It was way back in 1936 when the Commonwealth of the Philippines decided to implement a national language because up until then the islands had numerous languages and hundreds of dialects. The ‘Surian na Wikang Pambasa’, or National Language Institute, chose Tagalog as the basis for the new ‘Wikang Pambansa’ or National Language. This was because Tagalog was;
- the language of the people living around Manila and Manila was the capital,
- it is a single language and not one with several regional varieties like the other major language of the country, Visayan and
- there was a lot of history, both literal and literary surrounding Tagalog.
- It was the language of the Katipunan and the Revolution of 1896 that saw the defeat of Spain as the colonial power and most Filipino literature is written in Tagalog.
After WW2 the Philippines finally won their Independence from the USA and in 1959 the language officially became known as ‘Pilipino’. (P is often pronounced as F so you can say pil-lee-peeno or fil-lee-peeno, up to you!) This was done to distance the language from being thought of as belonging only to the Tagalogs and thus alienating all the other Filipinos elsewhere in the country.
Then in 1973 during the Marcos administration the language was called ‘Filipino’ and it was decreed it was to be a national language but there was no mention of its Tagalog origins. In 1987, after Marcos left and Cory Acquino came to power in the famous bloodless ‘People Power’ revolution of the previous year, the language was given authority in the New Constitution but once again, no mention of ‘Tagalog’ was made.
More reforms and new laws made in 1991 and 1992 have enshrined ‘Filipino’ as a language in its own right yet of course it is really Tagalog. While it is taught in schools, so is English and also the local language or dialect is used for many subjects. In Cebu much of the curriculum is taught in Visayan, including Visayan language classes as well as Taglog language classes and also English language classes. However the majority of Cebuanos can speak excellent Visayan, understand Tagalog (Filipino) well because 95% of all radio, television and cinema is in that language and some have a rudimentary grasp of English. Mind you, the variety or dialect of Visayan they speak is Cebuano, which is different in some ways to other Visayan dialects. Tagalog doesn’t have these regional differences.
At one time the Philippines was one of the largest English speaking countries in the world but those days disappeared with the constitutional reforms of 1987. Of course the middle and upper classes have much wider penetration of English and many television celebrities will sprinkle their Filipino with English words and phrases to show they are better educated.
Despite the tourism board still claiming the Philippines as the third largest population of English speakers in the world the reality is that the number of English speakers today is nowhere near the percentage prior to 1987. Truth is, there are many Filipinos who speak their own dialect and perhaps the neighbouring dialects and even have a smattering of English but who struggle with Filipino. My wife, a Visayan speaker actually calls Visayan – ‘Filipino’, as in Visayan is her national language!
From a student’s point of view, learning Tagalog is the same as learning the national language, Filipino (or Pilipino). It is the language used in Manila and understood in all the major towns and cities and whenever you have to conduct business with government officials or banks and so forth. Unless you were planning to retire to a distant island and rarely leave, there is more value in learning Tagalog than trying to just learn the local dialect. Apart from that, you can also watch TV and know what they are saying!