When Travelling Overseas, Should President Aquino Speak In Filipino?

by Joseph G. Lariosa

CHICAGO (JGL) – When in Rome, do what the Romans do.

This is one of the cornerstones of the Roman civilization that was carried over by the Western World.

If you are in a foreign land, you have to do what your hosts are doing. If you want to associate with the natives, you have to learn their cultures, customs and their ways of living to get by. That is, if you are going to be an immigrant.

But if you are only passing by a foreign land, like a visitor, there is really no need to immerse yourself in your hosts’ homegrown culture, including brushing up with the native tongue of your hosts.

When President Aquino (PNoy) came to Chicago, Illinois a few weeks ago, there was really no need for him to brush up with his English language because English is the Philippines’ second language.

But a Chicago Filipino American editor-publisher Orly Bernardino of Philippine Weekly (Feedback, May 15, 2015, p. 3) suggested that Aquino should have spoken English, not Tagalog (Filipino), when he delivered his speech before the Filipino community, in deference to some non-Filipino speaking guests in the audience.

While Bernardino’s suggestion appears to be laudable because it was also the same suggestion I had when then Vice President Joseph “Erap” Estrada came to Chicago nearly two decades ago, there is really nothing wrong with Aquino speaking Filipino during his public speech before the Filipino community because in the words of Midwest Philippine Consul General Generoso D. G. Calonge, “Mr. Aquino was focused on speaking to the Filipino community” and apologized to the non-Filipinos before speaking in Filipino the whole time.

When I asked Erap why he was speaking English during his Philippine Independence Day speech in Chicago, Erap told me, “nakakahiya naman sa mga makikinig ng aking salita na hindi nakaka-intende ng Filipino.” (I was deferring to some in the audience, who don’t speak Filipino.)

Now, I realize that the answer to a question on the speaker’s use of language to deliver depends on the timing of the speech.


When Erap was speaking in English in 1996 in Chicago, he was very inclusive as he was in a campaign mode for the upcoming 1998 Philippine presidential elections. He wanted his message to reach a bigger audience so he could promote his upcoming presidential bid.

Perhaps, then Vice President Estrada still recalled Filipino linguist and Senator Roseller T. Lim, the “Great Filibuster,” who spoke all the major Philippine languages during his pre-martial law campaign speeches to charm the Filipino voters.

When President Aquino spoke a few weeks ago in Chicago, his message was exclusive to the Filipino community because he is no longer campaigning but winding down the affairs of his presidency. He does not need to curry favor to the Filipino community, much more to the non-speaking guests in the audience. Mr. Aquino only wanted to reach out to the community and make his report to them as part of his farewell tour.

To mollify critics, ConGen Calonge said, “We readily made available a copy of the English translation of the President’s speech the following day to those who requested a copy.”

Aquino did not even find time to face the local and mainstream media, even for five or 15 minutes, because in the words of his spokesperson, Sec. Herminio “Sonny” Coloma, of the PCOO (Presidential Communications Operations Office), “the President’s working visit to Chicago and the ensuing state visit to Canada was simply hectic.


“I recall that after we arrived in Chicago, we proceeded immediately to a function room of the JWMarriott hotel for the courtesy call of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. Then, the President had to go to the TransUnion building to attend the business forum. Again, I seek your kind understanding.”

Before Aquino spoke, he was preceded by the English speeches of Consul General Calonge and Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose L. Cuisia, Jr., who both summed up the meat of what President Aquino was about to say – the  glowing report on Philippine economy that Aquino would only be reprising the two if he spoke in English.

I noticed, too, this when Filipino entertainer Noel Cabangon was singing in Filipino, the non-Filipino speakers in the audience, particularly U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, were swaying to the beat and also singing the Filipino lyrics belted by Cabangon. It only showed that music is a universal language, which does not need an interpreter.

When Aquino met with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and executives of the U.S. ASEAN Business Council, U.S.-Chamber of Commerce and National Center, he spoke in English.

Bernardino’s colleague in his Philippine Weekly, Romy Sager (Sound Bites, May 22, 2015, p.34), faulted “the Philippine Consulate General in Chicago (for failure) to provide an interpreter” to Aquino during his speech before the community, citing the “second-nature for Japanese or Chinese leaders to have an interpreter by their side anywhere they go.”

This suggestion is fine if Aquino does not speak English. The only downside is that since he knows English, Aquino will have to translate himself into English every Filipino paragraph of his speech, thereby, prolonging his speech. And this will certainly put the interpreter’s job in jeopardy.

As to Bernardino’s criticism that there was lack of U.S. flag during Aquino’s speech, ConGen Calonge reiterated that the event was focused on the Filipino community and there was no need for the U.S. flag. On the other hand, Calonge explained that when President Aquino met with Mayor Emanuel “we made sure that there were Philippine and U.S. flags.”

As to the deep-dish pizza experience of President Aquino in Chicago? Sonny Coloma said when he asked Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras about it, “it was a hurried snack, owing to the hectic schedule” taken by the President during a half “hour’s respite for the President’s delegation” between two events awaiting them. But Sonny has yet to hear from the President how the deep-dish pizza tasted.


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