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Communication Breakdown

2013 September 28


It’s been about 8 years since my initial visit to the Philippines, and therefor my introduction to the people here. It didn’t take very long for me to conclude that even though English is taught in schools, it was often quite difficult to communicate with others using it here.

I’ve since come to the realization that what I had thought was a foreigner to Pilipino issue is much more complex than that. It has become apparent to me that Pilipinos often have great difficulty communicating with each other as well. As I see it, the problem is twofold.

To start with there are more languages in the Philippines than one could reasonably expect in a country this size. I’m not that traveled world-wide, but my guess is most countries have one main, common language, though some may have a few more. There are somewhere between 125 and 185 individual languages here. While that may not cause a big problem for those living in a province that generally speaks only one, it can cause havoc if you go to a city of any size. Someone, somewhere along the line realized this, and it was put into law to have a national language, Filipino, based off one of the more common languages, Tagalog. Unfortunately that hasn’t worked out so well, at least from my perspective.

Though Tagalog is taught in school, it often is not the first language spoken in many cities, outside of Manila, it’s suburbs and other northern locations. The acceptance of Filipino has been inconsistent, at best. For example, I was required to go to a seminar at the BIR (Bureau of Internal Revenue), for a matter that I don’t care to get into at this time. The presentation was given in Bisaya. When I questioned whether they could speak English, the presenter asked the attendees how many would understand and only about 5, out of maybe 50 or so, raised their hands. That didn’t particularly surprise me, but what did was the fact that Filipino was not being spoken. Of course I would not have understood any of the Filipino either, but this is a national government agency, if you aren’t going to follow the national language there, where will you?

Here in Davao, when out and about, you will hear a healthy mix of Tagalog, Bisaya, English, text speak, and who knows what else, thrown into every conversation. Though Bisaya is usually the preferred language in Davao, they do not speak it as pure Cebuano, such as in Cebu. It is different, and each individual has their own ideas about it.

This mixture of languages, sometimes referred to as halo-halo in jest, is a major component to the confusion that is rampant here. I’ve come to notice that most conversations are not fully understood. In fact, based off the results I’ve seen, it would appear about half of what is being said is completely lost on the ones listening. That’s just a guess, and depends upon the circumstances, but it is really evident that much is not digested. Just listen to how often things are repeated. Over and over.

Anki Bisaya Phrasebook Flashcards

That brings me to the second aspect of the lack of communication. Most Pilipinos will not admit to the fact that they did not understand what is being said. No effort is made to get clarification. In fact, quite the opposite. In order to not cause shame, either to themselves or the person they are conversing with, they will pretend to understand. They will say sige a few hundred times and hope to move on to something else more basic.

Then of course this conversation gets passed on, with no better than half of the information, half of which is incorrect and the cycle starts again.

Coming to this insight has helped me understand why every function I’ve ever been informed about happened at a different time, place and in a different way then I had been told. I now see it’s not an intended plot, just a complete lack of understanding by all involved. My latest game plan to handle such situations is to make note that there is an event/function possibly coming up and just ignore when, where and with whom, until such time that we are on our way or actually at the event/function. Doing otherwise causes undo stress and complications.

The main problem I see with all this, other than complete miscommunication, is that know one cares, at all, that conversations are generally misunderstood. It’s the way it is, they way it’s always been, and there is no perceived need to change it. Right or wrong, that’s true about so much here.

Though it may not appear that I’m too pleased to come to this realization, I actually am. I believe it will help me a great deal with understanding why things happen the way they do and people the things they do.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Bill S. permalink
    September 30, 2013

    Randy, remember here, back in the 70′s, 80′ s, 90′s and then into the new century even, “THE METRIC SYSTEM”. I was in high school, during the mid 70′s, and it was being taught. I know we are one of the few places in the world, that haven’t adapted to it so far, and kinda seems like our govt. has given up trying to make us. I used to bid some govt. jobs, and all the blueprints were drawn up using only metric measurements, but after companies started refusing to bid the jobs, they went back to feet, and inches finally. I gradually got comfortable with it myself, but we still had to do all the drawings in our shop and convert from metric to ft. and in. because no of the guys in the shop would learn metric. Also compounding the problem was machines made here, are not set up for metric, and machines made in Europe are metric, and everything we do is from measurements. Dont know if govt. here has given up on metric or not, we stopped doing govt. work for other reasons a few years back.

    • September 30, 2013

      I remember a few times that we were told we’d have to learn the metric system because the whole country was going to convert by such and such a time. I don’t ever remember having to learn it in school or anything. Sure wish I did now. The smaller measurements I’m OK with but longer distances and such still throw me off a bit.

      As far as know the US has given up on it completely.

      Tagalog and English are the only languages taught in public school but teachers still speak Bisaya or whatever else here. It’s amazing really. The examples being set are contributing to the problem.

  2. Keith Britten permalink
    October 1, 2013

    I know what you mean about people pretending to understand what you are saying because it would be shameful not to understand, my wife does it all the time but she won’t admit it and I’m now proberly in trouble for saying it, lol. But I wish she and others would say if they don’t understand, it would save a lot of time in the end. I’m English and I think that I speak pretty good English but my wife says I talk with a slang accent. I was at immigration the other day and I got talking to this American guy, he knew straight away from my accent that I came from London. Filippino’s are taught English in college but they are taught “American” English by a teacher with a Filippino accent which is completely different from true,pure English. As for the metric system here, forget it, it will never happen.

    • October 1, 2013

      Yes, I’m told I speak with slang also. They mean of course an accent. I’ve done some work with Pilipinos teaching English, and learned a lot about the accent they have and how to reduce it.

      The interesting thing I’ve realized is that there is no one correct English accent. The local variation is correct for the area you live in. Now if you are referring to business, American accent is the accepted norm. There are many accents within the US alone, so it is meant to be a neutral American accent or lack of accident.

      When you say the metric system “here”, where do you mean? The US isn’t using it, but the Philippines is.

  3. October 2, 2013

    The schools here from nursery to college used American English. But the bad thing is, if their teacher is about to retire, expect that the pronunciation is different. They usually pronounced the “e” as “i” , ex. efficient… granny teacher pronounced it as ifficient.. lol. The “ai”, they pronounced it as “e”.. Example, “daily”… they say it “dely”.. lol Funny, but that is true. So, sometimes, it is the teacher’s fault why some student doesn’t know the correct pronunciation. (exclude my son..he won Best Spelling Contest.)

    Admittedly, the first time I have talked with a foreigner, I sometimes pretend that I understand him (Roger). I know he often got annoyed with me when I say, “sorry, can you say it again.” He probably thought that I was deaf. haha. So, every time Roger talked, I will read his lips, so I could understand him.

    When it comes to a Filipino language, Tagalog is our national language, but most of the Visayan (Bisaya) people couldn’t pronounce the right Tagalog word. And so, when they go to Manila, the Tagalog people would know that you came from the province of Visayas or Mindanao because of the accent.

    Again, pretending that you understand is the best way to end the conversation. Haha.

    • October 2, 2013

      Thanks, Pretty.

      The English accent in the Philippines is different than any of the American accents, and there are many American accents. There is no reason for Pilipinos to speak with an American “accent” unless of course they wish to for purposes of work (call center) or going abroad. The accents do make it more difficult to communicate, but that is true elsewhere as well. I have trouble with some heavy British and Australian accents, too.

      I’ve noticed various different accents with the languages here as well. Some people I can understand their Bisaya much easier than others. It’s not the words being used, but how they are spoken. It many cases, Bisaya is probably not the first language for them.

      Correct grammar and vocabulary are entirely different issues though.

      I agree that pretending doesn’t help, other than to save embarrassment. I think it is better to have someone be annoyed about repeating, than to have misunderstandings. Though I can see how repeating over and over can causes issues, too.

  4. Davao Life is Here permalink
    October 5, 2013

    I got your point and i agree all about it. from how some or majority of the filipino you encountered with lack of communication and understanding and with the accent (slang) thing.

    But i still believe that filipino’s english are still better than other countries in asia like thailand, vietnam, china, or even in some european country. Maybe that’s just how the way it is since it is not their native tongue.

    • October 5, 2013

      Actually I think the English here is pretty good overall. Certainly better than some of the places that you mention. Some here are afraid to use English, as they don’t get an opportunity very often, so feel shy about it when they do.

      I think it is the variety of languages, including English, that at least is partially responsible for the communication issues I wrote about. There is not one common language that everyone can use, though Filipino (Tagalog) should be that.

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