Is Tagalog Hard To Learn? (Plus 3 Tips To Make It Easier!)
It’s true that the vast majority of Filipinos speak English.
But if you’re spending significant time with people from Manila and southern Luzon, then life gets richer and more enjoyable as your Tagalog improves.
After all, it’s the language of daily life. And as any learner will tell you, it’s about as foreign as a language can get.
If you’re frustrated with your progress, or just want to get started without piles of grammar books, then check out an app called Glossika. You can visit their website, or start with my review here for some background on what to expect.
Meanwhile, this article will look at just what makes a language “hard” or “easy” to a native English speaker, and how all that applies to Tagalog.
Here’s whether Tagalog is hard to learn
Tagalog is relatively difficult for English speakers to learn. This is mostly because of major grammatical differences (especially verb-pronoun relationships) and the origins of its vocabulary. However, Tagalog pronunciation and writing are straightforward, and a few grammatical features are refreshingly simple.
I’ll go into far more detail on all of this in a moment. First, though, it’s worth getting some terminology straight.
Is Tagalog the same as Filipino?
This site uses “Tagalog” and “Filipino” interchangeably, but it’s worth a quick note to explain their relationship.
Tagalog and Filipino are not technically the same, even though the terms are used interchangeably both inside and outside the Philippines.
Strictly speaking, Tagalog is the indigenous language of a people native to southern Luzon. Filipino is a standardized, official version of the Manila dialect of Tagalog. There are currently between 4-8 dialects of Tagalog, but “Filipino” denotes only the Manila variant.
Again, however, “Tagalog” and “Filipino” mean the same thing in casual, practical use.
What really makes a language hard to learn?
Wherever you’re from, you’ve probably noticed that parts of the country speak more and more differently from the most standard form of your language (e.g., how national news anchors talk).
If you’re American, consider the difference between Tom Brokaw and someone from the rural Deep South. Or, if you’re from the UK, think about the difference between a BBC presenter in London and a factory worker in Glasgow.
The accents are obviously different, there are plenty of changes in vocabulary and even in grammar. The farther you get, both geographically and socioeconomically, the more the dialects diverge.
However, either one could learn to speak like the other without too much effort.
But, at some point, the dialects become so different that they are less than 80% mutually intelligible (meaning at least one of the two speakers, usually whoever speaks that “standard” dialect, cannot understand even 80% of what the other says).
At that point, linguists generally call it a separate language, no longer just a dialect.
Even so, you can imagine how a foreign language that’s just below the 80% threshold would be far easier to learn than one that’s only 20% understandable—let alone almost 0%, like Tagalog and English.
(How to measure this in the first place is extremely complicated and not always agreed upon, but that’s another matter.)
For example, English speakers find that French and German both have quite different grammar and sounds, but a whole lot of similar words. And, on a deeper level—like how verbs handle subjects and objects—there are many more similarities.
That shouldn’t be too surprising, since English, French, and German are all part of the Indo-European language family. That means they share common ancestors, from which they all inherited certain traits (although they took on wildly different forms over the centuries).
Most people look at least somewhat like their parents and siblings, not much like their second cousins, and not whatsoever like random strangers across the world.
So it goes with languages, too.
Why is Tagalog hard for English speakers to learn?
All in all, Tagalog is a tough language for English speakers to learn—especially compared to language “relatives” like Spanish, French, and German.
Tagalog is a member of the Austronesian language family, which covers much of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.
By definition, no Austronesian language shares any ancestor with any Indo-European language. Tagalog began with separate origins and developed along a separate path, which has a few implications that we’ll briefly look at.
Tagalog words aren’t related to English ones
Obviously, words are different and unrelated—not counting the many Spanish and later English words that Filipinos have adopted into their language.
(These are called “loanwords” and they do not indicate any relationship. Still, they’re very convenient for learners! Just know that some don’t mean exactly what you’d think. Here is a quick overview of surprising Filipino English differences.)
Because most vocabulary is so unfamiliar, we can’t expect to hear or read a Tagalog word and figure it out by way of something vaguely similar in English.
If you’re studying German, you might see the word wissen (to know) and be reminded of the English wise. They’re not the same, but it’s easy to see the relationship.
Tagalog has no such similarity to English.
Now, with hundreds of years of Spanish control followed by decades of American control, there are scores of Spanish and English loanwords. That’s a nice head-start. Regardless, the overwhelming majority of your new Tagalog vocabulary will be totally unfamiliar.
Fortunately, Tagalog has no grammatical gender, which does reduce the effort of learning vocabulary at least a little bit.
It is worth mentioning that syllable emphasis can completely change certain words’ meaning. A classic (and funny) example is suka. Emphasize the first syllable (“SU-ka”) and you have “vomit.” Emphasize the second (“su-KA”) and you have “vinegar”!
Tagalog pronouns and verbs are nothing like we’re used to
Earlier, I mentioned how even though Indo-European languages have big grammatical differences, their verbs still handle subjects and objects in a similar way.
For instance, “I” is the subject and “me” is the object form of that pronoun, similar to je and moi in French.
The underlying pattern is close, so French pronoun usage is relatively intuitive to English speakers. If you can use “I” and “me” correctly, then it won’t be too hard to wrap your mind around using je and moi, either.
In Tagalog, on the other hand, the closest equivalents of I/me/my follow a totally different pattern that goes against cardinal rules of English.
This, I believe, is the hardest part of learning Tagalog.
For example, let’s say you’ve just eaten a mango. (Highly recommended, as they’re delicious and abundant in the Philippines!) The simplest way you could tell somebody in English would be something like “I ate the mango.”
However, an equally simple Tagalog phrase could use something like “I” or “me” depending on what you want to emphasize.
“I, not somebody else, ate the mango” could use one version whereas “I ate the mango, not the other fruit” could use the other.
Specifying “I ate the mango using a knife” may require a third variation.
Along with the pronoun, the verb “eat” gets different letters as a prefix or stuck in the middle, and the equivalent of “the” also changes a little.
If you jumble them (and you will sometimes!), it sounds as odd to a Tagalog speaker as “me ate the mango” or “the knife was eaten by mango with I” sounds to you. The meaning is still in there, so you’ll probably make sense, but the exact relationships are unclear.
In many cases, at least two variations in Tagalog are grammatically valid, but one just feels right to a Filipino whereas the other seems a little odd. Again, neither is actually wrong, but the best choice isn’t always self-evident.
The difference looks kind of like the active versus passive voice in English, but it’s not exactly the same thing grammatically speaking. More importantly, even though passive construction is poor style in English, all these variations are equally acceptable in Tagalog.
As tricky as this feature is, it’s also quite interesting. Tagalog and its close relatives are among the most unusual languages in the world in this respect. Here’s a great article if you really want to geek out with me.
Is anything in Tagalog easy to learn?
Most beginners—including me—also find aspects of Tagalog very easy to learn. That’s a relief, since there are plenty of challenges to stay occupied with.
We looked at differences first because that’s probably what you’re here to read about. They’re also the most interesting.
However, focusing only on differences gets discouraging! It doesn’t paint an accurate picture of what it’s like to learn Tagalog, either.
A few things are a breath of fresh air for students of Tagalog. In fact, in a handful of ways, it’s much easier than even the closest relatives of English. (That’s a good thing, since you’ll want all the time you can get to study verbs!)
The Tagalog alphabet is basically the Roman alphabet
The written language is super phonetic. Aside from ñ (“ny”) and a standalone ng (“nahng”), every letter is familiar to English speakers and usually makes only one sound.
Compared to English, with oft-observed inconsistencies like “rough,” “through,” and though,” it’s a piece of cake!
Why is this so straightforward?
English has used the Roman alphabet for ages, but never with a central governing authority like France’s Académie Française or the Philippines’ Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino. English spelling actually was phonetic back in the day, but hasn’t kept up with hundreds of years of changing pronunciation.
Tagalog spelling, on the other hand, was last updated in 2013!
There are just five vowels in Tagalog
Tagalog has only five vowels: a, e, i, o, and u.
They are pronounced almost exactly as in Spanish, and their diphthongs (combinations of two vowels, as in how or bay) are all intuitive to English speakers.
If there’s one oddity, it’s that a written “i” at the end of a word sometimes takes on an “eh” sound, depending on which syllable is emphasized. This doesn’t affect meaning, and you’ll be understood either way, but I found it confusing to hear as a new student.
Tagalog is not a tonal language
I can’t begin to guess why, but tonal languages are more prevalent in Asia than in most of the world.
Fortunately, unlike many languages in mainland Asia, Tagalog and its relatives are not tonal. As mentioned earlier, syllable emphasis sometimes changes meaning, but I find that vastly easier to keep track of than the complex tones of, say, Cantonese!
The biggest variable: your personal interest and motives
All of the relative difficulties and challenges are moot if you have a deeper personal interest in the places or people who speak a language.
What if you learn Dutch (arguably English’s closest major relative) for no purpose besides an exam? It will be a grind, difficult to recall, and unlikely to be of practical value. I call this “classroom language syndrome”: learning a language because you have to, then arriving in the country only to find your classroom knowledge nearly useless!
But if you learn Tagalog (an objectively harder language) to talk with friends or loved ones? You’ll find more opportunities to practice, more motivation to push through the difficult early stages, and a more useful and rewarding experience all around.
How long does it take to learn Tagalog?
The US Foreign Service Institute estimates 1100 hours of classroom study to reach “Professional Working Proficiency.” That’s a fairly high standard, at which they say you are:
- “able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
- “able to understand the essentials of all speech in a standard dialect including technical discussions within a special field
- “able to read within a normal range of speed and with almost complete comprehension a variety of authentic prose material on unfamiliar subjects”
It’s worth browsing the whole list of languages by time to proficiency. Some will probably come as a surprise.
Most languages close to English are estimated at 600-750 hours of study. German, falls around 900 hours, probably due to its more complex case system.
The 1100-group includes Tagalog, the more distant Indo-European languages (e.g., Albanian, the Slavic branch, and essentially the whole Indo-Iranian side of the family), and languages from most other families.
The most time-intensive category includes only Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean…at an intimidating 2200 hours! (Of course, other languages take at least as long to master, all else being equal. They’re just not on the list.)
Firstly, keep in mind that we’re talking about averages, so any one person may take significantly more or less time to reach the same level.
Secondly, they’re targeting far higher proficiency than most travelers or even long-term residents really need. With equal diligence, you’ll reach a simply useful level in far less time.
Finally, the Foreign Service Institute has great data on averages for diligent learners in similar settings. What they can’t measure is your own motivation. If Tagalog—or something even more time-intensive—enriches your life, then you’ll progress farther and faster than in a theoretically easier that is merely an intellectual exercise.
The data clearly say that Tagalog is difficult, but experience clearly says not to worry about it.
Is learning Tagalog worth it?
On average, Filipinos are famously warm and welcoming to foreigners. In my observation, foreigners are never expected, let alone assumed, to speak any local language.
Since most speak English, they’re keenly aware of its vast differences from Tagalog or whichever other language(s) they speak personally. There’s no ignoring the prestige factor, either: proficient English conveys education and worldliness, so many people are eager to use it.
However, that’s not to say your attempts at Tagalog will go unnoticed. Far from it! On the whole, Filipinos greatly appreciate any effort to speak Tagalog, or whichever local language applies.
Read this article for a more detailed look at what makes Tagalog worth learning—or not.
These 3 tips make Tagalog learning easier
Keep requesting feedback from native speakers
We all know that feedback is critical to learning. Continual feedback is one of the main reasons that children learn languages so quickly. Some researchers argue that it’s the single biggest factor by far.
But there’s also a cultural factor that I rarely encounter in Western countries.
Part of the remarkable Filipino hospitality is a sort of humility that encourages locals not to correct a foreigner’s speech—or, if necessary, to do so in the gentlest and subtlest way possible!
If you find yourself practicing Tagalog with anyone on a regular basis, be sure to ask (and remind) them to correct your mistakes, preferably by restating your words correctly, much as we’d correct a child in our native language.
It never hurts to give extra reassurance that their corrections are welcome, greatly appreciated, and not offensive whatsoever.
Prioritize words for your daily routine
Most of us recall the useless classroom phrases from high school Spanish, or whatever we took all those years ago.
“My aunt’s pen is on the table.”
“The spotted cow jumped over the fence.”
Yeah…I never used them, either.
Fortunately, most newer resources avoid dwelling on grammar via silly phrases. (In my experience, Glossika does the very best job of this. You can get a free trial here from their website.)
However, whether you’re teaching yourself or taking a class, the curriculum will never be exactly the same as your daily life.
As a supplement, try taking a mental inventory of the conversation you have in the course of a normal day.
To be clear, that includes both sides of the conversation! It’s easy to recount what you say (like ordering coffee or greeting a security guard), but the key is to think about what the other person says in return. This helps you avoid the classic “phrasebook paralysis” wherein you use a textbook-perfect question or comment only to be totally stumped by the response. Followed, of course, by more English…
To put it another way, the goal is to make a personalized word frequency list, or better yet, a phrase and variation frequency list.
Use all the “Taglish” you need
It won’t take long among Filipinos, especially younger Manileños, to realize that there is a lot of English in use.
Some will switch in pure English from time to time, even in conversation with other Filipinos. But it’s more often in the form of Taglish: the fusion of English words with mostly Tagalog grammar.
If you’re studying Tagalog, it may feel a bit like cheating to pull out English, but in reality, it sounds more “local” than you might think!
For instance, the verb prefix mag-[noun] often means to do or to use that noun. If you’re stumped on how to say “wear a t-shirt,” mag-t-shirt gets the point across!
That’s very casual speech, and arguably sort of hip, but far from proper Tagalog. All the same, it’s a great way to make yourself understood if you can’t remember the word for “to wear,” or don’t know the local name for a t-shirt, or are stumped on which pronouns to use.
Bottom Line: Is It Hard To Learn Tagalog?
All in all, Tagalog has a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary and unintuitive or downright perplexing grammar. These factors make it hard for most native English speakers to learn.
And since English is so widely spoken in the Philippines, it’s easy for foreigners to get stuck in the comfort of using English for all of daily life. That tends to undermine the motivation that every language learner needs.
However, you’ll find some very easy features of Tagalog, too. Writing and pronunciation are straightforward to learn, and there is no grammatical gender, nor any tones in speech.
It’s uncommon for non-Filipinos to learn Tagalog, so those foreigners who do usually have a personal interest: friends, family, a partner, extended travel plans, or perhaps all the above.
If those kinds of things have piqued your interest in the Tagalog language, then its difficulty need not be a problem. As with practically every language on the planet, many foreigners have become impressively fluent even without much formal instruction, just heaps of practice.
Obviously, good resources matter, but finding satisfaction and enrichment in the process is the true “secret” to learning a language.
If you’re thinking about learning Tagalog, then it’s much easier with the right guidance. Glossika Tagalog helps me progress faster than I ever did on my own. Check out my full review of it here.