One of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world is the Philippines. As such, I thought it was high time to answer some language questions in relation to this beautiful part of the world. What language do they speak in the Philippines? Read on to find out. What's the difference between Tagalog versus Filipino? Again, keep reading. How many languages are spoken in the Philippines? To find out – you guessed it – read on.
Like many countries, the Philippines is home to a rich linguistic tapestry. As such, rather than asking what language is spoken in the Philippines, we should instead ask how many languages are spoken there and by what proportion of the population. I'll answer all of this and more below, but first, some key clarifications.
There is not one official language in the Philippines but two. Both Filipino and English are official languages there.
In terms of total speaker numbers of the two official languages, Filipino is the more widely spoken. It is used as a lingua franca across much of the country. However, English is used for government purposes and therefore has an important role to play in the daily lives of many Filipino people.
Read on to discover more about the languages spoken in the Philippines. Or, if it’s Asian languages more broadly that interest you, click the link below.
Read more: Asian Languages
The Philippines is home to between 120 and 187 languages, including a wide range of native languages mainly from the Malayo-Polynesian language family group.
In addition to the country’s indigenous tongues, Spanish and English have also played an influential role in the Philippines’ linguistic history. I’ll take a quick look at that history first, for context, and then dive into some of the more widely spoken native languages.
Though now promoted in the Philippines only on an optional and voluntary basis, Spanish was the official language there for over three centuries. It arrived in the Philippines courtesy of conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi in 1565.
As Spanish colonisers grew their numbers in the Philippines, they spread their language along with their rule. Spanish became the language not only of government in the Philippines but also of education, religion and trade. When the Spanish introduced free schooling (in Spanish) in 1863, the language spread even further.
Many important Filipino documents were therefore written in Spanish, ranging from the Malolos Constitution to the writings of political activist and national hero José Rizal.
The use of English in the Philippines is, comparatively, a much more recent development. It arrived as part of the American occupation of the islands, with the US government formally acquiring the Philippines from Spain through the Treaty of Paris in December 1898.
English was introduced as a medium of instruction in public schools instead of Spanish, cementing the language’s use. By 1950, the number of Spanish speakers in the Philippines had dropped to just 6% of the population. Do Filipinos speak Spanish today? Barely. There are now fewer than 450,000 native Spanish speakers in the Philippines.
The widespread use of English in the Philippines has delivered a number of advantages in terms of international opportunities. Not only is English an important language for politics and trade, it has also provided many Filipinos with access to the international jobs market. For further musings on language and remote work, click the link below.
Now that I've established a historical context, it's time to look at the Tagalog language. One interesting aspect of language discussions about the Philippines is that many people confuse Tagalog with Filipino. The terms are not interchangeable, as they refer to separate things, so I’ll put the whole Tagalog versus Filipino debate to rest before we continue.
Tagalog is the language spoken natively by 31.59% of Filipinos. It was the official language of the Philippines between 1937 and 1987, much to the irritation of Cebuano speakers (more on that below).
Filipino, meanwhile, is one of the two current official languages of the Philippines, alongside English. The Filipino language is a standardised version of Tagalog. It is very similar to Tagalog but it is not the same.
Filipino was created under the rule of President Ferdinand Marcos as part of his efforts to create a new, unified society. One of the aims of its creation was to pacify Cebuano speakers who had objected to the use of Tagalog as the country’s official language.
So, which native languages are spoken most in the Philippines? As I've already mentioned Tagalog, let's start with that.
Including second language speakers, Tagalog is the most spoken language in the Philippines. It is spoken as a first language by 26.3 million people. Tagalog is closely related to many other Filipino languages, including Ilocano, Kapampangan, Pangasinan, the Bikol languages and the Visayan languages.
Native Tagalog speakers reside predominantly in the central area of the Philippines.
Cebuano is another important language spoken by the people of the Philippines. 25.55% of Filipinos speak it – almost as many as speak Tagalog. Native speakers number upward of 21.3 million. Most are based in the southern parts of the Philippines, with the language having originated from the island of Cebu.
The Cebuano language is referred to by its speakers as Bisaya or Binisaya. It was the most spoken native language in the Philippines between around 1950 and 1980, though today Tagalog is more widely spoken. This has given rise to lasting tensions between the two language groups, despite the attempt to unify them through the introduction of Filipino as one of the country’s official languages.
The Ilocano language is spoken by around 9.31% of people in the Philippines, with over 7.7 million native speakers. That makes it the third most spoken native language of the Philippines. Speakers are located in northern areas, particularly in the northwest.
Ilocano bears some resemblance to Malay (you can read more about Malay by clicking the link below), as well as to languages including Tetum, Chamorro, Fijian, Māori, Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian, Paiwan and Malagasy.
Read more: Malaysian Language Overview
Another widely spoken language in the Philippines is Hiligaynon. Interestingly, speakers are split between an area in the centre of the country and a region to the south, with few in between. Native speaker numbers are estimated to be just over 7 million, with 8.38% of Filipinos speaking Hiligaynon. Since 2012, the language has been taught formally in schools and universities in the Philippines.
Also referred to by its speakers as Waray-Waray, this language is spoken by some 3.71% of Filipinos. Not only is it spoken as a first language by the Waray people but the Abaknon people and some Cebuano speakers use it as a second language. First language speakers number 3.1 million people.
Spoken mainly in the northeastern part of the central area of the Philippines, Central Bikol is also known as Bikol Naga and Bikol. Its standard form is based on the Canaman dialect. 2.99% of Filipinos speak Central Bikol, which has 2.5 million native speakers. Its origin seems to be tied in with the Tagalog language origin, as several Central Bikol words can be traced back to archaic Tagalog (though many are also found in neither Tagalog nor Cebuano, but instead bear closer resemblance to the Kapampangan language).
Another of the Philippines’ languages with significant speaker numbers (well over 2.4 million), Kapampangan is spoken largely in the province of Pampanga, where it is the predominant language. Speakers also reside in southern Tarlac, northeastern Bataan, Bulacan, Nueva Ecija and Zambales. It is spoken by 2.97% of Filipino people.
The Pangasinan language is native to an area in the northwest of the Philippines, where it has 2.4 million first language speakers. It has a number of close relatives in linguistic terms, including Ibaloi, Malay, Bahasa Indonesia, Hawaiian and Malagasy. Speakers account for 2.91% of the Filipino population.
Maranao is spoken on the island of Mindanao in the southern part of the Philippines. It has a distinctive downstep accent, which differentiates it from other Danao languages. As well as being spoken in the Philippines, it is spoken in Malaysia. Maranao speakers number more than 2.1 million, with 2.57% of the population of the Philippines speaking it.
Tausug is spoken throughout the Sulu Archipelago in the southern area of the Philippines. Around 1.8 million Filipinos speak it, equating to 2.18% of the population. Tausug is also spoken in Malaysia.
Several other Filipino languages have a million or more first language speakers, including Maguindanao (1.8 million), Zamboangueño (1.2 million), Kinaray-a (1.1 million) and Surigaonon (1 million).
Zamboangueño, also called Zamboangueño Chavacano, is one of a number of Spanish-based creoles spoken in the Philippines and collectively referred to as Chavacano (or Chabacano). These creoles also include Caviteño, Zamboangueño, Cotabateño, Davaoeño, Ermitense and Ternateño.
Several languages spoken in the Philippines have been classified as endangered and several more have already become extinct. All of these languages are Negrito languages, which are some of the oldest languages to be found in the Philippines. Or, to be precise, not to be found there anymore, in the case of those that are now extinct.
Before we take a quick look at these languages, it is worth mentioning that efforts are underway to preserve those that are in danger of being lost. Specifically, there has been some activity around encouraging the use of ethnic mother languages in homes and schools before the teaching of Filipino and immigrant languages such as English.
UNESCO has classified both the Central Cagayan Agta language and the Dupaninan Agta language as vulnerable, with speaker numbers having dwindled to just 779 in the case of the former and 1,400 for the latter.
Note that these speaker numbers, and those included below for the Philippines’ endangered languages, are from the year 2000, so actual speaker numbers are likely to be lower by now.
Several languages in the Philippines are classified as endangered. According to UNESCO, Bataan Agta, Mt Iraya Agta and Batak are definitely endangered, with speaker numbers of 500, 150 and 200 respectively.
Faire Atta (300 speakers), Northern Alta (200) and Camarines Norte Agta (150) are severely endangered, while Alabat Island Agta (30 speakers), Isarog Agta (5) and Southern Ayta (150) are critically endangered.
When it comes to extinct language in the Philippines, UNESCO recorded the loss of a number of tongues back in 2000. They included Dicamay Agta, Arta, Katabaga and Ata.
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I've already covered English and Spanish in some detail above, so I won't talk further about those here. However, they aren't the only immigrant languages spoken in the Philippines. Several foreign tongues are used there and so warrant a quick mention.
Arabic has been spoken in the Philippines for centuries and used to be spoken as a lingua franca by Muslim traders in the Malay Archipelago. Today, Arabic shares equal status with Spanish in the Philippines, in that the 1987 Constitution mandates that it should be promoted on an optional and voluntary basis.
Arabic is used mainly in the southern part of the Philippines, for religious activities and some educational purposes. It is only rarely used in daily conversation.
Filipinos with Chinese ancestry have spoken multiple Chinese languages for generations. The most commonly used of these is Hokkien Chinese. Most Hokkien speakers also speak English and/or Filipino, often as their primary language. Many also speak other native Filipino languages. Some speakers code switch or code mix between English and Tagalog, referred to as speaking Taglish, Englog or Bislish. When Hokkien is also thrown into the mix, the code-switching is referred to as speaking Hokaglish.
Japanese has been spoken in the Philippines since the 11th century CE and is still spoken there by a small community today. With a significant Japanese business community present in Metro Manila, there is even a school for Japanese there.
The Philippines is home to a small number of Korean speakers, including Korean expats and those born in the Philippines with Korean ancestry.
Old Malay is historically important to language development in the Philippines, as it was previously used as a lingua franca throughout the archipelago. As such, its influence can be found in many of the Philippines’ current languages.
Today, Malay is spoken daily by Malaysians and Indonesians who live in, and do business with, the Philippines. Along the southern border, Malay is also spoken as a second language by some of the Tausug, Sama-Bajau and Yakan peoples.
I hope you've enjoyed this Filipino language report. I've certainly enjoyed exploring some of the many fascinating languages spoken in the Philippines today. If you have any language facts about the Philippines that you would like to share, please feel free to leave a comment below.