Whether you want to learn Tagalog for daily life around Manila, or to talk to friends and family, or just for the fun of taking on a new language…it’s not an easy language to learn.
What’s more, classes are rare (in most of the US) and there are fewer good resources than for the more common second-language choices.
So, if you don’t have the benefit of a patient native speaker at home, where should you begin?
This guide is not about the language itself, but about how to approach the language so you get off on the right foot.
Besides a quick look at the alphabet, my goal is to share the method and mindset that bring practical results.
In brief, it’s what I wish I’d known when I first started learning Tagalog.
Learning The Tagalog Alphabet
This is a very short section, since the Tagalog alphabet is basically the American alphabet. Several letters (“f,” “v,” “x,” etc.) are only there for loanwords, which mostly come from Spanish and English.
There are just two important additions:
- The Filipino character “ñ” is pronounced exactly as in Spanish: “ny”
- While the Filipino letters “n” and “g” work how you’d think, there’s also a combined character, “ng”. When it’s written as a standalone word, it sounds like “nahng”. Otherwise, “ng” in any other context sounds like its English equivalent.
By and large, Tagalog writing is phonetic. There are a few nuances, but they’ll become obvious as you start studying, so no need to go into them now.
Your knowledge of the standard English alphabet is all the head start you need. After acquainting yourself with “ñ” and “ng,” you’re ready to get rolling.
The Wrong Way To Study Tagalog
The most common mistake (I made it, too) is to start with grammar.
For one thing, I’m an all-round nerd who loves picking out patterns and templatizing things and so forth. It feels intuitive to me and to a lot of other learners.
Furthermore, we’ve all suffered through years of school language classes, and tend to default to that textbook-centric approach. I simply thought it was the way to go. Memorize all the rules, then plug in all the vocab, and you’re fluent!
Just one problem: human language isn’t a programming language, so we shouldn’t expect to learn it like one.
For instance, four-year-olds speak and understand at least a useful amount of their native language…despite zero hours in a classroom and most certainly no grammar books.
And talent has literally nothing to do with it.
Of course there are other factors at play. Children get continual feedback from native speakers, are not ashamed of their mistakes, are eager to experiment, and so forth.
Adults can do all those things, too, even they feel less natural.
But the one thing children obviously don’t do, and adults almost compulsively do, is to open a language textbook. (Or, more realistically, to open a language textbook briefly before getting bored and discouraged and leaving it to collect dust.)
Sure, that leads to some proficiency, but it’s an awfully slow and frustrating way to get there.
For me, for countless language hobbyists, and most likely for you…it’s as simple as being like a kid.
I’m not being sarcastic or clever. I mean, literally, to imitate how a kid learns a language. We’ll just add on some tools and techniques that make it more efficient.
How You Should Start Learning Tagalog
The bad news is that there simply isn’t a trick. Broadly speaking, our brains acquire a language by hearing and using it, all with frequent feedback. There is not, and will never be, a shortcut to that process.
So, where does that leave you as a beginner learning Tagalog?
We want to make the process as natural as possible. For that, we’ll look to a child’s experience as a starting point.
As adults, though, we have some advantages. Namely, we already have full motor control of our tongues and mouths. We can also navigate abstraction in a way that children can’t for their first several years.
There are any number of ways to combine these advantages with the natural process of language acquisition. Below are the most effective ones, based on my experience with Tagalog most recently and with a few other languages in years past.
Note that you can and should do them all at the same time. This is more of a list of priorities than a strict sequence. And, of course, your mileage may vary.
Step 1: Listen, repeat, listen, repeat
Phrasebooks are great, and more on them in a moment. But first, you need to hear native speakers as much as possible.
You probably won’t understand a single word, except some Taglish bits and perhaps Spanish loanwords, but that’s OK. The goal is just to get used to the sounds and rhythm of Tagalog.
My theory is that our brain keeps a list of all the possible sounds in a language, and with continual exposure, it becomes more internalized and therefore easier to imitate.
However, to get anywhere, you need to imitate these sounds actively. Yes, you’ll feel silly babbling like an infant, but the point is to pick out and then replicate all the syllables you’re hearing.
If you can do a halfway-convincing imitation of a Filipino accent, then you’re well on the way!
YouTube is terrific for this. Major Philippine broadcasters like ABS-CBN and Rappler publish loads of programming, some of it with English subtitles, and all of it culturally edifying. Netflix usually has Tagalog movies, and many public libraries give access to streaming services (like Kanopy) with a lot of foreign content.
If you’re in a position to spend a little money, then check out Glossika Tagalog (available here). It’s a phenomenal app because the whole thing is based on listening and repeating phrases. It doesn’t drown you in long dialogues, but it doesn’t bog you down in pedantic grammar, either.
Step 2: Spend a little time with a phrasebook
Just hearing a totally new language will acquaint you with its overall sound, but it won’t provide much vocabulary at first.
Consider what a child needs to realize before or while they start talking:
- Speech sounds have meaning in general
- The meaning has something to do with things we see, do, feel, etc.
- Speech sounds happen in discrete patterns
- You can combine these patterns to change the meaning
…and so forth.
That’s a lot of dots to connect. Fortunately, we adults can jump right to the “combine these patterns” stage.
And if you’re already familiar with the “inventory” of sounds in Tagalog, then a few minutes in a phrasebook will go a long way.
As for resources, it doesn’t matter too much at this point. There are countless YouTube videos with basic Tagalog phrases from a native speaker, and plenty of basic phrasebooks around the web. If you seen a mix of Tagalog and English (“Taglish”), then it’s probably modern and casual enough to use.
To be clear, the goal with a phrasebook right now is not to build a large vocabulary, if only since you couldn’t understand a reply…yet.
Rather, the goal is just to mix and match a few words or short sentences. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll also start hearing them in the media or live conversations you’re listening to.
Step 3: Speak now, with feedback
With a feel for how the syllables sound, and even a few specific things you can say, you need to start using them continually.
And, just as importantly, you need as much feedback as possible on your speech. That’s easy to come by if you’re around native (and patient!) Tagalog speakers or can pay a very affordable online tutor through italki.
There are free language exchange sites, too, where you take turns speaking each other’s native language. That can work in a pinch, but most Filipinos speak excellent English, so there isn’t much to exchange. Additionally, maximizing your time in Tagalog will maximize your progress, so it’s probably worth paying to do so.
Anyhow, you should ask explicitly for the same feedback you’d give a child.
- Restating correctly whatever you get wrong.
- Filling in banks or suggesting words you can’t come up with.
At this point, we don’t want or need explicit lessons or grammar explanations. It’s all about just immediate, clear demonstrations of the right way to say something.
Again, this is something we naturally do with kids, but it doesn’t tend to happen between adults.
In fact, we hesitate to correct other adults in general. I find that especially true among Filipinos, who particularly appreciate foreigners’ attempts at Tagalog. There’s no harm in emphasizing that you are grateful for feedback, and not remotely offended!
Step 4: As you learn more, listen even more yet
After a couple weeks to a couple months of this listening-imitation-feedback cycle, your progress will pick up steam quickly.
It turns into a virtuous cycle of using more, which helps you understand more from media/ambient conversation, which in turn helps you use more yet.
The best testament to this approach was a roommate of mine in grad school. He was one of several Chinese classmates, all of whom could read and write English well enough, but most of whom did not speak or understand particularly well. His speech and oral comprehension were the weakest, by far, on day one.
However, rather than sticking to his Mandarin-speaking friends and media as most did, he made two critical choices:
- Hang out mostly with American peers
- Watch mostly American media
After a few months, his progress in casual English conversations was impressive. After two years, his colloquial English was fluent and nuanced, whereas most of our Chinese classmates made much less progress.
It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the power of continual listening and continual feedback.
How To Approach Learning Tagalog Vocab
Ironically, my best advice for learning Tagalog vocab is not to focus on vocab per se.
Instead, you’ll want to focus on phrases.
To be clear, there are times when it’s worth memorizing individual words, but that should not be your default approach.
That’s probably unintuitive, so let me explain.
We normally approach vocab from the assumption that we can mix and match X nouns and Y verbs to say (at least) X * Y things. That’s not wrong for languages that work at least a little similarly to English.
The issue is that Tagalog doesn’t exactly work the same way. It’s often hard for beginners to tell what’s functionally a verb or a noun. Even then, the parts of speech interact in a very different way from what we are accustomed to.
This may not make a lot of sense in such abstract terms, but you’ll quickly find out what I mean.
So, rather than getting into the gory details, suffice it to say that you’ll get more useful knowledge by focusing on simple phrases rather than single words.
For those times when you do find yourself memorizing words, just focus on their root forms. The conjugations will come in good time. At first, though, it’s more important to know the basic concept, then let your phrase-based learning guide you on the grammar.
Above all, don’t get overwhelmed. At one point in your childhood, English sounded like gibberish, too!
We’ve seen that continual listening plus use of whatever you know is essential. And feedback is critically important. As for dedicated study time, even fifteen minutes of daily focus will help more and faster than one or two weekly mega-sessions.
Of course more is better, but consistency trumps all else.
Figure out what makes Tagalog worth learning for you, then build exposure and practice into your life, and in time, you will get there.
This is a lot to wrap your head around, especially if you’re piecing together your own curriculum and/or don’t have native speakers around. There’s a great app called Glossika that uses this phrase-based approach and keeps track of repetition timing, memory, and all that. It’s not cheap, but it’s the most efficient method I’ve found so far. Go here for my full review.