The Philippines has a long relationship with the English language, beginning at the turn of the 20th century with the American occupation of the country, following the Spanish-American War and the subsequent Philippine-American War. More than 100 years later, the Philippines is officially a bilingual nation under the country's constitution, which distinguishes Filipino as the national language with both Filipino and English as official languages for communication and instruction. 

Key Takeaways

  • The Philippines has found English to be an unofficial second language thanks to its historical ties, including periods of both conflict and prosperity.
  • Because of its English-friendly society, the country is an attractive tourist destination as well as a place for a destination retirement.
  • Retirees can also enjoy other benefits such as beautiful beaches, bustling cities, and a low cost of living.

History of English in the Philippines

Although its official status has been in place for nearly 30 years, English has yet to reach into all corners of the country. It has, however, made substantial gains in the population. The status of English in the Philippines is unique among countries in Southeast Asia. Aside from the small city-state of Singapore, the Philippines is the only country in the region to mandate a fully bilingual public education for all children beginning in grade school.

Under the official policy, both Filipino and English are taught as language subjects in public schools, with English being the sole language used in science, mathematics and technology courses. This policy was introduced in 1987 following ratification of the country's new constitution. Its effects have made the Philippines an attractive destination for retirees and tourists hailing from English-speaking countries around the world.

Language Skills on the Island Nation 

According to the 2000 Census of Population and Housing conducted by the Philippine National Statistics Office, the most recent source of national language statistics, 63.7% of Filipinos over the age of 5 reported an ability to speak English. In comparison, 96.4% of Filipinos reported speaking Tagalog, just one of more than 150 recognized languages and dialects spoken in homes across the Philippines.

English prevalence in many of the more developed administrative regions of the Philippines, especially those covering the northern island of Luzon, was even higher, rising above 70%. In the case of metropolitan Manila, the capital of the Philippines, English-speaking ability was reported by nearly 82% of residents. On the other hand, relatively undeveloped rural areas of the country generally showed worse results, due largely to inadequate educational infrastructure. After all, the Philippines has not yet reached developed-country status.

While updated figures are not available, reports suggest that practical English skills have become even more prevalent among the population during the last 15 years, rising in concurrence with the general rate of literacy. Recent years have seen a substantial portion of the country's road signs converted into English, while many government documents are available only in English. Numerous locally produced English-language TV and radio stations are broadcast across the country, while dozens of daily national and local newspapers are distributed across the Philippines. 

The Benefits for English-Speaking Visitors

English-language policy in the Philippines in recent decades has resulted in many fundamental changes in Filipino society. These changes have made the country more attractive to visitors from English-speaking countries. In fact, tourism in the Philippines is booming. In the years from 2004 to 2014, the annual number of foreign tourists visiting the Philippines more than doubled from 2.3 million to over 4.8 million.

In 2017, the total number of visitors to the nation was 6.6 million, a 50% increase from just three years prior. Four of the top 10 nationalities visiting the Philippines were from English-speaking countries: the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. 

Retiring in the Philippines

The Philippines is also growing as a retirement destination for English speakers. Although no official Filipino government statistics are available, International Living magazine ranks the Philippines among the fastest growing and most welcoming places to retire in the world. Each year, International Living’s Global Retirement Index ranks retirement destinations around the world, measuring factors such as climate, healthcare, benefits and discounts, and cost of living. For the 2017 Index, the Philippines scored a 90 out of 100 for cost of living, with the magazine praising the Philippines' relatively low cost of living, its quality health-care system and its widespread use of English.

International Living also shows that expats can live comfortably in the Philippines for about $800 to $1,200 a month. If you live on $800 per month – probably the lowest amount on which most retirees could live comfortably – your $200,000 savings account would last about 21 years; live on $1,200 a month and your savings would last 14 years. This assumes the unlikely situation that your monthly expenses stay the same over the years and that you have no other income or expenses during retirement.