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Tagalog: a fun language to learn in the Philippines!

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In this post, I'd like to give a summary about some cool features of Tagalog and my impressions of it for those of you curious!

Best news: Encouraging locals

When describing features of a language if you leave out context of how it's spoken and who's speaking it and focus just on grammar and vocabulary, there's no way you can get a full picture of it.

Usually I title these summaries as “Why X is easy” (as I did in German and Hungarian, and why it isn't as hard as you think for Czech), because the limiting belief of a language you want to learn as being difficult will do you no good whatsoever so it's important to do away with this from the get-go.

But I don't need to do that with Tagalog – not because it doesn't have complex grammatical features etc. (as you'll see below), but because Filipinos are extremely encouraging and constantly remind you how “easy” their language is. In almost every other culture I've been in they say – “Oh, you're learning X? It's such a hard language… good luck!!”

It's consistent and propagated by some more than others. Native speakers of almost every language don't know how predictable they are being across the world as they say that to me. It's not based on any real information (except for selective biased examples) – it just boils down to ego and pride. Filipinos seem more modest as a culture and this can only benefit the learner from a language learning perspective.

This encouragement is a crucial part of how your story in progressing in the language will go. Everybody told me right from the start that I'll do well in this mission, whether they knew my background or not. If you take on Tagalog, Filipinos will patiently and enthusiastically listen to you as you try and constantly remind you how much you are progressing, even when you just start with pleasantries.

NOT having this in other languages slows you down tremendously, whether it really has complex grammar, tones etc. or not. So if you've chosen to learn Tagalog, you start off on the right foot immediately just for picking a culture that will be so receptive to you trying!

Filipino or Tagalog?

One of the first things you should realise is that it's simply inaccurate to think that the Philippines has one unifying language. I started my trip in the country in the city of Cebu, and Cebuano/Visayan tends to be called a “dialect”, which is interesting because they are actually more different from Tagalog and less mutually intelligible than European languages that are officially counted as separate (like Portuguese, Spanish, Italian).

There and later in my travels I met Filipinos who couldn't speak Tagalog. They could understand it and recognise it, but several of my friends actually used their own language with people from their part of the country or English with Tagalog speakers.

The Philippines has had a complicated history and one aspect of that in the last half of the 20th century was to pick the language spoken in Manila as the national language. Its invented label of “Filipino” was an attempt to bring people of the whole country together under one language. In non-Tagalog parts of the country you will see the language in advertisements and you'll hear it on TV or in some offices, but people on the street don't use it at all. The choice wasn't so clear cut – there were actually technically more Visayan speakers than Tagalog ones when the decision was made, and this continues to cause frustration in Visayans. (Although even the term “Visayan” is frustrating to some).

Because of this I almost never heard anyone refer to Tagalog as “Filipino”. If you don't plan on living in a Tagalog speaking part of the country then I'd suggest that you start with the local language immediately instead. Finding a suitable place to live that used Tagalog was actually a challenge for me and slowed down my progress dramatically! Some of the most interesting parts of the country just don't use it.

The real version of the language: Taglish!

However, presuming you are living in Manila or a surrounding Tagalog region, Tagalog can be a fun language to learn! But technically, Tagalog doesn't even exist! What you really want to know is Taglish.

At first I didn't think this term would be something I would want to take seriously as it reminds me of “Spanglish”. In the Philippines though, English has such a huge influence that you simply can't avoid it when speaking Tagalog. It's so important, that the language selection you see on ATMs is not English or Tagalog, but English or Taglish!

An academic will find a way to invent an obscure word to replace an English equivalent, but nobody will actually use this word. In many cases locals would scratch their head and give up after asking many of their friends when I asked if there was a Tagalog translation of an English term.

This is not just for expected word borrowings (which pretty much every language in the world has done too from English in recent times), but the conversation just flows in and out of English (a.k.a. code switching). For example, I found this amusing exchange from a lady fed up with her jealous friend:

Jealous na jealous sa akin iyan pero, no reason naman. I don't even look at her boyfriend dahil sa alam ko masyadong possessive siya. Sobrang pagka-possessive talaga. Nayayamot na ako.

This is an extreme example, and I think it can be misleading how much English is used when you hang out with certain people – especially those in upper classes who prefer English or went to an English speaking school.

You can get every range from just single words and set phrases in English cropping up, all the way to Englog, where someone seems to be speaking English, but has subtle Tagalog features to it that don't make sense until you understand the basics (I especially heard the words “na” (ligature after consonants – see below), “po” (polite addition to sentences) and “ba” (question word) a lot when people would speak English to me and not even know that I was trying to learn Tagalog). I don't think they even realise that they are doing it.

They also say “only” a lot after all prices when speaking English. Rather than being a sneaky marketing trick to make you feel it's less than it is, this is actually a translation of use of lang in Tagalog after quantities.

Since I was in the Philippines for such a short time I didn't quite figure out a way to decide which end of the scale to aim for in the long run. I'm not a purist, perfectionist or academic so Tagalog actually doesn't interest me at all and I feel my ideal level would be code switching with 20-50% English or thereabouts based on the types of people I hang out with. If you watch presenters on MTV Philippines for example, this is the balance they tend to reach.

Obviously it has it's advantages that you can transition yourself in slowly by throwing in a few Tagalog words as you speak English and add more and more in until you reach Taglish, rather than trying to go cold turkey and speak 100% target language from day one. This is the approach I took and it was less pressure to say everything in Tagalog, and actually sounded pretty natural and was less of a shock (coming from a white guy) than when I came out with full Tagalog phrases. I did this so much that I started saying “po” naturally even as I spoke English!

What about the Spanish vocabulary?

Despite all the English (which will actually be much less when you hear particular people. Some radio I listened to seemed to only use 5% English for example), and the obvious influence from Spanish, I can't say that it's that easy a task to understand a typical conversation with no preparation. If you listen to Tagalog radio, even if you speak fluent Spanish, you will have a very hard time keeping up with the non-English and even getting the gist of it in most cases.

I read somewhere that up to 20% of Tagalog is based on Spanish, but I feel that this would be 20% of the dictionary and most of that would be formal or technical terms that are less likely to come up in conversations. 20% of all words does not equal 20% of the content of conversations.

Having said that, speaking Spanish did indeed make a huge difference. Since most Filipinos nowadays don't actually speak any Spanish (although of course there are exceptions), they were surprised by how much vocabulary I knew or could guess. An amusing example is when girls would shout “guwapo” at me when I passed by thinking I didn't understand it (No, it wasn't because I do indeed deserve that 2nd prize in a beauty contest I won in Monopoly; they'd do this for any white guy in his 20s without a wife!)

Here's a pretty long list of examples of Spanish words in Tagalog. Interestingly enough a lot of the -ción words sound like they are half way between Spanish and English with Tagalog's “sy” being pronounced as “sh”, so you have Ambisyon, deklarasyon.

While words are spelled differently, you will recognise many of them instantly when spoken. Changes are pretty consistent – ua goes to uwa, ñ goes to ny obviously enough, j becomes h – basically as you would expect it to be written in English based on the pronunciation.

Since Tagalog doesn't have an f sound, it's replaced with a p. So the months of the year and days of the week have been taken from Spanish, but it's better to say Pebrero for example.

Numbers can also be used from Spanish, English or original Tagalog but it depends on context. Tagalog numbers are for basic counting (two apples, five people), Spanish would be used for times (a las kuwatro) and English in prices.

If you don't speak Spanish, then you can still get a great head start from thousands of words like this (-syon and others) that you will recognise with no work.

Native Tagalog vocabulary

After getting a head start with the English you already know and the extra Spanish vocabulary, you'll be glad to hear that native Tagalog won't pose that much of a challenge. Good dictionaries or language books will indicate where the stress lies in each word (which might not correspond to the word it was borrowed from, e.g. puwedé), which will help a lot since they are not written over it in most native texts.

Tagalog is written phonetically and as it would be pronounced in English. This is interesting as no other language I've come across does this. Even English fails to follow its own pronunciation rules a lot of the time. So you have w, ng at ends of words, and most other letters acting as they would in English.

The only exceptions really are sy (that acts as ‘sh' as shown above) and dy that can act as an English ‘j' (although that's how I would pronounce dy myself with an Irish accent) and ch is replaced with ts.

Because Tagalog doesn't have any major complications in consonant clusters etc. (apart from the ng sound) you won't have problems reading it aloud (once you've worked on rolling your R), and many words are short enough (in root form) that you can learn them easily enough with some clever learning techniques. You just have to make sure to pronounce vowels separately, so kain (eat) for example is ka-een.

This separation of vowels as not acting as diphthongs gives the language an interesting musicality. Learning Tagalog words from scratch is no harder than learning new unfamiliar words in any European language.

Interesting grammar!

The good news is that Tagalog has no grammatical gender, no person or plural based conjugation, no grammatical cases like the dative and lacks many other features that could make it harder to learn.

But it does indeed have complex parts to it that make it more interesting to learn (read: interesting since there has to be differences, not “hard” unless you like being a crybaby).

The first of these are infixes (or prefixes when the word begins with a vowel). These are used to take a root verb and give it a time (past, present, future). So aral is the root, mag-aral means “to study” (or imperative study!), nag-aral is past tense studied, nag-aaral (repeated first syllable of root) is present tense study and mag-aaral is future tense.

This is harder to spot and get used to when the word begins with a consonant, so kumain actually comes from kain (to eat).

A nasal ligature (ng or na after consonants) crops up a LOT and is necessary to link certain words together. It can vaguely be translated as “of” but there is simply no word translated many times in English.

For example, if you look at the sign I'm pointing at in the photo (something that you really can't miss as it is outside of shops all over the country), it says “Load na dito”. I love this phrase as it is a great example of how Tagalog/Taglish works. “Load” (pronounced as in English) actually means top-up (a.k.a. recharging or “loading” phone credit) and “dito” means here. “Na” tends to mean now/already but in this case it is a ligature with no meaning that must be na because ‘load' ends in a consonant. So the sign simply means “top-up here”.

This ligature attaches on to the end of many words in complete sentences and it takes a little bit of mental effort to remember to add it. Sometimes “Gusto ko” (I want/would like) becomes “Gusto kong” depending on the following word.

Here are some other observations:

  • There is no verb “to be”! There is a word you can use “ay” that seems like to-be (e.g. Ako ay Pilipino – I am Filipino), but this tends to be too formal for conversations and a reversed word order is preferred (Pilipino ako). “To be” is simply implied.
  • There are separate words for we/us depending on if the person being spoken to is included (tayo) or not (kami). I think this is really logical as one “we” leads to ambiguity in other languages in some situations.
  • Many abstract qualities become adjectives by simply adding ma before it. So “maganda” (beautiful) comes from “ganda” – beauty and “mabilis” (fast) comes from bilis (speed). This helps a lot as you can tell immediately that a word is likely to be an adjective and try to see if you remember what the root means.
  • Based on the above and an understanding of other prefixes and suffixes, you can extrapolate quite a lot even if you see a new word for the first time. For example, -an means a place (aklatan = library, aklat means book of course)
  • There are almost no prepositions – “SA” is the universal one, (in, from, about etc.) and “para (sa)” for “for”.

There are so many features of Tagalog that make it interesting and fun to learn, and there's no way I can summarise all of them in a post like this. But I hope this summary gives you a vague idea to get you started!

I have to admit that good materials to learn the language have been hard to come by, but I found “Basic Tagalog” to actually give a pretty non-basic decent overview of the technical grammar aspects of the language. But strangely enough, most book shops only have a very old version of the book (not the same one you'll see on Amazon). Because the one I have is old, I ignored it for vocabulary learning as I didn't want to unnecessarily learn new words that were actually not in use with English versions being preferred.

You can also find your favourite courses like Pimsleur, Lonely Planet, Teach-yourself, Assimil etc. for this language, but you should get them before travelling because some of them are quite hard to find in the country (one of the issues I had here; normally buying the material on arrival is what I do to lighten my travel load and usually never causes me any issues, not this time!)

Tagalog: a fun language to learn in the Philippines!
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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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