Do You Speak English?

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The following article was published in Manila Standard Today in their section Diaspora.

As a nation, we pride ourselves as the third largest English-speaking nation, though some will refute this claim. As I tell my American friends, that if they visit the Philippines,  they don’t have to worry of not being understood, as most Filipinos speak English. I also tell my friends they will never get lost – if they do, it’s their own fault. For example, there was this American tourist who asked a local: “How long does it take to Meykabeybi (Macabebe)?” The pinoy replied, with a confused look, “About nine months”.That’s an awfully far place, answered the American more confused than ever.

Filipinos speaking English in a call center

As a Filipino transplant to the US, I thought that I had an advantage over migrants from  other countries, as l already know how to speak English, even if English is not our native tongue. I learned very early in life, “A is for epol, B is for banana Q.” But when I got here, I learned that English is perhaps, the language that is most diversely spoken; and English may not always be English, the way I know it.

When I started my Medicine Residency Program in New Jersey, I worked with medical graduates from Russia, Romania, Guyana, India, Israel, Greece, Burma, Nigeria, Vietnam, and of course Americans and fellow Filipinos. Can you imagine how differently we spoke the same English, but with different dictions and accents? I felt some of my peers talked funny, but then again, they could have also thought I talked funny with my Carabao English. Sure enough it took us some time to understand each other clearly, but we got along alright – at least we pronounced each other’s names correctly.

When I moved to New York to pursue my subspecialty, not only were the resident doctors diverse, but the patient ethnicity became very diverse too. In fact, the zip code 11373, where the hospital where I did my training was located, was even featured in the National Geographic a few years back, as the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the world. In one of the studies we conducted about tuberculosis in our institution, we have counted more than 70 different nationalities in our study population.

Queens, New York

Now imagine trying to understand all those different ethnic groups speaking English in their different rendition of it. It took me a while to get used to these differences. And some patients we took care of, don’t even speak English at all! That’s when we resort to gross sign language, if we can’t find an interpreter. (I feel for the veterinarians who have to interpret the arfs and meows of their patients.) Good thing pain and suffering is a universal language that you can read in their faces even without them uttering a word.

It is not just the immigrants though, that speak English in different ways. People from different regions of the US have distinctive ways of speaking the language as well, like the British and the Australians. I remember I had an American co-resident, and she hailed from Tennessee. She has a beautiful southern accent, but I have difficulty understanding her, even though I know it is perfect English. She would greet me with “Hey ya’ll!”, and I would look at her with a puzzled look, having no idea what she said. Maybe she thought I don’t speak English, so eventually she just did not talk to me.

English also uses so many idiomatic expressions that I did not learn in my English 101 in college, while in the Philippines. One day when I was an intern, I was rounding with my senior resident who was a true-blue American. He instructed me to defer any further treatments on one of our patients, adding that and we’ would just “play it by ear.”  Do I do what now with my ear? Perhaps he saw my quizzical look, so he explained it to me in plain English.

Then there is the version of street talk and slang. I painfully remember during my first few months in the US. I can carry a conversation when I’m at work, and with the more formal and medical talk. But I struggled to understand and converse with people when I’m in the streets, especially when I’m riding the train and the subway. “Wucha gottem dawg?” Did he just call me dog? It was just a different world of English altogether. But that’s okay; I don’t want to be speaking to strangers in the subway anyway.

New York subway

Now that I’m living in the Midwest, I am finding that while the English here may not be as distinctive as the Southern drawl or the New Yorker accent, it has its peculiarities. If you are keen enough, you can determine the specific region where a person came from based on his English phonology.

A friend of mine, who grew up here in Des Moines once drove to Missouri and got lost. He stopped at a gasoline station and asked for direction. The man whom he approached, who was perhaps was a native of Missouri (pronounced ‘Misoora’ by some locals), gave him detailed direction. The only problem was, my friend did not understand a word due to the man’s heavy accent. My friend though courteously smiled and nodded as if he understood the man perfectly. Needless to say, my friend remained lost for much longer.

The story of my friend got me thinking: if these two Americans, both born and raised here, with English as their native language, cannot understand each other, how the heck do they expect me to understand them? But I am learning to understand all the diversities of this language day by day. I know my English is not perfect, but whose is?

Do I speak English? “Op corrs I doh.”


  1. Your story reminds me of the book, Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, that my husband and I read recently. He has a section where he talks about a lot of medical residents from diverse countries and cultures all living and working together.

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