Giving research wings in the multi-lingual Philippines (SCRC no. 5)

Research Cooperative
27/10/18 09:20:19PM

Interview, 27th October 2018

Tatiana Abaño-Sarigumba 1 and Peter J. Matthews 2

1 University of the Philippines Diliman, Quezon City, Philippines

  (email . Research Co-op profile: TAS

2 National Museum of Ethnology, Japan (email Research Co-op profile: PJM

Our theme for this interview is writing and publishing in the biological sciences in the Philippines, and some of the language issues involved. As a country with two official languages, Filipino and English, the Philippines can perhaps be a useful example for other countries that work with multiple languages. In fact there are many other local and regional languages in the Philippines.

(PJM)   How does having multiple languages affect the working life of researchers in the Philippines?

(TAS)   We may have a common or general experience overall as Filipino researchers. Usually, English is our second language at home, but is perhaps our first language in the workplace more often than not. The individual nature of our research topics, as well as how we gather data with the help of people around us, may also contribute to differences in our experiences.

The archipelagic geography of the Philippines helped create the linguistic and cultural pluralism of the country, which now has about eight major languages on top of more than a hundred dialects. Though the Philippines was a colony of America (USA) in the past, it has not really become a native English-speaking country like some other colonies in the Pacific. There is this notion in our country that when one is able to speak English, he or she is formally educated or at least has the minimum elementary education. My own observation in distant, rural areas, is that locals who grew up never experiencing school are not only unable to read and write but are also unable to speak English.  

(PJM)   You previously told me that while growing up as a Filipino in the Philippines, English was your second language at home, that you studied biology, and became a research biologist.

(TAS)   We cannot really consider English as one of our own languages in the Philippines, but it is the main "other" language of literate Filipinos. I should explain that although illiterate Filipinos are not able to speak English, they still have their own ways and expertise, and can be just as "educated" as Filipinos who speak English well. My study area was biology, and I later became a conservation/wildlife biologist in the Philippines, at the Philippine Eagle Foundation. Unfortunately, I had to quit my job to follow my husband, and we now live in Manitoba, Canada.

(PJM)   I would like to learn more about your work experiences. For many of our members, English is a second language that they must struggle with in order to publish their research "internationally". What was your first language at home, when did you begin to study English at school, and when did classes begin to be taught in English at your school?

(TAS)   My first language at home in the Philippines -- and even here in Canada -- is Visayan (Bisaya/Cebuano). My husband and I came from the same town in the south. As far as I can remember, I was already taught English as early as kindergarten starting with the English alphabet, numbers, and so on. Since my parents could speak English, I guess they also taught me at home at a young age. The levels of English instruction differ among schools in the Philippines. During my early childhood years in the 1980s, English instruction was probably not as advanced and sophisticated as it is now in primary schools. My primary school then was private, and I imagine English instruction was even more simplified in public primary schools in that period.

 (PJM)   Which university did you attend, and were all classes in English? 

(TAS)   I attended the University of the Philippines (UP) in Mindanao (south) for my undergrad courses, then at Diliman (in Manila) for my MSc degree. Except for Filipino general education courses, my classes were all in English. The general medium of instruction in schools from primary to universities in the Philippines is English. But the stringency and discipline of English instruction varies among schools, private or not. I noticed that my classmates from private schools were generally good in English but the ones from premier public schools like UP and Philippine Science High School were also at par. And there were also students from ordinary public schools who were also competitive in English. The only public school I attended in the Philippines was UP. From kindergarten to high school, I attended private schools. I cannot speak for the entirety of public schools in the country and for how English is really taught in those schools. UP is, I believe, an exception. It is the top state university in the Philippines, and bests the top private universities in the country. At UP, English is used both according to rule and spontaneously.

(PJM)   When you first began writing research reports or publishing papers, did you have to use English from the beginning, or could you use Tagalog (the original name for Filipino)?

(TAS)   I never use Tagalog in any of my research papers, not even in my drafts. I guess I have been fortunate enough to comfortably write and speak in English, so I never have to resort to Tagalog to write my papers. I have also read, reviewed and even edited numerous technical papers already from my Filipino colleagues, students and peers. No matter how bad the grammar was in some of the papers, they were all written in English. I believe it has already become needless to think whether to use English or not in scientific papers in the Philippines because Filipinos have already become used to formally communicating science and other non-Filipino subjects in English.  

(PJM)   I suppose you now have a choice now about what languages to use when writing about your work. Have you really never published anything in Tagalog or other languages? 

(TAS)   If I did choose to write in Tagalog, then it would be difficult for me as far as scientific writing is concerned. I have never written nor published articles yet in Tagalog, not even in my local dialect.

(PJM)   Since your work is related to the conservation of wild birds in the Philippines, there must be a need for literature that is written in local languages, to help provide education about conservation issues. In your role as a bilingual researcher, have you also worked as a translator between your research, and readers in the Philippines who may not use English in their daily lives?

The Philippine Eagle (courtesy Wikimedia Commons )


(TAS)   Yes. I did translate our findings into Tagalog, and even into Visayan and other dialects, but only for our education campaigns. Using dialects as best as I could and/or Tagalog as an alternative, I delivered lectures and facilitated consultations with remote communities near Philippine Eagle territories across the country. I also had the chance to translate some eagle-related biological terms and descriptions into Tagalog and Ilocano for our campaign posters while I was leading our Luzon (northern Philippines) conservation program.

(PJM)   If a translation role is important in your research life, do you see this as an advantage or disadvantage in your development as a researcher?

(TAS)   Being able to translate English into Filipino, Visayan and even a little of Ilocano and vice-versa is definitely an advantage -- especially in research that involves ethnobiological data gathering or local field-team coordination. For instance, if you need to conduct reconnaissance (to identify areas where a species of interest can most likely be found, or obtain other prior local information), then you will need to organize interviews or communicate with local inhabitants in their dialect or in Tagalog (the default Filipino language). Communicating with them in English is usually not possible.

(PJM)   Do you have experience of feedback or responses from readers who do not read English?

(TAS)   I did get satisfying feedback from the local people I held discussions with or who read our vernacularized posters. Their reciprocations in discussion, and expressions of insight to our posters, showed that they did understand what they heard from me, and what they read.   

(PJM)     What journals in your area of biology are publishing in English, or Tagalog or both, in the Philippines?

(TAS)   I do not know of any biology journal in the Philippines that publishes in Tagalog. I have not tried publishing in a local journal yet. You might find this article useful as it provides a comprehensive list of the science journals in the Philippines:

Evelyn Mae Tecson-Mendoza (2015) Scientific and academic journals in the Philippines: status and challenges. Sci Ed 2(2):73-78 ( ).

(PJM)   Thanks! That's a very informative article. The author mentions that because Filipino researchers prefer to publish in higher-impact foreign journals, it is hard for local journals to attract good articles. Would you consider writing for any local journals, published in the Philippines? How do you choose foreign journals?

(TAS)   If I needed to publish in a local journal, I would probably choose the Journal of Environmental Science and Management , or Asia Life Sciences . I might also consider Sylvatrop and the Philippine Journal of Science as they are government supported. As for choosing foreign journals, two of the things I usually consider are publication cost and journal impact factor, unless a journal has been recommended by a co-author or an adviser.

(PJM)   Do think there is a clear difference today, between a so-called "international" journal, and a so-called "local" journal? Any journal that publishes on the Internet can be seen from anywhere. In my view, what really matters are the efforts and abilities of the journal editors, reviewers, and contributing authors... and effective dissemination/promotion of a journal. (Sorry for giving my own answer to the question, but you can disagree with me, or answer the question in your own way).

(TAS)   Ideally, there shouldn’t be any difference at all, because the principles of science and science communication should be the same wherever they are learned or put into practice. Disparities may reflect different publication guidelines and policies, locally and abroad. Because of these and other factors, certain journals -- locally or abroad – may have less impact, less frequent publication, and may be compelled to charge lower or higher publication fees.

(PJM)   Are there any biological journals published in the Philippines that see or promote themselves as "international" journals?

(TAS)   As their names suggest, perhaps examples would be Asia Life Sciences and Asian Journal of Biodiversity .

(PJM)   Are there any journals in the Philippines that you would like to support by recommending them for authors both inside and outside the Philippines?

(TAS)   I would need to publish locally myself before making any recommendation, and when that might be, I don’t know.

(PJM)   Well it seems you have flown from the nest, but would still like to work in your home country in some way. I am also an expatriate, and have published little in my own country, except when I was a student there. Thanks for your frank replies. Many researchers may see their own experiences reflected in yours.

(TAS) You are most welcome, and let me thank you for the chance to share my insights and the experiences I had as a researcher in the Philippines.  Too many of us talk about the findings and details we get from countless research efforts across different fields of science all over the world, but I guess there are only few who do research on research itself. From data gathering to writing, to publishing, the entirety of every research field is unique. Each has different rigors and victories along the way – and can become even more distinct according to the local culture and practice of science. Discussions of research as a process itself are indeed interesting. Kudos to your undertaking.  


The first author thanks the Philippine Eagle Foundation for providing opportunities for research and writing that contributed to insights expressed in this article (though all opinions expressed here are her own).


* This article remains copyright of the authors, but may be reused with attribution, for non-commercial purposes, under the terms of our  Creative Commons License . Font: Verdana, 12pt.

The article may be cited as:  

T. Abaño-Sarigumba 1 and P. J. Matthews (2018) Giving research wings in the multi-lingual Philippines. Short Communications of the Research Cooperative , no. 5, e1-4 (Internet,

12/11/18 10:55:18AM @caerellia65:

Thanks, Tatiana and Peter, for some very interesting information about the use and teaching of English in the Philippines, amongst other things.