legacy here in the Philippines including costume, food, dance, vocabulary, Catholicism and family surnames. They were also the reason why the islands that make up the Philippines are now one nation and not individual countries or kingdoms. Even the name The Philippines was named in honour of King Philip I of Spain.

However, nowadays, almost no one speaks Spanish in the Philippines anymore. Why?


History of Spanish in the Philippines

Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer who served the King of Spain landed on the island of Cebu  Before his death on Mactan Island in the hands of Lapu-Lapu, he and the other Spanish explorers introduced Catholicism to Rajah Humabon of Cebu and the other locals. That was the first step into the Hispanization of the Philippines.

Later, another Spanish explorer, Miguel López de Legazpi defeated Rajah Sulayman in order to capture Manila. Later, more kingdoms in the archipelago fell to the Spaniards. In order to spread Catholicism in the islands, the Spaniards didn’t want to make the same mistake they made in Latin America. In Latin America, the Spaniards imposed their Spanish language on the indigenous people, which is why Latin Americans now speak Spanish, but it gave the Spaniards and Catholicism a reputation of cruelty. Instead, the Spaniards learned the languages of the people in the Philippines in order to preach Catholicism.

Schools were set up by several Catholic priests in order to preach Catholicism and teach the Spanish language. Literacy rates among Filipinos rose and much of the population were able to speak Spanish. Because the Philippines was once governed from Mexico, it is said that Philippine Spanish was closer to Latin American Spanish in both vocabulary and grammar rather than European Spanish.

Spanish was the main language of Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Aguinaldo and the early constitutions.

Later the Spaniards lost the Philippines to the Americans, a lot of Spanish-Filipino families died in the Philippine-American War and World War II, the Thomasites taught English to the Filipinos, Filipinos were taught by Americans that the Spaniards have always been villains to them and widespread American cultural influence contributed to the decline of Spanish in the Philippines.


Current state of Spanish in the Philippines

Now, the official languages of the Philippines are Filipino and English. Spanish is no longer an official language of the country hence the reason why no one speaks it anymore. The older generation may know some Spanish. Not only that, schools no longer offer foreign languages subjects to students. Students now only learn English and Filipino in schools and don’t even learn another foreign language while they’re young, not even Spanish.

Personally I think it is a huge mistake for elementary and high schools to remove Spanish or any foreign language from their curriculum. Filipinos do not need to speak Spanish as a native tongue nor does Spanish need to become the official language again. But by introducing Spanish or any foreign language other than English, be it French, German, Mandarin or Indonesian, to students at an early ages will expose them to a world outside the Philippines or the Anglosphere. Personally, I think English is not enough for the global Filipino.


About Chavacano

Probably the closest thing left of Philippine Spanish that the country still has is a creole-based language called Chavacano.

There are currently two main dialects of Chavacano: Chavacano de Zamboanga and Chavacano de Cavite.

Chavacano de Zamboanga, as the name suggests is mainly spoken on the Zamboanga peninsula, Basilan and some parts of Sabah, Malaysia by migrants. While Chavacano de Cavite, once again as the name suggests, is mainly spoken in the province of Cavite.

The biggest defining factor that distinguishes Chavacano from Spanish is the grammatical structure. Spanish has the Subject-Verb-Object format while Chavacano retains that Verb-Subject-Object format used in almost every Philippine language.


Eng: I ate an apple.

(S)  (V)   (O)

Esp: Yo he comido una manzana.

(S)       (V)                  (O)

Cha: Ya coma yo un mansana.

(V)       (S)           (O)

Another difference between Chavacano and Spanish is that unlike Spanish, Chavacano does not conjugate verbs. Chavacano only uses the 3rd singular present tense conjugation for each verb and makes no other conjugation.

E.g. – present tense of “to buy”

Cha: compra

Esp:  comprar

infinitive 1st per. Sing. 2nd per. Sing. 3rd per. Sing. 1st per. Plu. 2nd per. Plu. 3rd per. Plu.
comprar  yo compro tu compras el/ella compra nosotros compramos vosotros comprais  ellos compran

Another difference is that unlike Spanish that distinguishes between gender and plurality, Chavacano doesn’t.


Masculine Feminine
Singular el la
Plural los las

Cha: el (the), maga (makes plurals)

Chavacano de Zamboanga still borrows heavily from native languages mainly Cebuano, Hiligaynon and Tagalog and increasingly from English.

Spanish in Philippine languages

There are countless Spanish vocabulary found in various Philippine languages. This is a list of some Spanish loanwords continued to be used in today’s Philippine languages. I will not include words from Chavacano.

Word Language Original Spanish Spanish meaning English translation
Kumusta Majority Como esta How are you? Hello, How are you?
gwapo, gwapa Majority guapo, guapa good-looking good-looking
magistar Hiligaynon estar to be to live
amigo/amiga Cebuano, Hiligaynon same friend friend
semana Cebuano, Hiligaynon same week week
kotse Tagalog coche car car
maintindihan Tagalog entender to understand to understand
trabaho Majority trabajo work work
puto Majority same male “bitch” white rice cake
pera Tagalog same pear money
kwarta Cebuano, Ilocano cuarta quarter money
siyempre Majority siempre always of course!
siguro Majority seguro sure maybe
sigurado Majority segurado secured sure

There is just too many words to list, I could go on forever.

Numbers, days of the weeks, months of the years in Spanish are also used in Philippine languages however the English equivalents are starting to be used more often.

When you do visit the Philippines, you need not learn Spanish. Learning about the many Spanish loanwords from Philippine languages will give you an idea of how much the Spaniards have influenced on the archipelago.


2 thoughts on “What happened to Spanish in the Philippines?

  1. Spanish was an official language in the Philippines but that was what is was, an official language. It is not only in the Philippines that this happened. Under the Romans, Latin was the official language but the people on the street never spoke it. Poland, at one time, had Latin as an official language, its own people never spoke it. Sure, there were natives who learned the language, the majority of them were the moneyed who were educated in the prestigious universities in the Philippines. By the way those schools, up to this day, still carry the reputation as the universities where the children of affluent means go. Without scholarship, it is hard to send your children there if your only means of livelihood is teaching. IN the book “Practica De Confesar Indios Rudos Filipinos” written just before the Americans came to the Philippines, the author mentioned about the commonality of Filipinos who could not speak Castellano, a testament that Spanish was not widely used. Filipino gene pool is not different from any other race when it comes to aptitude but the Spaniards wanted to live in Southern America, the reason there were more Filipinos than Spaniards. So the language heard everyday was one’s own language.

    In the 60s, 24 units of Spanish classes were required to earn a college degree. That is, those who intended to graduate within 4 years had to sit through it four years straight. Graduates did not have a use for it outside of the classroom because there were not too many Spanish speakers to find as they went on their daily lives.

    Under the American regime, education was still not important to the people. Filipinos were still engaged in farming. Education level among the Filipinos was not high. Very few could speak English.

    There were and there still are Spanish speakers but they are not that many. We do not have hatred for Spaniards and their legacy. Many books written during the Spanish colonial times about the Philippines were written by Spaniards who were sympathetic to the cause of the Filipinos.

  2. Education even under the American regime was not as common. We are all a product of time. Education gained importance after WWII just as in many countries of the world..

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