How the Philippine media’s use of code switching stands apart in Asia.

Confusing to the casual reader, newspapers use switch between languages within quotes to better capture the context and reflect local dialogue.

To the reader unfamiliar with Philippine newspapers, the effect of reading quotations in a mix of English and a local language can be jarring. With the local language written in italics, followed by an English translation in parentheses in the next paragraph, the style can appear to slow the story.

Code switching—a linguistic term that refers to the use of two or more languages within a sentence—is a common phenomenon, and the Philippines is not alone in having multiple languages represented in its media landscape, notably the two official languages of Filipino and English, as well as a number of other local languages. But the Philippines is unique in Asia for its embrace of code switching throughout individual news reports.

A feature of all major daily newspapers in Metro Manila, code switching is less prominent in broadsheets and business trade papers. Of the country’s nine top-read newspapers, code switching can be found to varying degree in each. This typically breaks down along ‘traditional’ versus ‘new media’ lines.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer, the most widely-read broadsheet in the country, uses code switching sparingly, and generally only for words that do not easily translate into English. But new media and tabloids, such as People’s Journal, use code switching regularly and across the spectrum of coverage.

Integral to storytelling

The effect is heightened by sources, from vox pop participants on the street to President Rodrigo Duterte, speaking in a blend of English and local languages.

It sets Philippine media apart from the rest of Asia, even in countries whose populations commonly speak in blends of English and other languages such as Singapore and Hong Kong.

While outliers are found in each media environment, often in new media outlets such as those under the Coconuts umbrella or in bilingual publications like the Free Malaysia Today, it is only Philippine media in which code switching is seen as integral to storytelling.

Jonathan Malicsi, a professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of the Philippines, says code switching has become prevalent in Philippine mass media in part because people use both English and Filipino as an indicator of identity. “Ordinary conversations are spiced with English words and phrases to signal a higher social status and level of education,” he says. Conversely, Malicsi adds, “Conversing in straight or pure English considered quaint, resulting in the insertion of Filipino words and phrases.”

The phenomenon has been studied since it was first documented in The Sun newspaper in the late 1960s. Linguist Maria Lourdes S. Bautista, from De La Salle University in Manila, found that code switching in the Philippines is seen as a ‘form of resistance’ to globalisation and a way for Filipinos to stay in touch with local languages as English becomes the global lingua franca of business.

Diversity reflected

Miriam Grace A. Go is well-accustomed to the unique style. With decades of experience in Philippine newsrooms, she is currently a news editor at online news site Rappler, and points to two specific reasons for code-switching use in media.

The first, she says is to “capture the context, mood and color more accurately.” The importance of this color is evident across all of Rappler’s sections, but particularly in news, where the nuances of comments from community leaders and lawmakers are kept intact by maintaining quotes and language verbatim.

In addition to catering best to a local audience, code switching allows the rest of the world to better understand the Philippine context, such as during a spat between Duterte and then-US President Barack Obama in which local coverage of Duterte’s comments was crucial to foreign audiences understanding the fall-out.

“Secondly, it is to honor our national languages, since we have to be reminded that we are in the Philippines and people speak in our native languages,” Go says.

“You’ll note I said ‘languages,’ plural. It’s because we do the original-quote-plus-translation style not only for Filipino, which is largely based on the Tagalog language, spoken in Metro Manila and the two regions sandwiching it, but also for other major Philippine languages like Cebuano, Ilocano, Waray and so on.”

The Rappler newsroom—with journalists from across the country—also reflects the diversity of languages in the Philippines. This has helped the publication to build a strong reputation not only in reporting, but also authenticity. “When officials or other interviewees speak in the vernacular, we have people at the office who can translate them and help reporters and editors decide if those quotes deepen the stories,” Go says.

As a general rule, though, reporters translate quotes into English whenever possible, as long as there is nothing distinct about what has been said. And there are cases in which articles will be translated in full from English into Filipino for further circulation on other verticals.

But, largely, code switching is the established norm not just at Rappler but across the Philippine media industry. And at a time when the media is starkly divided and under attack for their reporting, the endurance of formalized code switching is one aspect that unites.

Erin Cook is a Jakarta-based journalist covering Asean and Southeast Asian politics. She curates the Dari Mulut ke Mulut newsletter, bringing together the top stories and best in analysis from the region every Friday. Follow Erin Cook on Twitter.

Our newsletters are read around the world by some of the smartest people in media. Subscribe here. (Warning: May contain nuts, gluten and rants.)

more about us

Hello. We’re Splice. We report, document, and teach the transformation of media. We are building an ecosystem that develops new models of media, and we’re calling it Splice 100.

Our newsletters are read by some of the smartest people in global media.

We’re Alan Soon and Rishad Patel, and there’s more about us here.

Splice is available for speaking engagements, to run workshops, product sponsorships, custom research, design audits and interventions, and consulting. Email us.

We also have a Telegram group. Come say hi.

Thanks for subscribing!