The best way to learn Tagalog

Frederik De Vos

The definitive guide to speaking Tagalog fluently

By Frederik De Vos

What is the best way to learn Tagalog? Or rather… what’s the best way for you?

In this guide, you’ll find some practical advice—based on what worked for me and many others.

Speaking Tagalog fluently is definitely doable. It can actually be easy.

It just takes time, consistency, and the right approach.

Have a look at what we’ll cover here…

There are two key factors in becoming fluent:

  1. Understanding + repeating what native speakers say
  2. Daily practice for several months

But before we explore these points in depth, let’s clarify what it actually means to be fluent.

What does it mean to be fluent?

Fluency comes from having the right reflexes. Not from thinking hard.

Being fluent doesn’t mean speaking perfectly.

You’re fluent when you don’t need to look for your words anymore.

To be fluent, you need to have the right reflexes.

That takes repetition, not thinking hard.

It has to be easy and automatic. Otherwise, you’re not yet fluent.

But wait… how can it be easy? I find Tagalog super hard!

Is Tagalog hard to learn?

It depends how you look at it.

Consider this:

Filipino children are fluent at 5 years old.

Are they all geniuses?

No.

In fact, they don’t even know how to read yet!

So, how do young children learn to speak?

  1. They’re very eager to copy others.
  2. They show up every day.

But it still takes them years. Why?

Because they are not just learning how to speak.

Young children are still learning to make sense of the world around them—and how they relate to it.

As an adult, you already know all that. You already think in language.

You just need to learn new reflexes for Tagalog.

You can actually learn much faster than children—with daily practice and the right approach.

This leads us to our next question:

What is the right approach?

How to become fluent in Tagalog

Speaking the way a native speaker would.

Before we start anything, we need to ask ourselves: what does the result look like?

Well, it looks like this: you speaking Tagalog the way a native speaker would.

To be exact: you saying what a native speaker would say, the way they would say it.

How?

By copying what native speakers say. Many times. That’s the skill you need to learn.

It’s easy. Just listen carefully and repeat it exactly as you hear it.

You don’t become fluent by clicking on pictures, doing word games or guessing flash cards. Such exercises add to your knowledge, but don’t make you fluent.

Instead, just listen and repeat.

The biggest challenges are impatience and distractions.

Actually, there’s another challenge: incomplete materials that leave you guessing, or worse—that teach you useless things.

In my experience, the materials you use can make all the difference between wasting your time and making good progress—and enjoying it!

What are good materials to learn Tagalog?

Good Tagalog materials essentially do two things:

  1. They teach you what native Tagalog speakers actually say.
  2. They help you understand Tagalog grammar and vocabulary.

Both are important.

Let’s start with point number one.

Learn from Tagalog dialogues…
not from translated English sentences

A common mistake in language instruction is learning from translated English sentences.

For example:

“Nice to meet you.” Filipinos don’t use such an expression in Tagalog.

They’ll say “Nice to meet you” in English when they greet foreigners, because that’s what English speakers expect.

Filipinos would never say that in Tagalog to fellow Filipinos.

Translated English sentences teach you things native speakers wouldn’t say… and they won’t teach what native speakers say all the time.

Learning from authentic Tagalog dialogues solves this problem.

Authentic Tagalog dialogues

The only way to learn what Filipinos say is to learn from typical situations that are relevant to them.

Authentic dialogues cartoon

What people actually say depends on the situation—who’s talking to whom? What’s going on? How do they feel? What do they want?

For example:

Consider this grammar-book sentence:
“The fridge is open.”

In real-life situations, people are much more likely to say:
“Hey, you forgot to close the fridge!”

Dialogues are much more likely to include lively sentences that connect naturally to previous sentences.

They are much easier to relate to because they convey much more emotion.

Emotion actually carries most of the meaning in communication!

Intonation says more than words

We express our emotions through our intonation.

Only 7% of what we say is in the words, the rest is in body language and intonation.

Typical Tagalog intonation is different from the intonation in English.

Dialogues include this natural intonation, which depends on the flow of the exchanges.

The sentences don’t stand on their own. They’re connected.

Just as a staircase is more than a pile of stones, a conversation is more than a bunch of sentences.

The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Intonation says more than words.

There’s a purpose, an intention, a feeling that’s not in the words themselves.

This emotional content is the reason why we even communicate.

And it’s this emotional content that makes the learning process more engaging too. The material is easier to relate to and remember.

As a result, dialogues are more effective than vocabulary lists and grammar-book sentences.

So why isn’t every language course out there based on dialogues, then?

Because learning from dialogues can be overwhelming—if they’re not carefully structured and explained.

The challenge for course makers is to make authentic dialogues easy to follow.

The key to understanding Tagalog dialogues

When I was learning Tagalog myself, I really lacked good materials.

Every word raised a new question. How was it pronounced? What did it mean? Why was it there?

Other learners complained of the same challenges in forums.

It’s because of this struggle that Fiona and I created Learning Tagalog.

The solution was obvious:

Providing all the information for every sentence in the dialogues, starting with the pronunciation…

Pronunciation marks and audio

Tagalog pronunciation is easy compared to many other Asian languages. It is close to that of Spanish.

But there are a few pitfalls!

Pitfall #1: Tagalog makes a subtle difference between long and short vowels. Long vowels are slightly emphasized.

Pitfall #2: Some words end with a glottal stop—an abrupt silence produced by closing the throat, as in uh-oh in English.

If you forget about them, you could be saying something else!

For example:

Magandang hapon means good afternoon, whereas
magandang Hapon means beautiful Japanese!

You might not hear those differences right away.

Pronunciation marks in the text help you pronounce the words correctly.

You also really need quality audio recordings with the proper intonation.

Listening to the Tagalog recordings will also help you remember what you’re learning.

Pronunciation is obviously important, but it’s only part of the story.

It doesn’t tell us what the words mean.

That’s where literal and natural translations can help.

Literal and natural translations

Literal (word-for-word) translations show you the meaning of every Tagalog word.

Natural (whole-sentence) translations show you what the whole Tagalog sentence means.

Tagalog sentence, literal translation with color coding and natural translation

Both are crucial in understanding Tagalog.

You will find them especially useful because the word order is so different in Tagalog.

As an English speaker, you might feel confused about the word order in the first weeks of learning Tagalog. That’s normal.

You need to go through that phase while you’re still building your Tagalog reflexes.

But I can assure you that when you have spent enough time hearing and repeating Tagalog, it will suddenly click for you.

There comes a point where you’ll look back and think to yourself:

“Hey, that’s funny. Just a few weeks ago, this Tagalog sentence wouldn’t have made any sense to me, but now I understand it perfectly.”

Grammar notes and a grammar reference

Translations are a must. But sometimes, they’re not enough. After all, some words don’t even exist in English!

For example:

The word ba is used to turn a sentence into a question.

Without a grammar note, it wouldn’t make sense.

You’d be left with the feeling that you missed something.

Grammar notes help you understand how Tagalog works

Bottom line:

You will learn much faster with some grammar explanations.

All right. Let’s recap what we’ve covered so far:

1. Understanding and repeating what native speakers say is the way to become fluent.

2. The most effective way to do that is by repeating dialogues that are fully explained.

3. Pronunciation marks, literal and natural translations, and grammar notes are a great way to explain the dialogues and the vocabulary.

Now that we’re mentioning vocabulary…

How many Tagalog words do you need to know to be fluent?

Surprisingly, you don’t need a large vocabulary to be fluent.

Children are fluent at 5 years old and still have a limited vocabulary.

You can be fluent with the most common one thousand words or so, because they cover most common situations.

The rest, you’ll pick up afterwards as you use the language.

You’ll be able to distinguish new words in conversation—and ask what they mean.

Adding a few words to your vocabulary every day is the best way to expand it.

This bring us to… the power of daily practice.

The best advice to learn Tagalog

Daily practice is the best advice.

You probably already know it. Daily practice is extremely powerful. Why?

It has to do with the way we learn and forget.

You’ve surely heard the expression “use it or lose it.”

That’s exactly it. When you don’t do something for a while, you start forgetting it.

Especially if it’s something you’re not yet that familiar with.

This really applies a lot to learning a new language!

The longer you wait in between learning sessions, the more you forget…

If you wait for a month, you may have forgotten about as much as you learned the last time!

Moral of the story:

Being consistent really does pay off. You’ll notice it almost immediately.

You’ll be able to apply what you’re learning much more easily—and that’s really encouraging.

There’s actually a secret to success:

Staying on track and being consistent is so much easier once you’ve formed a habit…

Developing language-learning habits

Habits become effortless.

One of the great things about habits is that they become effortless.

Once you have a habit in place, your body gets it done.

The key is to make the habit fit into your routine.

How?

You could do a bit of Tagalog before or after something you wouldn’t forget to do.

For example, after dinner, or before watching TV at night. Simply put a reminder on the dinner table or on your TV.

If you keep that up for three weeks, you’ve got a new habit. Great!

This is really the surest way to become fluent (with good materials).

Aside from that, there are a few more good habits for language learning:

After learning with written materials, you can also listen to the recordings daily—and repeat them aloud!

Another good habit is to write down what you are learning. Listen, repeat and write it down.

Writing is optional but it really helps in remembering what you’re learning.

I kept a small notebook with me to write down new words and expressions. It helped a lot!

How long should you learn every day?

Try to keep it light and fun.

That depends on you. Try to keep it light and fun.

As soon as you start feeling resistance, just stop.

Sessions of 15 to 30 minutes are easy to keep up. On days that you’re tired, just review an old lesson.

If you have more time in a day, you could do two sessions instead of one. Two short sessions are probably more effective than a single long one.

How long does it take to become fluent in Tagalog?

With a habit of 15 to 30 minutes a day you can be fluent in 6 months.

What if you have more time, say, 1 hour a day?

Then, you can be fluent in 3 months. The trick is to really immerse yourself in the language.

You need to apply what you’re learning in simple conversations! Reading the manual is not enough.

The sooner you practice with native speakers, the faster you will be fluent.

Do you need a tutor to learn Tagalog?

There are two main reasons to work with a tutor:

  1. You don’t have a native speaker to practice with.
  2. You find it hard to stick to your daily habit.

There is no way around the need for conversation practice. A tutor can fill that gap.

For most learners, however, it’s the second reason that’s more of an issue.

Just be honest with yourself. If you find it hard to stay motivated, then a regular appointment with a tutor could be the solution.

Tutors can help you stay on track.

Tutors can be great accountability partners.

One tip though: you need to have some structured material to follow. Some tutors have their own curriculum, but most of them probably don’t.

Unless they are teachers, tutors may not know what to teach you and what you need.

Native speakers typically don’t know how to teach their own language.

That’s why following a method that builds up systematically is a must.

Just a bit of chatting without a system is not going to be effective.

It’s also important to really own the process. You need to be pro-active and have the intention to learn something. The tutor cannot learn it for you!

It’s best to review the material before the tutoring session—don’t just let the tutor do all the talking!

Finally, regularity is key—it’s better to have a 30-minute session every other day, than a two-hour long session once a week.

Working with a tutor can be a lively and pleasant experience.

Tutors can also give you anecdotes and tell you stories about Philippine culture.

One thing to keep in mind though: there are several regional dialects of Tagalog. I’m not talking about Ilokano or Cebuano, those are different languages!

OK, so…

Which Tagalog dialect should you learn?

Manila Tagalog is what you’ll hear on TV.

A good starting point is “standard” Manila Tagalog—what you’ll hear on TV.

(And that’s what you’ll learn with our course.)

Manila Tagalog contains a lot of English and is certainly not pure. You could call it Taglish.

Why not speak pure Tagalog?

Well… there would be no point trying to speak purer Tagalog than the Filipinos themselves.

Some materials teach pure, old-fashioned Tagalog. The result?

You would sound unnatural if you spoke that way. People wouldn’t know how to respond.

Of course, it makes sense not to speak sloppily on purpose.

There is a middle ground between purism and Coño English. (Coño English consists of English with just a few Tagalog words sprinkled in here and there.)

Some native Tagalog words are almost always replaced by their English counterpart.

Philippine province.

If you live in the province, Manila Tagalog will be a good starting point.

You will probably find it easier to learn than the local Tagalog dialect.

Over time, you’ll pick up the regional vocabulary and expressions. And people will love that, even if it’s not perfect!

Actually, Filipinos are very forgiving of foreigners who make mistakes in Tagalog.

Just keep doing your best to improve the way you speak. You’ll see that Filipinos will really appreciate your efforts.

Summary

1

Being fluent comes from repeating what native speakers say many times until you don’t need to think about it anymore.

2

It’s recommended to learn from dialogues, rather than translated English sentences. Otherwise, you learn things native speakers don’t say and you don’t learn what native speakers say a lot.

3

Dialogues teach you the natural way of speaking, including the intonation. Dialogues are easier to remember and more useful than random sentences.

4

You need to understand all the words and grammar to learn effectively. It’s much easier to remember something when you understand it well.

5

You don’t need a lot of vocabulary to be fluent. The most common 1,000 words are enough. You will increase your vocabulary as you start speaking.

6

With a habit of 15 to 30 minutes a day, you can be fluent in 6 months. With 1 hour a day and full immersion, you can be fluent in 3 months. To become fluent, you need regular practice with native speakers as well.

7

Having a tutor is not necessary but recommended if:
1. You have nobody to practice speaking with, and/or;
2. You need an accountability partner to stay on track.

8

The best advice is daily practice. Try listening to Tagalog every day to refresh your memory. Writing down what you’re learning will help you remember it.

9

Start by learning Manila Tagalog—but without the sloppiness. If you live in the province, you will naturally pick up the regional dialect.

10

Some English words are more common than native words. Don’t try to speak pure Tagalog, that will sound unnatural. Just keep doing your best, and people will love you for it!

That’s it!

Do you want to get started?

If you’re a total beginner, check out our videos.

Otherwise, just try our Online Course:

Get started now

Back to article index