The Philippines (and Philippine English) on the BBC

The BBC recently aired an hour-long documentary with the title “World’s Busiest Maternity Ward”. Unsurprisingly, this maternity ward is located in the Philippines, and what I thought was going to be a Midwives-style, life-in-the-delivery-room reality special was in fact an examination of the huge divide between the rich and the poor in the great city of Manila, and the burgeoning middle class poised to close this gap and thus provide a better future for the tens of thousands of new Filipinos born each year.

For those who are in the UK and have access to BBC iPlayer, you can watch the documentary in its entirety here. For everyone else, I do hope this makes it way to Youtube someday soon, but for now here is a short clip.

What is most interesting for me as a linguist is of course the language. It should be noted that the people interviewed by the host Anita Rani in the slums of Tondo, people who represented Manila’s poorest of the poor and could hardly be expected to be highly educated, had a good enough grasp of English to understand Rani’s questions with no translation, and to even answer some of them in perfectly coherent sentences. The documentary also shows just how central the English language is to the socioeconomic advancement of many Filipinos: from the British-accented call center agents working in posh offices in Makati to Junalyn, a young girl from Tondo hoping to get a much dreamed-of job in the local office of a multinational bank. All these people recognized that in order to do well in their chosen careers, they had to speak good English. in Junalyn’s case, the stakes were even higher: she needed a job in Makati to lift her family out of poverty, and doing this required English-language skills.

And of course, the documentary provides the perfect opportunity to hear the Filipino accent for those who are not familiar with it, and to see some very good examples of Philippine English usage. In the clip above is one example. Ana Apruebo, the most senior nurse in the maternity ward of Fabella Hospital, tells a flabbergasted Anita Rani that she has delivered around 200,000 babies in her career. To justify such a mind-boggling number, she says, “Because I’m already here since 1986!” A classic Philippine English construction, where the English adverb already is used as a substitute for the untranslatable Tagalog particle na.

The show even gives a glimpse of the unflappable Filipino spirit. Rani, standing in the middle of the Fabella maternity ward, surrounded by women delivering babies left and right, could not help but comment on the calm, controlled atmosphere in such a high-tension situation. No screaming, no panicking, just matter-of-fact efficiency, “maternity in an industrial scale”.

And as a human-interest story, the documentary can be quite touching in parts. I must admit that by the end, when an overjoyed Junalyn announced that she got the job at the bank, I could feel the tears well up.