Spanish is a language of historical and cultural significance in the Philippines

Flag of the PhilippinesSpanish ceased to be an official language of the Philippines in 1987. In this country most native languages are part of the Philippine branch of the Malayo-Polynesian languages, which is itself a branch of the Austronesian language family. The only non-Austronesian Spanish-Asiatic language indigenous to the Philippines is Chavacano (Chabacano), a Spanish-based creole which developed in the southern Philippines. The Chavacano language is the only Spanish-based creole in Asia. It has survived for more than 400 years, making it one of the oldest creole languages in the world. According to the official 2000 Philippine census, there were altogether 607,200 Chavacano speakers in the Philippines in that same year. The exact figure could be higher as the 2000 population of Zamboanga City, whose main language is Chavacano, far exceeded that census figure.1 There are thousands of Spanish loanwords in 170 Philippine languages. Spanish is still spoken today and maintained by mestizo families, and thousands of people around the country, particulary in the provinces of Cebu, Zamboanga and Bacolod.

Spanish was an official language of the Philippines from the beginning of Spanish rule in 1565 to a constitutional change in 1973. During Spanish colonization (1565-1898), it was the language of government, trade and education, and spoken as a first language by Spaniards and educated Filipinos. In the mid-nineteenth century, the colonial government set up a free public education system with Spanish as the medium of instruction. This increased use of Spanish throughout the islands led to the formation of a class of Spanish-speaking intellectuals called the Ilustrados. However, Spanish was never spoken by the majority of the population.

The Philippines was a Spanish colony for 333 years (1565-1898). Much of the history and culture is embedded in the language. There are an estimated 13 million manuscripts from the 16th century to 1898 which include government documents, economics, trade disputes, legal matters, patriotic material, religious material, registrations etc. Up to the 60s, birth certificates were in both English and Spanish. There is still a very strong need to translate a great number of historical documents. Courts of law still recognize documents written in Spanish.

Spanish was used by the first Filipino patriots. It was used to write the country’s first constitution, Constitución Política de Malolos, Noli Me Tangere, the original national anthem, and nationalistic propaganda material, and thus should be considered a national language. The Political Constitution of 1899 (Spanish: Constitución Política de 1899), informally known as the Malolos Constitution was the basic law of the First Philippine Republic. Philippine nationalism was first propagated in the Spanish language.

General Aguinaldo [seated, center] and ten of the delegates to the first Assembly of Representatives
General Aguinaldo [seated, center] and ten of the delegates to the first Assembly of Representatives that passed the Constitucion Pol!tica de la Republica Filipina on January 21st, 1899, in the Barasoain Church, Malolos, December 8, 1929
Barasoain Church in Malolos City
Barasoain Church in Malolos City, Bulacan, Philippines, where the constitution was ratified


Despite American administration after the defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War in 1898, the usage of Spanish continued in Philippine literature and press during the early years of American rule. Gradually, however, the American government began increasingly promoting the use of English, and it characterized Spanish as a negative influence of the past. Eventually, by the 1920s, English became the primary language of administration and education. But despite a significant decrease in influence and speakers, Spanish remained an official language of the Philippines when it became independent in 1946, alongside English and Filipino, a standardized version of Tagalog.

Unlike in the Americas then, Spanish never came to be the general language of the Philippines. There were efforts in the late 18th and 19th centuries to expand the provision of free schooling, which involved the obligatory teaching of Spanish. However, the slow process of Hispanization came to an abrupt halt in 1898, when sovereignty was ceded to the USA. The USA spent vast sums on establishing the usage of English in the Islands and on dismantling the educational apparatus set up by the previous administration. From 1935, Spanish and English co-existed as official languages in the Philippines, but in the Philippine Constitution of 1987 this status was withdrawn from Spanish. Thus according to the constitution, Pilipino (ie. Tagalog) and English are the official languages of communication and instruction, while ‘Spanish and Arabic shall be promoted on a voluntary and optional basis’.

Spanish was removed from official status in 1973 under the administration of Ferdinand Marcos, but regained its status as an official language two months later under Presidential Decree No. 155, dated 15 March 1973. It remained an official language until 1987, with the ratification of the present constitution, in which it was re-designated as a voluntary and optional auxiliary language.2 Manila is home to the main East Asian branch of the Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish government’s official overseas institute for the promotion of Spanish language and Latin American culture. The Spanish language enjoys popularity as a language of choice for learning a foreign language among new generations of young Filipinos.3


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1. “Chavacano language” on the Wikipedia website [Online] 15/11/2014
2. Text from “Spanish language” on the Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 14/11/2014
3. “Spanish language in the Philippines” on the Wikipedia website [Online] 15/11/2014