How to learn Tagalog

How To Learn Tagalog By Yourself (From Beginner To Advanced)

Somewhere near 50 million people in the world speak Tagalog. Most of them are based in the Philippines, but there is a huge presence of Tagalog speakers all around the globe.

So how to learn Tagalog? You can learn Tagalog by yourself if you’re consistent, patient and if you put in the work that it takes. In the below article, I’ll talk you through how you should be spending your time!

What is Tagalog?

Tagalog is in the Austronesian language family and related to languages such as Hawaiian, Maori and Indonesian. I wrote an article about the Indonesian language by the way.

Tagalog is one of the languages spoken in the Philippines. About a third of the country’s population speak it as their mother tongue. As for the rest of the Philippine population, most speak it as a second language.

Tagalog is as such not really a unified language. This can, potentially, make for a frustrating learning experience. The spoken language can often be a little different from what is taught as standardized Tagalog, or Filipino. Filipino is the official language in the Philippines. It’s more or less the Manilla dialect of Tagalog. It’s not the most wide-spread dialect in the country, however. All of this means that you’ll eventually have to establish a base understanding of several dialects if your goal is to speak autonomously with most people in the Philippines.

In common dialects of Tagalog, you’ll be surprised to see a very large influence from Spanish and English. The Philippines has historically been under both Spanish and American control. This means that there are a lot of loan words from these two languages, and that many Filipinos are conversationally fluent in English.

You’ll notice that code-switching is a common phenomenon among native Filipinos. Code-switching is the casual mixing of languages in daily speech. Code-switching can be anything from using a few loan-words, to speaking English with Filipino grammar adapted to the English words. You’ll often hear Filipinos start a sentence in Tagalog, continue on in English, to finally conclude in Tagalog again. If you’re not used to experiencing this, it’s actually quite fascinating to hear!

The Filipino alphabet and Tagalog pronunciation

Learning Tagalog pronunciation is delightfully simple! The alphabet used in the Philippines is the same as the one used in English. The only addition is the letter “ñ” which comes from Spanish, and which is pronounced more or less like the “ne” in the word “new”.

A walk-through of the Tagalog alphabet. It’s quite simple!

Tagalog is very consistent in its spelling which is fairly phonetic. The pronunciation of the letters closely resemble how letters are pronounced in English – only without the many exceptions.

You’ll also find that Tagalog pronunciation distinguishes much more between words and syllables than in English. In Tagalog, you make a clear pause between words, whereas English speaking people tend to pronounce following words as a direct continuation of the preceding one. Try noticing how you say “happy birthday”.

The most difficult sounds in the Tagalog language for an English speaker is the rolling “r”, the “ñ” and the two letters “ng” in combination. Ng, by the way, is pronounced the same way as in the word “ringning”. In Tagalog, it can be found in the beginning of the word aswell, though. Try pausing while pronouncing the word “ri-nging”.

How to get started with Tagalog

When starting out learning Tagalog, I recommend that you start by picking up a beginner’s textbook with audio. Some like to start by getting a slow-paced introduction to the language with an audio-course like Pimsleur (link to amazon.)

I don’t think that you need to use Pimsleur in the beginning with Tagalog, though.

Tagalog obviously is not something you teach yourself in a week. But it’s not the most complicated language in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary either. So where I sometimes recommend Pimsleur to beginner’s in some languages, I’d say that you can skip ahead and jump right into a textbook with Tagalog.

Regrettably, there are very few self-study textbooks for Tagalog out there. And even fewer are any good. One of the few I do recommend, however is Teach Yourself Tagalog. It’s close to being out of print, but there are a few Amazon sellers who still carry it.

Teach Yourself Tagalog is a dialogue-based course where you are faced with a text in Tagalog followed by the English translation. It comes with audio CD’s as well as grammar explanations, exercises and drills.

How to start learning Tagalog with a beginner’s course

Here’s how I suggest you study with your Teach Yourself Tagalog book:

First read through the English dialogue to get an idea what the text is about. Then read through the Tagalog text while listening to the audio. Then listen again, but pause for each sentence. Try to repeat out loud as well as you can. Make sure to mimic the speed, intonation, melody and pronunciation of the recording. Do this for the whole dialogue.

Then repeat the last exercise two or three times.

After finishing your read-through’s, have a look at the grammar notes. Read them and try making sense of them. But don’t worry if it doesn’t seem to be clear. It’ll come later.

You may also do the drills and exercises, but it’s not a problem if you prefer to just skim through them. The dialogues are what’s really important.

For each time you sit down and study a new Teach Yourself Tagalog lesson, I recommend that you go through the 5-10 previous lessons. Read them in Tagalog, listen to the recording and repeat. If you’ve forgotten something, just glance to the English translation.

I suggest that you find a good time-slot during your day and do one Teach Yourself lesson every day. I like studying in the morning.

You might also be interested in reading this article that I wrote about “fitting language learning into a tight schedule“.

The importance of doing several things at once

When I study languages, I always try to do multiple courses or approaches in parallel. No matter how much you revise and how intensely you study, some words just seem to remain elusive. When you mix up things a little and do other things at the same time, something interesting happens.

You simply remember new words much better when you recognize them in contexts outside of your main textbook. Think of it this way: Things you study routinely in a textbook is just “neutral” information to your brain. It’s “a” Tagalog word in the sea of Tagalog words. Then imagine having studied something in the morning. Then you see the word in another context later in the day. You recognize it. It’s a word you thought you didn’t know, but suddenly it’s there. “Oh, that word!”

The feeling of recognizing something you know only faintly is a sort of little victory in your brain. Whenever this happens, you tie positive emotions to the word. In the same time, your brain recognizes that this word has appeared twice. From two different sources. It concludes it must be important. Suddenly, the word you knew only very faintly is brought out of the stale soup of neutral vocabulary. It’s now a word you know!

I’ve written another article about the subject of remembering words. The subject is really immensely important when it comes to learning languages, but it’s often overlooked. In the following I’ll discuss a few other ways that it can be used.

Getting a second beginner’s course for learning Tagalog

So as you can gather from the above, it’s of immense importance that you do multiple things at once. As a beginner you really can’t benefit that much from Tagalog-language news papers, television and books. So what I recommend is getting a second beginner’s course and doing it in parallel with Teach Yourself.

So which other course should you pick? As I said earlier, there are surprisingly few Tagalog courses available. You might want to go to your local library or bookstore to see what’s there. I suggest that you pick something in the same style as teach yourself. You need something that’s dialogue-based. Don’t go for reference grammar’s and that kind of thing.

If you have a hard time finding something useful, I suggest checking out the Tagalog course made publicly available by the Defense Language Institute. DFI is the American government institution in charge of teaching foreign languages to the US military. They’ve put their Tagalog course up online for free. (Or someone else has, but it’s public domain).

The course might seem a little dated – and it is – but it not bad at all. And it’s completely free. You simply download a PDF and the MP3 audio files and you’re good to go.

I recommend that you study the DLI course in the same way as you use Teach Yourself. If you’ve made a habit out of doing your Teach Yourself course in the morning, why not do DLI in the evening.

Learn Tagalog grammar and pronunciation through sentences

Once you’ve made a little progress with your two textbooks, say, one third of the lessons finished, it’s time to branch out.

One program I really like for this is Glossika. (I’ll put a link below when I finish telling you about it!) With Glossika you learn Tagalog through studying sentences. There are no grammar explanations, no drills and exercises and no quizzes. There’s only a ton of phrases in Tagalog, their recordings and their English equivalents.

How to learn Tagalog with Glossika
The Glossika Tagalog study screen. And don’t let that sentence be on point!

The idea is that you learn grammar and vocabulary through repeatedly seeing correct examples of it in sentences. This approach resembles how children learn their mother tongues. As a kid, you gradually learned to speak through hearing your language used correctly again and again. You stumbled at first – and for quite some time. But now you’re at a point where grammar mistakes in your language sounds like nails on a blackboard. Or two polystyrene-boxes rubbed against each other! (I hope the mental image works)

If you’ve ever studied a language by dissecting it and trying to understand its grammar theoretically, you probably realize that this approach gives you a quite different result. You might be able to correctly explain grammar points in that language – things you couldn’t do in your native language. But can you speak it fluently?

When Glossika teaches you Tagalog phrases, it does it in a way that resembles the way children learn, but with an important difference. The Glossika system is organized and controlled. Sentences touch on related grammar and vocabulary as they evolve rather than being random.

This significantly improves the approach. With Glossika you can learn a language as well as children do, but many times more efficiently.

How to study Tagalog with Glossika?

When you study with Glossika, you do batches of five new sentences at a time. The English and Tagalog phrases are written on the screen and you hear their recordings. First the English one, then a pause, then the Tagalog sentence two times.

When you first hear the English sentence, try reading the Tagalog sentence out loud. You then hear the Tagalog sentence two times. Listen carefully. Then try repeating after the voice. Try mimicking the sound of the sentence exactly as it was just spoken. It’s important that you try to make the pronunciation, the stress, rhythm and above all the speed as exact as possible.

Don’t worry if you still end up mumbling or stumbeling over words. The sentence will be repeated five times in a study session, and later it’ll be scheduled for review.

You have the option of slowing down the speed of the recordings if you really can’t keep up. I don’t recommend doing this though. It creates a false sense of comfort. It’ll feel easier at the moment, but you need to get used to hearing Tagalog spoken in it’s natural pace!

I recommend that you do 5-20 new sentences in one sitting. But not more! You might be tempted to keep adding more sentences, but know that these will be scheduled for later review several times, so you’ll be creating a huge backlog of work.

The importance of repetitions with Glossika

After your first study session has ended, wait 12-24 hours. Once you come back, you’ll notice that the sentences you’ve just studied are up for review. Do these before going on to study any new sentences.

When you’ve finished studying a sentence with Glossika, it’s automatically scheduled for review. For each time you review it, it’ll be rescheduled gradually further and further into the future. Glossika schedules your reviews with an algorithm based on the forgetting curve. The idea is that you should review a sentence just when you’re about to forget it. The algorithm is a mathematical model that tries to predict when that is.

As you study – if you feel a sentence is a little too easy, you can mark it with a heart icon. This tells the system that you find it easy and that it should be scheduled a little further into the future. Likewise, if a sentence is difficult, you tag it with a little smiley-face, and it will be scheduled relatively more often.

Repetitions (or “reps” as they’re called in Glossika) are crucial to the way Glossika works. Glossika shows you a little counter of how many reps you’ve done in total. This number is a key to measuring your progress with studying Tagalog with Glossika. The milestones are high. 25.000, 50.000 and 75.000. But what these numbers translate to are various degrees of fluency. So keep your eyes on that counter, and make sure to be consistent with doing your reps and adding new sentences daily.

If you want to read more about Glossika, you can read my Glossika review. Otherwise, I encourage you to go have a look at their own site at Glossika Tagalog

Start reading in Tagalog

When you’ve done a few thousand reps with Glossika and you’re just about finished with your Teach Yourself and DLI Tagalog courses, it’s time to start reading!

There are several approaches and techniques to reading in languages learning (I’ve discussed a few reading strategies in another article)

Many people’s first approach would be to sit down with a book in Tagalog and a dictionary and look up all unknown words. This is a bad idea.

At this point in your Tagalog learning journey, you’ll probably be at the lower intermediate stage in the language. Reading native content at this point is not that easy. You’d be hard pressed to find a book where you wouldn’t have to look up tons and tons of words constantly.

These constant word look-ups in a paper dictionary is an annoyance. It can be so frustrating to never be able to really get into the story before being interrupted by unknown words. Then for each word, you’d have to put down your Tagalog text, open the dictionary, find the right word and understand it. This could take a few minutes. Do you still remember where you were in the story-line? Let’s say that you do. So you read on, and two minutes later:

Another word.

And another one. And again. You’ll end up forgetting both where you were in the text you’re reading, but you’ll also forget the words you just looked up in no time at all.

Using a pop-up dictionary for reading Tagalog

Google Dictionary is a browser extension that Google made for the Chrome browser. (but you can find alternatives for other browsers too) With this tool installed, you can click any word on the internet and get an instant translation. This is extremely effective when reading texts that are a bit above your level.

How to learn Tagalog with Google Dictionary
You can read articles about growing your own bananas in Tagalog using Google Dictionary

You simply look up any subject that you would find interesting to read in English and read it in Tagalog. If you can’t find any articles, try writing your search query into Google Translate and pick “Filipino” as language (that’s what Google calls it). Then search for the term.

The internet is vast, but there aren’t as much variety in Tagalog language articles as in English. Try a few different keywords to find something of interest. Wikipedia articles in Tagalog is also an option! And here’s a news site with articles in Tagalog.

Get Google Dictionary (for free) on the Chrome Web Store.

Other approaches to reading in Tagalog

When learning a language like Tagalog, you can also get a lot out of reading English and Tagalog books in parallel. Reading a sentence, paragraph or chapter first in English, then in Tagalog helps you understand, while permitting you to read fluently.

With Tagalog, however, it can be extremely difficult finding good books for this exercise. An Amazon search reveals surprisingly few books. The same goes for public domain books on Gutenberg.

This is why I’d probably stick to reading news and online articles.

But if you go to the Philippines, make sure to have a look through the local bookstores. Most popular books would be a good fit, but you need to pick something that exists in both languages. This is why I often go for English books that are translated to Tagalog and not the other way around. Read Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, crime stories by Agathe Christie, Stephen King novels and that kind of thing!

Starting to speak and write with a tutor in Tagalog

At this point, your Teach Yourself Tagalog and DLI books are now behind you. You’re several thousand reps into Glossika and you’ve established a daily routine of reading articles in Tagalog every day.

It’s time to start producing the language yourself. You need to start speaking and writing.

I suggest that you go to Italki (or a similar site) and look for a tutor. Pick someone who could be a good fit for your learning style. Contact him or her and discuss how you will proceed.

I recommend that you take charge of your tutoring sessions. Some tutors have their own teaching styles, programs and learning materials. You’ll want to keep your sessions about conversation and keep them in Tagalog. Ask your tutor to keep corrections and explanations at an absolute minimum. He or she can write a report after the end of a conversation with a few pointers. But the conversation in itself should be focused on Tagalog dialogue.

Before each tutoring session, agree on a topic that you will converse about. Then try and stick to it during the discussion. Be sure to hear your own voice at least as much as that of your tutor! I suggest that you speak for 30-45 minutes and that you do this 2-3 times a week.

After the end of each tutoring session, sit down immediately and write a short text on the subject you’ve just discussed. Make it 100-300 words in the beginning. As you get more confident, you may write longer texts. Send them in and have your tutor correct them. Then be sure to read through the corrections and take note of everything you did wrong!

Getting a language exchange partner.

Tutoring can be extremely effective if you take it seriously. But it can be costly. Especially with two or three weekly sessions along with writing corrections. There are free alternatives, though.

Try looking for a language exchange partner. Language exchange is when two people are trying to learn each other’s languages and act as a tutor for one another. If you find a good partner, this can be a great way of improving in Tagalog quickly.

It has its drawbacks, though.

You’ll need to find a language buddy who has the same level of dedication and ambition as you do. If you’re taking your Tagalog learning sessions very seriously, but your partner not so much, it’ll be difficult to advance as fast as you’d like. If you hire a tutor, you’ll be sure to get a motivated teacher. You’re paying after all. But with a language partner, you need to be an excellent tutor yourself if you expect quality tutoring form his or her part.

You need to put in as much time speaking English and correcting English texts as he or she is putting in with your Tagalog. This can be difficult while on a tight schedule. (Did I mention my article on studying languages on a busy schedule? Maybe I did..)

To find a language exchange partner, just search for the term on Google and you’ll find lots of options. Or you can try this page on Reddit.

Whether you pick a language buddy or you decide to hire a tutor, don’t hesitate to switch or go look for someone else if you feel that you’re not getting the kind of tutoring you were hoping for. You’re at a crucial stage in your Tagalog learning, and it’s important to not waste your time.

When you’ve found someone that everything works well with, you’ll be well on your way to becoming fluent in Tagalog. With your daily reading, Glossika reps, speaking and writing, it’s only a matter of months before you’ll get there!

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