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First impressions of the Philippines

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

It's time for my first update from the Philippines! (No language learning tips in this post 😉 )

Most of what I'll write here is covered in this video I recorded. Unlike most of my videos, this one isn't so exciting; just me talking to the camera in bad lighting (and bad quality, due to slow Internet limiting what I can upload).

See immediately below for my excuse for not putting together a nicer video 😛


Slow start settling in

To be honest, I haven't done a huge amount since I got here. The problem has been the almost total lack of sleep over 48 hours due to awkward flying times (this is the furthest I've ever flown at once, split up over 3 flights).

However, you'll be glad to hear that I am using Tagalog, I've been learning vocabulary quickly and using the language mostly in taxis.

Normally my siestas help me get over jetlag quickly, but jetlag combined with the long stretch of sleep deprivation has been hard to combat! After a few full days in the country, I've almost adjusted, but still can't focus so well and this has somewhat hampered my usual initial enthusiastic dive into the language.

One thing that was quite important to arrange as soon as possible was to have a working 3G Internet connection on my phone (since I use Android, tethering to my laptop is very easy). This means I won't have to be that pushed to find Internet in accommodation, which will make me much more flexible in the coming weeks. It was a bit complicated so it took almost an entire day to do that(!), but I have it set up now.

I don't usually like to rush into checking out all the sights, and will likely leave seeing the best of Manila until I get back here later.

I did however treat myself to a full body pampering (which included a 2 hour massage, shave and a manicure+pedicure – both of which I had never had done in my life!) for a grand total of about $15. The whole thing took about 3 hours and at one time I had three people working on various limbs and digits simultaneously!! Nothing will cheer you up from travel grumpiness like that kind of pampering 😀 You can bet I'll continue to take advantage of cheaper prices like that during my time here!

My second night I went out to a Couchsurfing meeting and had a great time there, and got lots of solid advice for my Tagalog mission!


My first impression of Filipinos is (as expected) that I find them very friendly! I get a lot of direct eye contact when I talk to people and even from those I pass in the street – this is something I happen to like and even miss in some other cultures.

It's pretty clear that Manila isn't so touristed – I get a lot more attention from some people than I was expecting – girls usually giggle a lot as they walk past me. I keep thinking I have a huge snot coming out of my nose or something when I see people looking at me like that, but then I remember Oh yeah, I'm white – that's way more conspicuous…

And the singing!! Karaokes are huge here – I haven't gone to one yet but it's pretty clear even during the day when you pass people on the street. People sing quite a lot here – usually pop songs that we'd all know internationally.

While a country of karaoke singers may sound like some people's description of hell itself, I actually quite like it! I have been known to randomly break into song in public, and the fact that they do it so often actually means they get quite good at it! Everyone I've heard sing so far has been doing it very well!

You can bet I'll be joining in on the karaokes when I get the chance 😉

Mixed culture

Our first impressions of a place are usually based on comparisons from what we already know – I still have to really get to know some locals apart from that one night out, so I'll get to see the unique side of Filipinos soon. But for the moment I can see a lot of parallels with other cultures. Obviously its location in Southeast Asia and the general feeling I have here is similar to that I had in Thailand, especially the climate.

But the people and city itself are very different to my idea of “Asian”. Several centuries of Spanish rule has left its mark here, and hints of Asia's only predominantly Christian country (actually the world's second largest Catholic country after Brazil) can definitely be seen. That makes me almost feel like I'm back in South America in some ways!

Then of course there is so much Spanish in the language itself! I'll write more about that later, but you can imagine how I keep wondering if I forgot to take a left turn at Albuquerque and ended up back in South America!

The American influence (they were the next colonists after the Spaniards) also comes across quite a lot. English is everywhere – in signs & menus, in advertisements – people's initial (formal) greeting is an English “Hello sir!” (between one another before speaking Tagalog, not just with me where my appearance would make it more expected).

The funniest Americanisation I found was seeing a “God is awesome” bumper sticker on several Jeepneys! I can't really picture such a cheesy message in any country but America to be honest…


Now, of course I have gotten into Tagalog! A little slower than normal because of tiredness, but I'm making progress! The problem was to find some materials to learn from – major bookshops in Ireland & Germany had nothing about Tagalog, and even those here don't have what I would consider particularly useful.

I had to settle on a 25 year old publication for some grammar info, and since I couldn't find a Lonely Planet phrasebook (what I usually start off with) I went with the Berlitz one. My focus is of course on speaking, and I learned more than rubbish books could have ever told me in just one evening with some locals, but I still rely on some learning materials to fill in the gaps.

Some of the books on Tagalog were so old, they even came with cassettes! (I have to link to the wikipedia article on that because many readers younger than 20 might not have even heard of them…).

I got a small book and learned some vocabulary off, and then when I produced it to natives they thought it was very strange that my book taught me to say it that way, so I can't even trust the little learning material I have!

You see, English's influence is stronger than the formal books would have you think! While the grammar and base vocabulary remains very much Asian, there are many words that they just prefer to say in English over a “pure” Tagalog version. Of course it depends on who you talk to. I don't tend to rub shoulders with university lecturers, so I prefer to speak like people my age do in the street in all my languages.

Because of this, I will be focusing on the Taglish side of Tagalog – it's simply the smartest choice. Purists and linguists would hate this and search for what they would consider as the better word, even if it sounds pompous, but I want to talk with people, not examinations. More on this later!

Manila – hold your breath!

For the Tagalog mission, it would make the most sense to stay here in the capital, where most people will be speaking the language. Many non-Tagalog languages are spoken all over the country, even if Tagalog (Filipino) is understood by pretty much everyone. Unfortunately a non-linguistic factor is coming into play in deciding where I should stay: the pollution in Manila.

It's so bad that I can feel it every time I inhale, and I am starting to cough up phlegm several times a day. This is both really disgusting and worrying. I'm sure it's something people learn to live with, but I have other plans for my lungs! So I will have to find a different place to base myself during my time in the country.

It's going to be a challenge to find that place – I like to live in cities so there is plenty to do, but I may have to consider finding some tropical island to base myself on instead. Yes, I know those of you reading this in -18ºC might think I'm just being a cry baby considering my options, but I'd get bored quickly in “paradise” and it would end up being nothing more than a touristy experience. Nothing wrong with that, but I have other goals here.

Destination unknown

To start off, tomorrow I'm flying down to Cebu. It's another big city so I can't imagine I'll get that much better fresh air, but it will give me options to branch off into other parts of the country, and get to know the Philippines better. I'll chill out on a beach somewhere for a few days to get the bulk of the studying out of the way and go back to Cebu city for the Sinulog festival.

Now obviously, one major issue with not sticking in the part of the country where they speak Tagalog as the main language, is how much harder this will make it to be able to try to converse in the language. I don't see this as that big an issue.

Here in Manila, since the signs and menus etc. are in English, I don't feel any sense of immersion visually. The only real helper is the fact that I can hear the language spoken between people all the time. That's a pretty big advantage, but when I'm not participating in the conversation, I can get the same feeling from just having the radio or TV on in the background (as if that would help).

No, the main thing to focus on is making sure that I speak, even if it's just with one or two people. There will be native Tagalog speakers wherever I go, and I just have to find them (yes, I'll do this the same way I always do).

As you can see, I don't have much of a plan in terms of location and will pretty much wing it for a few weeks. I'm not sure where I'll spend most of my time here, but I do want to check out a few places before deciding 🙂

The first months of the year are also the time I tend to do most of my travelling (I did this in India and Thailand too) before I get sick of it and prefer to stay put for several months at a time for the rest of the year. So I'm hitting the road while I've still got itchy feet! 🙂

Once I've properly adjusted, I'll be able to find the absolute best way to apply what I've learned to speaking Tagalog. The grammar is very different, and I plan to study it as much as I can over the next week to get that out of the way, but pure (original Tagalog) vocabulary is not hard to learn (when you have the right technique) and then there are a lot of Spanish and English loan words.

Everything I've read aloud or repeated to a native does not feel strange at all for me to say – this feeling is a hard challenge to get over in many languages, so I've already got a head start and can afford to do some travelling before I really get into the conversational aspect of the mission 🙂

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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