How Hard is Filipino Tagalog to Learn?

Filipino Tagalog is an interesting mix of a language. The heavy use of foreign loanwords combines with some rare grammatical quirks. In some ways the language is easy, in other ways it will almost certainly have you scratching your head.


So, how hard is Filipino Tagalog to learn?

The main issues with Filipino are the abnormal grammar rules associated with the verb formation and also the issue of sentences beginning verb first.

  • Vocabulary – The language has an incredible number of Spanish and English words. If you speak either of these languages you are going to have a significant advantage. Core vocabulary can be build relatively quickly relative to other East Asian languages.
  • Grammar – The grammar of Filipino is pretty distinct and difficult to learn. The major problem areas are going to be the focus and aspect changes for verbs. This involves a whole load of affixes being added to the verb to denote what is the most important object or the focus of a sentence. So, if asked the question, who bought the ticket. Your answer will focus on the person who bought the ticket. This focus is shown in how the verb changes. You also have to attach specific particle prefixes to the objects to denote their roles. This is a very clunky way to form a sentence and nothing like English. To add to this core difficulty you also have changes for the aspect of the verb, meaning completed/incomplete or real/hypothetical, which is also denoted by a change to the verb.
  • Speaking/Listening – Most of the sounds found in Filipino are found in English. The main problem areas to look out for are the rolled r sound, the nasal ng sound and the glottal stops. These can take some practice to both listen for and to produce yourself.
  • Writing/Reading – Filipino has a standard English Latin alphabet with the q removed and 3 additional letters added. You also have to contend with 3 accent markers. That being said, these changes wont take longer than an afternoon to learn.

So that is a quick summary of Filipino. Let’s jump in to the topic a little further.

How Hard Is Filipino Tagalog to Learn Really?

— Vocabulary

Filipino has borrowed heavily from other languages when it comes to vocabulary. It is estimated to share around 33% of the root vocabulary with Spanish. This is because of the length of time the Philippines was a colony of Spain. Just to give you an idea of the range of vocabulary.

  • Chess – Ajedrez (Spanish) – Ahedres (Filipino)
  • Blue – AzulAsul
  • Electric fan – VentiladorBentilador

As you can see, very similar roots. If you have some working knowledge of Spanish, it will help.

Following on from Spanish, Filipino also has a large number of loanwords from English. The Philippines was a colony of the USA for around 50 years from 1896 to 1946. Over that time a lot of new words were adopted for common usage, these tended to be in the areas of business, sports, and tech.

  • Basketball – Basketbol
  • Jackpot – Dyakpat
  • Helicopter – Helikopter
  • Squatter – Iskuwater
  • Copyright – Kapirayt
  • Computer – Kompiyuter
  • Tricycle – Traysikel

Filipino Tagalog has also been influenced by Chinese and Malay but Spanish and English definitely make up the lion’s share of the loanwords. Cognates and loanword can really help beginners to the language learn a lot quicker than those without that experience. If you have a background in either of these languages you will find that you are able to pickup new language very quickly.

— Grammar

The keys problem areas of Filipino Tagalog are the complexity of the verb focus and aspect grammar problems, coupled with an unfamiliar word order. Vocabulary, speaking/listening and writing/reading are simpler.

  • Word Order – The word order of Filipino is pretty different to English. Most sentences begin with a verb, this is usually followed by the objects involved in the actions or function of the sentence. The object doing the action is usually the first object. There are specific particles use to denote the different objects and subjects.
  • Verb Focus – Verbs in Filipino have 5 focus forms. The focus of a sentence tells the listener what the speaker thinks is the important subject or object of the sentence. This is probably the most difficult thing to understand with the grammar. Each different focus attaches a different affix to the verb, that is some particle addition with in front, in the middle or at the end of the verb. The focus is kind of like the active passive forms in English but with more variations of focus. The prefixes ang- and ng- denotes the important part, so not only does the verb change, but you have to add the particles to the objects and subject. The different types of focus are as follows.
      • Actor Focus – This is where the doer of the action is most important
      • Object Focus – This is where the object who is acted upon is most important
      • Locative Focus – This is where the location where the action took place is most important
      • Beneficiary Focus – This is where the object that benefits from an action is the most important
      • Instrumental Focus – This is where the means/tool by which an action happens is the most important
  • Verb Aspect – As well as the focus of a verb, the aspect of a verb is also important. There are 4 aspects, actual, hypothetical, completed and incomplete. Much like the focus, the aspect is denoted by an affix attached to the verb root. So, you always have to be aware of the focus and aspect of the verb.
  • Pronouns – There are two forms of pronoun, one for the ang- prefix and one for the ng- prefix. You will have to learn both types of pronoun and use in the correct context.
  • Nouns – The nouns are the same for singular and plural forms. They will also have a focus marker in front of the noun to denote the role of that subject or object in the sentence.
  • Prepositions – There are a number of different prepositions in Filipino which often but not always are made up of a syllable sa with other words in addition.
  • Adjectives – The adjective comes after the noun and usually has the word na between the noun and the adjective.
  • Direct and Indirect Objects — The focus markers will denote the role of nouns including direct and indirect objects.
  • Questions – There are a whole load of question words or alternatively with yes/no questions you can form upward intonation at the end of the sentence or use the word ba.

So you can see that the focus and aspect, coupled with the use of the subject/object particles, is the tricky thing with the grammar. This is the major hurdle of Filipino.

— Speaking/Listening

There are a few sounds that need to be practices and you should be aware of stress but overall Filipino pron isn’t too tricky.

  • Consonant sounds – There are 18 consonant sounds in Filipino. They are similar to sounds you will have encountered in English. The three you should pay particular attention to though are the rolled r sound, the ng nasal sound and the glottal stop. The nasal sound is similar the the -ng sound in the word wing. However, this sounds can appear at the start of words. The glottal stop is similar to the sound we produced between the syllables of uh-oh. If you listen carefully the sound is clipped. The third sound to take note of is the r. Unlike in English, the r is often rolled in Filipino.
  • Vowel Sounds – There are believed to be around 12 vowel phonemes in Filipino. Most of these are found in English so they shouldn’t be too difficult. There is one however, which is denoted ú. This sound is similar to the u sound in muy in Spanish.  Also, be aware that when vowels are placed together in a word the vowel sounds are pronounced as separate syllables.  Like in the example for panauhin which means visitor, this is pronounced pa-na-u-hin.
  • Stress – There are many different patterns of syllable stress in a word. In fact you can have more than one stressed syllable in some long words. The writing system shows the reader where to stress a word, so check your dictionary if you are unsure.

— Writing/Reading

The Filipino Tagalog alphabet has a grand total of 28 letters. There are 25 letters from the normal English alphabet, so that’s all the letters minus q. To that we add the letters ch, rr and ng.

This alphabet is called abacada and is consistent and simple in terms of spelling. In other words, once you learn the pronunciation rules for the alphabet there are very few irregular exceptions to stumble upon.

As well as the 28 letters of the alphabet there are three accent markers that you will have to become familiar with.

  • Acute – Pahilís – This marker denotes the syllable that needs to be stressed. A change in the position of the stress can completely change the meaning of a word. Take báta vs batá which is the difference between bathrobe and to suffer.
  • Grave –  Paiwà – This marker is only found at the end of a word and doesn’t denote stress. Rather it denotes a glottal stop sound which is a sudden cutting of the sound in the throat.
  • Circumflex – Pakupyâ – This marker combines the effect of the two above, so that is a stress on the syllable along with a glottal stop.

On balance there are a few extra features to the alphabet, but you should be able to learn these in an afternoon. The spelling is pretty regular so the writing system for Filipino Tagalog could be said to be pretty straight forward.

Why Learn Filipino Tagalog?

Everyone has their own reasons for taking on the challenge of learning a new language. But here are my 4 for learning Filipino.

  1.  Filipino Tagalog is the major language of the native people in the Philippines. There are over 100,000,000 people living in the Philippines and a significant number speak Filipino Tagalog as their first or second language. On top of that there are believed to be a few million people outside of the Philippines who speak Filipino. In cities like Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai you are going to hear the language spoken in many communities. So with that many people speaking the language you are bound to find someone to chat with.
  2. Travelling in the Philippines is a truly amazing experience. The lifestyle, natural beauty and culture is unrivalled and with its colonial past the country is something of a unique country in East Asia. Sure, if you speak English you can certainly get by, but if you want the respect of the local people then learning Filipino will advance this cause no end.
  3. The characteristics of the Filipino language make it like no other language. The vocabulary is infused with Spanish and English, the grammar seems jumbled and very alien to English speakers and yet it has a simple Latin alphabet, unlike many of the countries in the region. If you are looking for a challenge with some linguistic quirks then Filipino is a great language to dive into.
  4. Making friends is important. If you plan to spend an extended time in the country and you wish to really get to know the locals then you have to learn the language. Otherwise, you are going to feel left out of the conversation. The Filipinos reserve a lot of the serious conversation for discussion in Filipino. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to get to know the people better.

Filipino Tagalog Facts

Who Speaks Filipino Tagalog?

As a first language, Filipino Tagalog is spoken in the area around the capital Manilla. To be more specific, those are southern central parts of the island of Luzon and north parts of the island of Mindoro. As a second language, Filipino Tagalog is spoken across all of the islands of the Philippines. Estimates vary and the census information isn’t too reliable but linguists believe that around 45-50 million people speak the language.

Filipino Tagalog, along with English, are official languages of the Philippines and while English is used in the upper levels of companies and businesses, Filipino is used for local government and education. In some ways it is the non-elitist language of the people.

What’s the Difference Between Tagalog and Filipino?

In modern conversation, the terms Tagalog and Filipino are used interchangeably for the same language. However, this description isn’t entirely accurate as there is a nuanced difference to the two terms.

Tagalog is the name used to describe the language that was spoken around Manilla before the colonial conquests by Spain and the USA. Before Spanish and English vocabulary and pronunciation began to influence the language it was a distinctly different language. The name Filipino is used to describe the language now. A language that has been heavily influence by Spanish and English along with other dialects in the country.

What is the History of Filipino Tagalog?

Austronesian explorers around 2000 years ago arrived in the Philippines speaking a Malayo-Polynesian language which over time evolved into Old Tagalog. Before the colonists arrived in the country, Tagalog had a rich history with strong influences from other languages from China and Malaysia. It also had its own writing system called the Baybayin.

To give some context, at this time, there were many dialects and languages across the many islands of the Philippines and Tagalog was just one of many. Tagalog was really only spoken in the area are Manilla.

When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Spanish language began to have more and more of an influence on the local languages including Tagalog. The Spanish made Manilla the capital in 1595 and this is when Tagalog began to increase in importance over the other languages and dialects of the Philippines.

In 1896, the Philippines became a colony of the USA and English grew in important and influence. A lot of loan words for business and technology were adopted by speakers of Tagalog. In 1939, Tagalog was made the official language in the country. Later, in 1987 they renamed the language Filipino. In native Tagalog, there were no words using the letter f, but the decision to use the f in the name Filipino was to indicate how influenced the language was to outside languages.

Is Filipino Tagalog a Tonal Language?

Filipino Tagalog is not a tonal language. Many languages in the nearby region are like Mandarin, Thai, and Cantonese but Filipino is not. To give you some idea, the more difficult parts of Filipino pronunciation are the rolled r sound and the heavy use of the nasal ng sound. Thankfully for anyone taking on Filipino, you wont have to battle with tones.


Resources to Learn Tagalog

I speak three languages to a fluent level and an ever growing number to a conversational level. The method I use is pretty straight forward and can be tweaked for any language be it Mandarin, Swahili or Tagalog.

My hybrid method borrows systems and techniques from a number of sources that I have encountered over the years I have been learning different languages.

In particular, the book Fluent Forever which I thoroughly recommend. You can pick it up on Amazon for pretty cheap these days.

My hybrid method is as follows.

  • Ankidroid Space Repetition — Get hold of a vocabulary frequency list for your language and build vocabulary flashcards and upload them to Ankidroid. Review the cards daily, and build new sets every week. 
  • Graded Reading — Scour the internet for graded reading material in your target language. Buy everything you can find, and then take some time everyday to work your way through the stories. 
  • Speaking Practice with — Use italki to get very cheap video chat lesson with a native teacher in your target language. The cheaper the better, and don’t mess around with overly formal lesson plans.
  • Writing Practice with — Use Lang 8 to upload pieces of writing everyday to the community. They will correct any errors you have and you can get great native level feedback for free.

That’s basically the entire method. Don’t get bogged down in expensive drawn out language courses. Adopt, apply and even tweak this template and just keep at it!

Sample of Filipino Tagalog

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