Is it Hard to Learn the Tagalog (Filipino) Language?

Me travelling alone in the Philippines because I am fluent in Tagalog
Me travelling alone in the Philippines because I can speak Tagalog

As those of you who have been following my blog for a while know, I speak Tagalog or Filipino (my wife’s native language) rather fluently.

Was it hard for me to learn it?

What does it mean to learn a language?

Well, before answering this question I must first clarify what I mean by learning a foreign language, because, although I have been speaking Tagalog since 2001, sometimes there are still words I don’t understand when I hear my wife and her mother talking.

To me learning a foreign language doesn’t mean knowing the entire vocabulary of that language, but, rather, being able to live in a foreign environment without having to rely on a native speaker for help.

While in the Philippines I was able to take buses alone and travel around alone, go to the palengke alone and so on.

Right now I am living with my wife, my mother in law, who doesn’t speak a single word of Italian, and with my stepson, who grew up in the Philippines until age 8, and we communicate in Tagalog 99% of the time.

So I think I have enough grasp of the language to be able to claim that I quote-unquote “know’ it.

Tagalog words are like Lego blocks

So, is it hard to learn Tagalog?

In my opinion learning Tagalog is a lot easier than learning a lot of other languages.

The structure of the Tagalog language is actually rather simple: it is just a matter of understanding the relationship
between root words and affixes and sticking them together like Lego blocks.

One of the reasons why learning Tagalog may appear as a tall order to Westerners is because in Tagalog there are many long words, like pakikipagpunyagi, nakapagpapalakas, magpakarunong…you name it.

In reality many Tagalog words are simply the sum of one (usually rather short) root word and one or more prefixes, infixes and suffixes.

For example the seemingly long word nakapagpapalakas is the result of combining the word lakas, meaning “strength” and other affixes.

Depending on the affix that one sticks to the root word, one can form a noun, and adjective or a verb.

Adjectives

For example the root wordlakas” can be turned into an adjective by adding the ma- prefix, so the word malakas means “strong”.

Verbs

As far as verbs are concerned there are a lot of affixes, but, by and large, the ones that are necessary to learn, to acquire a decent degree of fluency, are just a handful, like: –um-, mag-, i– and –in.

The reason why there are many verbal affixes in Tagalog is because, in a sentence, different elements can be in focus.

There are many “focuses” in Tagalog, but, in order to become decently fluent, learning actor focus affixes like mag- and -um- and object focus affixes like i- and –in, is enough, at least to get started.

If, for example I use the affix -um-, by turning the root word lakas into lumakas, I am highlighting that the actor of the sentence is in focus: for example, if I say “lumakas ang anak mo”, I mean that the anak, or child, has grown strong. If, instead, I used the affix -um– at the end of the root word, the actor, in this case the anak, would no longer be in focus but rather the element in focus is an object, like, for example, “dapat palakasin ng anak mo ang kanyang binti”=”your child needs to strengthen his legs”. So this kind of sentence is called object focus, because “the legs” are in focus.

Nouns

A root word is already a noun. However in Tagalog there is a bunch of affixes that can be added to the root word to form different kinds of nouns.

For example, if I want to talk about some abstract concept like “knowledge”, “wisdom”, “justice”, “meekness” and so on, I need to use the prefix ka- and the suffix –an, thereby creating such “abstract nouns” as: kaalaman, karunungan, katarungan, kaamuhan.

There are also other noun affixes like pag-, ka- and so on.

So, basically, Tagalog is about learning a bunch of affixes.

There are no verbal tenses in Tagalog

But the real reason why Tagalog is a lot easier than many Western languages is because in Tagalog there are only 3 “tenses”. Actually those are not even actual “tenses”, but rather “aspects” of the verb, and there are only 3 to remember:

  • the completed aspect, denoting completed action. For the sake of simplicity we could call it (a little bit improperly) some sort of “past tense”
  • the incompleted aspect: action in progress or, some sort of “present tense”
  • the contemplated aspect: action not yet done, still being ‘contemplated’, or, basically the quote-unquote equivalent of the “future tense”.

So, for example, a verb like lumakas gets “conjugated” (I am using this word rather loosely because, as I said, there are no real tenses in Tagalog) like this:

  • Completed aspect: “lumakas ang bata”, “the child has grown strong”
  • Incompleted aspect: “lumalakas ang bata”, “the child is growing strong”
  • Contemplated aspect: “lalakas ang bata”, “the child will grow strong” …(hopefully)

And that’s basically it, in Tagalog there is no such thing as the 21 tenses that exist in the Italian language for example.

Loan words


Another thing that makes it relatively easy to learn Tagalog is the fact that, on top of using the Western alphabet, Tagalog has a lot of Spanish and English loan words like mesa, silya or gadyet, kompyuter and so on.

Numbers can also be either Spanish or English, so learning the native numbers is not absolutely necessary, at least not at the beginning of the learning process.

Tagalog has a more limited vocabulary than many Western languages

Tagalog words are not too nuanced: for example in English you can use different words to communicate such ideas as “loyal” and “faithful”, while in Tagalog there is only one word to communicate both concepts, the word “tapat”, and this is just an example of how the Tagalog vocabulary is more limited than those of many Western languages.


So, to wrap up, compared to many Western languages, Tagalog is relatively easy in terms of its, relatively, limited vocabulary, the absence of real verbal tenses, the fact that there are many loan words and the fact that you can skip learning numbers in Tagalog and use English or Spanish numbers instead.

For further information about the Tagalog language check out my other blog http://www.filipitaly.com

6 thoughts on “Is it Hard to Learn the Tagalog (Filipino) Language?

    1. I actually know an American who speaks perfect Tagalog and I know a bunch of Brits and Australians who also speak excellent Tagalog, but, yes, Westerners usually shy away from Tagalog and it’s a great pity to me if a Westerner has been married to a Filipina for decades

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Admire you for your dedication. I agree with you – important to learn the language if you are to survive in a new area. I look forward to learning more German even if I would probably be like you, some words still eluding us even after years of practice.

    Liked by 1 person

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