Depending on who you ask, people in Philippines speak between 120 and 175 languages; look at a Filipino language map and you’ll see them, scattered. The colonizing Spaniards realized such a diverse island nation needed a “lingua franca,” so of course they chose theirs. Spanish was the official language of the Philippines for over three hundred years.
Spanish became the primary language of universal education in 1863, was the language of the Philippine Revolution, and in 1899 became the official language of the First Philippine Republic.
When the Americans replaced the Spanish at the turn of the 20th century they realized such a diverse island nation needed a new lingua franca — English! About 600 teachers arrived in 1901 on the USS Thomas to teach the language in Philippine schools — Filipinos called them “Thomasites.” A new constitution in 1935 placed English beside Spanish as one of the country’s official national languages.
The 1935 constitution finally recognized the need for a national tongue based upon a local language…but which local language should the Philippines choose? In 1937 the National Language Institute chose Tagalog, and in 1959 the Secretary of Education renamed it “Pilipino” to make it seem less regional. In 1973 the language became known as “Filipino,” and in 1987 constitution declared Filipino a national language that was supposed to be “developed and enriched on the basis of existing Philippine and other languages.” This all sounds simple, but it has been anything but.
To illustrate the ongoing twists and turns in the way Filipinos view the Filipino/Tagalog language, Wikipedia’s “Filipino” page relates this anecdote: “One famous event which
illustrated the relationship between Filipino and Tagalog occurred during the impeachment trial of the former President Joseph Estrada. When the presiding justice Hilario Davide, a Cebuano, asked which language the witness Emma Lim preferred to testify in, Lim promptly answered ‘Tagalog,’ to which Davide did not agree. According to Davide, nobody could testify in Tagalog because it is not the official language of the Philippines and there is no available interpreter from Tagalog to Filipino. However, Senator Franklin Drilon, an Ilonggo, defended the oneness of the two by saying that an interpreter will not be needed because everybody would understand the testimony in Tagalog.”
Today Filipino and English are the official languages of the Philippines, with Spanish and Arabic mentioned in the 1987 Constitution as recommended runners-up.