nav-left cat-right


Language Barriers in the Philippines

As many Expats in the Philippines, I am guilty. My thoughts when moving here was it will be easy to communicate since everyone learns English in school. I had spent hours in text and voice communication with Elena for about 3 years and had visited her 3 times before I moved here. She and most of her family could communicate well with me.

Some of her family just as with many Filipinos who had learned English in school, but had no need to use it since had forgotten much of it. Most of this part of the family live in areas outside of Davao. In our home, most of the time, unless I am to be included in a conversation, the household speaks in Bisaya. It is not just in my home, I hear of this in many homes of Expats. I have heard of some families that try to use English, even if difficult to make the foreigner feel comfortable, but I hear less of this then more.

Then with the inherent shyness of many Filipinos, many can read, write and understand English but are too shy to use it. I know my nieces are strong in written communication in English, I have seen their papers written for college. Sometimes the grammar is a little weak, but their sentences convey their thoughts well. When I try to talk with them, they get shy because their fear of pronunciation errors.

In the past, I was told at their college, University of Mindanao, was a school where English was used by the teachers and the students except in classes of Filipino, which is the official national language. Filipino is practically the same as Tagalog. While talking to my nieces, they told me most teachers speak Tagalog and Bisaya while teaching classes and even if a teacher is using English, many will not force the students to use English in their classes.

With the fear of being rude, many times if an English speaking person is talking to a Filipino, and is not being understood, the Filipino will smile and say “OK” without letting the other know they are not understood.

Yes, we live in a country where there are many native languages. There are over 70 languages or as they call them dialects used in this country. English is in some thoughts not needed in the Philippines and others feel with the international business dealings and the increase of Call Centers and many wanting to work abroad that English are needed. Many newspapers and even government forms, instructions and signage are in English too.

Now there are people that learning a second language comes easy, and others who have trouble. Also the older you get, the harder it is to learn a new language. I am part of the second group. Even in school, I had trouble learning a foreign language. There is one person I know who has hired a teacher and has been learning Bisaya for around two years. Many of my readers know of this person, it is Bob Martin of Living in the Philippines Webzine. He enjoys the freedom it gives him and the ability to talk to practically everyone in Davao and other areas that use Bisaya/Cebuano.

I do not know, but someday I might build up the courage to try to learn either Bisaya or Tagalog. I think of learning Bisaya since it is the most used language in the Philippines and is the language of Davao. On the other hand, if I learn Tagalog, I will be able to understand most television shows and it is a language most Filipinos know.

Now with what I have written, you need to realize, if you plan to relocate here in the Philippines and have the need to feel part of conversations with family or with your partner out in the community, you might think about starting a language course. Even if your partner or family speak English in the home, there will be many times out in the community where you will be standing there as your wife/partner is chatting away in something other for a while and when you ask what transpired, you get a few sentences or explanation or just a short “It is OK, it does not matter” response.

23 Responses to “Language Barriers in the Philippines”

  1. Evelyn says:

    in time, i know you will learn our language, bruce..
    for you to learn some words
    i’ll start the first lesson…
    maganda=means beautiful..this is a tagalog word
    your wife is maganda…
    bisaya word for maganda is GWAPA
    your wife is gwapa…
    seeee???? i have imparted some hahaha
    good luck

  2. Hi Bruce,

    It seems to be harder for older people to learn a language, and also, I have found, when you do not work in the country, then you do not meet as many people to whom you can talk. I know over here in Austria, I was speaking only a few words for the first few years of the eight I have been here. Then I met a neighbour who understood English but would only speak German to me. I had to learn, and learn I did. As Bob Martin might say – Still learning! It’s hard but worth it.

    • Bruce says:

      Yes, Bob took the initiative and has been taking lessons. But it took him a few years before he took it seriously. I try to learn words and when I feel more comfortable and support at home to learn, I might give it a shot.

  3. Gene says:


    You got that right! As we get older that learning center in the brain really slows down. In my case I wonder if it ever turned on. Even in school as a kid I could hardly pass basic Spanish!
    Now here I am, an old guy retired in the Philippines. Surprisingly enough though most people here, at lest in our area are able to use English to some degree.
    Makes me glad I didn’t retire in Japan or China.

  4. Evelyn says:

    magandang umaga sa iyo,bruce..
    it means good morning,bruce
    kumusta ka na?
    how r u?
    hanggang sa muli..
    so long

  5. Terence says:

    Hi Bruce,

    I did a search for expat blogs in Davao and was very fortunate to find your site.

    I am retiring to Davao in the next six months and am trying to learn all I can.

    I am quite good with languages, speak pretty good Spanish and passable French and a little Russian.

    I will definitely want to be taking classes when I arrive.

    I shall continue to visit your site, and thanks for all the info you provide.

    Austin, Texas

    • Bruce says:

      I am glad you found my site. I hope my articles are helpful to you and I am available to answer any questions and assist you in any needs for your move here. Feel free to ask and if you need to communicate confidentially, use the “Contact Me” tab.

  6. Steve says:

    Something people need to know is it’s not a “Language Barrier” in most cases, it’s an “Understanding Barrier”. But Strangely it’s not only that they don’t understand us.”American English is one of the Hardest Languages to understand (As I have Learned in me 5 years living here in Davao. The biggest thing is that “We Need to Learn to “Talk Simpler” (in most cases) but listen better to what they say and then we are all happier.

    Understand; These are Great people and we have as much to learn from them as they can learn from us “IF” we all learn to communicate Better!

    • Bruce says:

      Thanks for visiting and commenting.
      The English language problem here has many areas of understanding. Many Filipinos and Foreigners will just say “ok” and let it go when they do not understand. Then it is the use of English. Sometimes we lose the meaning because of wrong words are used on both sides. The level of English is also different from great to barely understandable. We also use words with different meanings and they might understand one.

      I enjoy talking to Filipinos to get to know them, and to better understand the culture too.

  7. What Ive realised over time is not only is it important to learn Cebuano out of respect but also out of the fact of other people not knowing I do speak at least some Cebuano. As time goes by you start to realise people are often talking about you in front of you not realising you know what they are saying. The easiest way I found to learn is picking sections you use regular like :-

    oo (yes)
    dili (No)
    wala (nothing e.g. there is none).
    salamat (Thank you)
    luga lang (Pull over)
    Biyan (Fare)

    (My spelling will be poor because im only learning from speech first as written many words dont match how you think it would sound).

    But point being its daily phrases you start to build as your confidence and memory builds. Starting with a few yes and no`s and eventually things like no im not hungry but thank you. It will take time but I havent even got a clue how many words I now know purely because I learned them as I needed and many words are natural rather than thought.

    • Bruce says:


      I think about trying to learn more. For me I wonder should I learn Tagalog to read newspapers and understand the TV or learn Bisaya/Cebuano since it is the local language.

  8. Bruce
    Can I add here that someone is using my name to make post on many blogs? Maybe one will come here. The name is mine but not the e-mail so somehow, when you go to the name, it does not turn into a link. This has been the second time for me. Learning how important it is to protect the identity of others, especially when forwarding.
    Brad Hughes

  9. Thank you Bruce
    I’ve been here going on 8 years and learned many basiya words but plan to get a teacher help me understand more. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    • Bruce says:


      Good for you, I know a few words but cannot make a complete sentence. Hopefully one day, but I will not promise to learn to the point of fluency.

      As you requested, I deleted all the past comments about your situation. Now I am getting coplains from opposing views. I deleted your other comment and am asking you and all others that are pro or con, to stop. It is degradating the meaning of this site and as owner and publisher, it is my right to do so.

  10. Manning says:

    Bruce hi. With all due respect for your blog,since you authorized Bradley Hughes to post on this “identity theft” thing he’s complaining, It will be fair to authorize a rebuttal to his untrue allegations.Would you?

    • Bruce says:


      As I replied to Bradley and now to you. I have deleted all comments on that subject I could locate. At first I thought it was an interesting story but did not realize it was an attempt to cause disinformation and character assignation.

Leave a Reply