At face value, Bea (not her real name) blends in with the crowd. Her features — medium-tan skin, jet black hair, monolid eyes, and a wide nose — are common among her compatriots in the Philippines. It’s her speech, however, that marks her as an Other.
“If I’m talking to someone and I’m failing in explaining in Filipino,” says Bea, “I tell them honestly, ‘Wait, can I explain it in English?’” Bea’s accent is not American, but when she stammers in Tagalog, the words don’t sound quite right. Her vowels and consonants are rounded and softened, lacking the natural edges of the Filipino tongue.
Among acquaintances, colleagues, and even friends, Bea is considered an inglisera — a loaded term. Derived from “Ingles,” and the Filipino suffix “-era/o,” it refers to someone who, either by choice or inability, speaks only in English. In a country with a high English proficiency rate, the moniker implies that mastery of only English — and, in turn, ignorance of the national Filipino language — is shameful.
Bea’s upbringing was, all circumstances of the Filipino upper-middle class considered, quite ordinary. Her mother is from the province of Benguet, her father from Bicol. They and their three daughters (Bea was the middle child) settled in Cainta, Rizal. They enjoyed visits to their farm in nearby Tanay, vacations abroad, and the convenience of drivers and housekeepers. English was the children’s first language, while Filipino was used only when necessary.
“The only time we would speak Tagalog is with our maids, and it’s just the basic ones,” says Bea. She cites the limited domestic scope of her speech, deployed only to request and demand. “Ate, pagising, pakain, paluto. And it’s always like pa- with the verb.” Even at an early age, her Filipino already lagged behind. “If it’s not everyday use, it would pass and go from my head.”
“I didn’t even know teleseryes were a thing until, let’s say, high school,” Bea admits. “I really focused more on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network.” Keeping up with local movies requires extra effort, simply because she finds it difficult to understand the dialogue. “One More Chance, I wanna watch it only if there are subtitles.”
Bea is not alone. In the country’s major cities, it’s not uncommon to meet Filipinos who speak exclusively in English. They are typically young and affluent, hailing from exclusive schools and gated subdivisions. The phenomenon did not come out of nowhere, but is more than a hundred years in the making. It’s a consequence of the nation’s complicated and often painful history with American colonialism.
On June 12, 1898, Emilio Aguinaldo, the Philippines’ first president, declared national independence from Spanish colonial rule. The Filipino independence movement had been spreading throughout the colony since 1896. After three centuries of Spanish oppression, Filipinos could almost taste their hard-earned freedom.
But no foreign power would recognize Aguinaldo’s declaration. In the eyes of the world, the Philippines belonged to Spain unless handed over to another recognized government. On Dec. 10, 1898, Spain sold the Philippines, along with Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, to the United States for $20 million.
In 1899, US President William McKinley justified the annexation of the Philippines, saying that Filipinos were incapable of self-government. It was the United States’ duty to prepare them for democracy, despite the fact that Filipinos already had a national constitution and democratically elected leaders. McKinley failed to mention that the country had a strategic location in the Pacific and an abundance of arable land, mineral deposits, and vast coastlines, vital features of ports and naval bases.
Filipinos fiercely resisted the arrival of a second colonizer. The Philippine-American War lasted from 1899–1902, but scattered rebellions against US occupation continued until 1913. The outgunned Filipino army was forced to rely on guerrilla tactics and surprise attacks. US troops responded by destroying entire villages, torturing prisoners, and starving civilians in concentration camps. Soldiers held racist attitudes toward Filipinos, calling them “savages” and “niggers.” Between 1899 and 1905, 1.4 million Filipino soldiers and civilians were killed in what scholars consider a genocide.
An American civil government was established in 1901 with McKinley’s appointment of William Howard Taft as its governor-general. He drafted plans for a transportation network, a justice system, and hospital facilities. To further “pacify” Filipinos, Americans introduced a free and universal public school system, with English as the medium of instruction. Within the year, there were more than a thousand American teachers in the Philippines. And over the next four years, the number of elementary schools grew to 3,000, with nearly half a million enrolled students. By 1913, Spanish and English were the official languages of the Philippines.
Education played an important role in the American colonial agenda. According to Filipino psychologist Virgilio Enriquez, language carries the morals, practices, and goals of the society it represents. Through English, Filipino students were conditioned to equate the United States with civilization, righteousness, and opportunity. Filipino culture, on the other hand, was given little value. The historian Renato Constantino called it miseducation, as Filipinos “learned no longer as Filipinos but as colonials.” The public school system primed a new generation of Filipinos to conform to American interests.
War and education were two sides of the same coin, two forms of oppression that would bring a lasting effect on the Filipino psyche. Oppression is the root of colonial mentality, the belief that the colonizer is inherently superior to the colonized. E.J. David, a Filipino psychologist, writes that Filipinos internalized the traumas of war, racism, and the devaluation of their culture, and began to believe they truly were inferior. Gradually, Filipinos conformed to the American way of life in their attempt to become more like their colonizer. The United States gained control of the Philippines through war, but it was education that snuffed out their revolutionary spirit. These attitudes would be passed down over generations; they explain the confusion and shame held by many toward their Filipino identity.
Colonial mentality can be observed among other peoples with similar experiences of oppression. In the United States, Korean and Vietnamese immigrants who speak with heavy accents are derogatorily labeled “FOB” or “fresh off the boat” by the more Americanized Korean and Vietnamese members of their community. Among the Latino community, being guero, or fair-skinned, is preferred over being dark-skinned. But more than a set of attitudes, internalized oppression may have consequences for mental health. Historical trauma experienced by Alaska Natives has been linked to depression, substance abuse, and domestic violence. A study among Latino college students found that a low sense of connection to their ethnic identity and loneliness are strong predictors for suicide risk.
For Filipinos, the symptoms of colonial mentality can be found in everyday life. It begins in childhood, when a parent will pinch the bridge of their child’s nose to make it higher and narrower. Skin-whitening products remain popular as fair-skinned or “mestizo” celebrities dominate local media. In a 2014 study, 85% of Filipinos held a positive view of Americans, a rate higher than Americans’ own view of themselves.
But to Bea, she and her family are genuinely Pinoy. “No one instilled upon me that English is better, being white is prettier.” Yet one can take pride in being Filipino and still hold subtle inferiorizing beliefs. In the future, Bea wants her children to be foreign citizens “only because it’s easier to retire there.” In 2010, David conducted a study with 102 participants, and found that 6 out of 10 Filipinos and Filipino Americans may have colonial mentality.
Today, English remains firmly cemented in its place as an official language of the Philippines. It is the language of business, law, and academia. The ability to speak in English with no “barok” accent is an instant boost in status. English is partly to thank for the Philippines’ economic boom; the business process outsourcing industry employs 1.15 million Filipinos in places like call centers, and remittances from OFWs — money sent to the country by overseas Filipino workers in nations like the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, the United States — hit $28.1 billion in 2017. English proficiency, on an individual and national level, is seen as the ticket out of poverty.
This makes the demand for English education seem more than reasonable. Of her time at school, Bea recalls, “The only way of communicating with literally 99% would be English.” She studied at Rosehill, an exclusive all-girls school in Antipolo City. The school is nestled inside a gated village beyond the city proper. “We’re very closed,” says Bea. “’Cause we’re dropped off in school, we’re picked up from school. We don’t commute.”
The girls spoke English in class, during breaks, and after school hours. Either they were raised as ingliseras, or they conformed to the school culture. “I was never pressured,” Bea recalls. “For others, it’s evident they had a hard time.” She also pitied her peers who had to straddle the language barrier between two worlds. “I feel like, kawawa naman because they had to adjust in school. But when they go back home, their world is, like, Tagalog.”
The 1974 bilingual policy of education sought to develop students’ competence in both Filipino and English. Science, mathematics, and technology were to be taught in English, while Tagalog-based Filipino was the medium of instruction for social studies, physical education, music, health, arts, home economics, and character education. The policy began receiving criticism in the ’80s, when results showed a decline in English proficiency among students. Apart from the lack of trained teachers and quality textbooks, students encountered English only in the classroom. They spoke in the vernacular at home and consumed media in Filipino.
In 1993, President Fidel Ramos endorsed the emphasis on English education, stating it was an important step for the country’s business and economic goals. His successor, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, echoed his views. In 2003, she issued Executive Order No. 210, which made English the primary medium of instruction at high schools and colleges. The order shifted 70% of class hours to learning areas in English. By 2006 — the year Bea entered sixth grade — only Filipino, social studies, and values education were to be taught in Filipino.
At Rosehill, Filipino was spoken in only one class, a combination of Filipino grammar and literature. “It was just an extra time of the day to fill in,” Bea says. The girls were allowed to talk in English during class, and lessons were simple enough for their limited Filipino. Bea does note one improvement in high school, possibly an effort to bring the girls closer to Pinoy culture: “Our teacher had to teach us Filipino slang.” The school is just one out of many; studies have shown the bilingual policy is not strictly implemented, especially in private schools.
After high school, Bea studied information systems at De La Salle University in Manila. “In my mind, okay, I’m gonna survive this because that’s an English-speaking college.” Or so she thought. Classes were in English, but among themselves, the students spoke in Filipino. “In my block of 40 people, I literally had one friend for the first months because our similarity is that we can speak English, and that we’re comfortable with English.”
Bea’s mastery of English was not without its advantages. In 2016, La Salle hosted the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations, a conference that brought together student delegates from all over the world to discuss political, economic, and social issues. She was the go-to. “They needed locals to help the delegates around.” A self-professed extrovert, Bea effortlessly connected with people from different cultures. The event was also her opportunity to make business contacts. “I have calling cards of this German guy who had a startup in Germany.”
But on most days, Bea struggled to relate to her peers. Pop culture references went over her head. “I wish I knew more words so I could relate to their jokes,” she says. Bea knew next to nothing about local music, shows, and celebrities. She never saw any local films “unless a teacher made me watch it.”
Bea lived in a condo unit near the campus and rode jeepneys to get to class. She fumbled in Filipino when asking for directions. “I asked her, ‘Pwede po makatanong? Makitanong? Uh, patanong?’ Like, my Tagalog was so broken, it was so bad.”
Bea had been raised to thrive in a global world. She is the outcome of parents and educators’ efforts to give their children a step ahead. She is the ideal Filipino worker, the triumph of policies geared toward strengthening English proficiency. But at what cost?
The sole emphasis on English has devalued the Philippine languages to the realm of popular media and casual conversation. This attitude implies the Philippine languages are not meant to be developed and intellectualized — another symptom of colonial mentality. Ingliseros and ingliseras grow up relating to foreigners from halfway across the world, rather than their fellow citizens. They form an elite class — the country’s future leaders, as their mastery of English has set them up to be — even further alienated from the masses by their incompetence with Filipino.
“It’s hard ’cause I don’t want to have that small world,” Bea says. “I know that I was in the wrong for having reached this age with the limit on the vocabulary.”
Bea decided to learn the Filipino language alongside her business and computer electives at school. Conversations became opportunities to learn new words. Naturally, Bea faced a spectrum of reactions. “They’d be like, ‘Huh? You don’t use that word? You’ve never heard that word before?’ Or, ‘Filipino ka ba?’” Bea shrugs it off. “I don’t blame them, because I know where they’re coming from.” Among her friends, she was teased, but good-naturedly. “They would make fun of me, in front of me. They’d be like, oh, si Bea, ’di naman niya alam ’yan.” Such a taunt, that she knew nothing, Bea considered, was simply a fact. “It’s not harsh. It’s the truth.”
But Bea did face judgment. Apart from building apps and learning about sales, her internship included getting unsolicited language lessons from her supervisor. “He’d give me a Tagalog test: Name 10 things in Tagalog that you’d find in a car.” Bea cringes at the memory. “He even told me, ‘Don’t you feel like you’re a foreigner in your own country?’”
“I’m still a Filipino, you know? I don’t identify myself as anything else,” Bea says firmly. But she had to face every reaction when practicing Filipino. It was the only way she could improve.
Though Bea and E.J. David had never met, and lived on opposite sides of the Pacific, their concerns were deeply linked together. As part of his efforts in addressing colonial mentality, David designed a decolonization program for Filipino Americans. The 20-session program aimed to help participants identify colonial mentality and how their present attitudes could be rooted in history. In the future, David hopes to have decolonization strategies integrated with existing mental health services.
Over time, Bea’s efforts gained the support of her friends. “They really saw the progress. My blockmates were so proud of me. I can keep a conversation going in Filipino.”
Today, at 22, Bea works as an associate consultant at an IT company. She lives with her family in Cainta and commutes to work every day. Bea still talks best in English, but she functions well outside the “small world” of her childhood. “I like my position now. I can get along well with various people, and I don't need a lot of help,” says Bea. “But you know, I’m still learning. I ask my friends to be patient with me.”
As Bea talks about her experiences at work, she takes a moment to show off her Filipino skills. “Yung una kong trabaho, doon ko nakita na kailangan ko talaga mag-Tagalog dire-diretso hindi ko kaya. Bawal magkaroon ng English phrases kasi yung surroundings ko, Tagalog all the time.”
Bea talks slowly as she translates the phrases in her mind. “Tapos nahihirapan sila. Natatakot sila pag hindi ko kaya. Kaya doon ako natuto maging gan’to. And bawa’t araw—” She stops, and asks, “Tama ba ’yon, bawa’t araw?” Without waiting for an answer, she continues, “Meron akong natututunang bagong word.”
Bea smiles proudly. Then the smile drops.
“What’s ‘word’ in Tagalog?”