Some eleven languages and eighty-seven dialects were spoken in the Philippines in the late 1980s. Eight of these--Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano, Hiligaynon, Bicolano, Waray-Waray, Pampangan, and Pangasinan--were native tongues for about 90 percent of the population. All eight belong to the Malay-Polynesian language family and are related to Indonesian and Malay, but no two are mutually comprehensible. Each has a number of dialects and all have impressive literary traditions, especially Tagalog, Cebuano, and Ilocano. Some of the languages have closer affinity than others. It is easier for Ilocanos and Pangasinans to learn each other's language than to learn any of the other six. Likewise, speakers of major Visayan Island languages--Cebuano, Ilongo, and Waray-Waray--find it easier to communicate with each other than with Tagalogs, Ilocanos, or others.
Language divisions were nowhere more apparent than in the continuing public debate over national language. The government in 1974 initiated a policy of gradually phasing out English in schools, business, and government, and replacing it with Pilipino, based on the Tagalog language of central and southern Luzon. Pilipino had spread throughout the nation, the mass media, and the school system. In 1990 President Corazon Aquino ordered that all government offices use Pilipino as a medium of communication, and 200 college executives asked that Pilipino be the main medium of college instruction rather than English. Government and educational leaders hoped that Pilipino would be in general use throughout the archipelago by the end of the century. By that time, it might have enough grass-roots support in non-Tagalog-speaking regions to become a national language. In the early l990s, however, Filipinos had not accepted a national language at the expense of their regional languages. Nor was there complete agreement that regional languages should be subordinated to a national language based on Tagalog.
The role of English was also debated. Some argued that English was essential to economic progress because it opened the Philippines to communication with the rest of the world, facilitated foreign commerce, and made Filipinos desirable employees for international firms both in the Philippines and abroad. Despite census reports that nearly 65 percent of the populace claimed some understanding of English, as of the early 1990s competence in English appeared to have deteriorated. Groups also debated whether "Filipinization" and the resulting shifting of the language toward "Taglish" (a mixture of Tagalog and English) had made the language less useful as a medium of international communication. Major newspapers in the early 1990s, however, were in English, English language movies were popular, and English was often used in advertisements.
Successful Filipinos were likely to continue to be competent in Pilipino and English. Speakers of another regional language would most likely continue to use that language at home, Pilipino in ordinary conversation in the cities, and English for commerce, government, and international relations. Both Pilipino, gaining use in the media, and English continued in the 1990s to be the languages of education.