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2 Weeks In Philippines – Experiences With Tagalog

Here I am at Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport on my way home from a 2 week sojourn in Philippines (or Pilipinas as thy call it here). Before departing for this trip I had studied Tagalog for about a month, and as usual learning the basics of the language made for a richer, more heart-warming stay because I could have more rapport with the locals and connect with them on a deeper level.The excited smiles and enthusiastic reactions to my simple Tagalog, and the wild laughter I heard in response to my embarrassingly bad Tagalog puns still reverberate inside my memory. It was, however, a little bizarre trying to use Tagalog in the Philippines, for a few reasons.

Fighting to Speak Tagalog in Manila

In general most Filipinos speak English well, especially in the Metro Manila area. This means that you rarely HAVE TO speak Tagalog, which makes it psychologically more of a challenge to shift into “Tagalog mode”. On the rare occasions when I met someone who spoke very little English, it was fairly easy to shift into Tagalog mode and express myself with much less hesitation. I know this is partly because the imbalance in abilities. When two people share two languages in common, they normally default to the one that best aids in communication, so if my Tagalog is very basic, it will only become our default language if your English is more basic than my Tagalog. To violate that natural default causes awkwardness and a feeling that you are using the other person as a tool to practice. Some people are oblivious to this, and they usually end up alienating some people. For me, being conscious of this caused some hesitation to speak Tagalog.

Along with my own hesitation to violate that natural default was the native Tagalog speaker`s tendency to reply to me in English. They would love the fact that I spoke in Tagalog and would grin ear to ear, but would express their appreciation in English. I don`t think this was an attempt to shut down my Tagalog, but more of a desire to keep the communication going smoothly. The result was that most conversations were mostly in English but puncuated with Tagalog, used kind of as a spice that created good emotions. None of this was really unexpected, and mirrors my experiences trying to speak other languages with natives in the early stages of learning.

Using Tagalog in the Visaya Region

The more unexpected experiences took place outside of Manila with non-native Tagalog speakers. I spent 5 days on the island of Negros Oriental, in the Visaya region where the native language is Bisaya (or Cebuano), not Tagalog. In this region, people learn Tagalog as a second language in school and through the media, and learn English as a third language. So I find the level of English is generally quite a bit lower in this region, and English is not so quick to become the default language. But neither is Tagalog! I had more opportunities to speak Tagalog in this region, but the locals often answered me in Bisaya – accompanied by a smartass giggle that showed they were messing with me. They would typically answer at full native speed in Bisaya, laugh, and then when I couldn`t fully understand they would switch to Tagalog, but then pronounce it very slowly and deliberately like they were talking to a baby. It was all funny and friendly, but the message seemed to be “Sure, we can help you by speaking Tagalog, but we really prefer speaking Bisaya.”

Native speakers of Bisaya seem somewhat resentful about having to learn Tagalog, since Bisaya has as many native speakers as Tagalog or even more by some counts. I was reading a scholarly paper on the differences between Tagalog and Bisaya written during the American colonial period, in which the writer states that Tagalog speakers are “more civilized” than Bisaya speakers (take that with a colonial grain of salt). Basically, Tagalog was chosen as the national language because it was the language of the economic elite in Manila, while the Visayas were considered a provincial backwater. So there is a little bit of an attitude of “Screw those Manila showoffs and their language”. Everybody understands Tagalog in the Visayas, but that doesn`t mean they speak it really well or have made much effort to do so.

Tagalog vs Bisaya

The result is that I got to practice more Tagalog in the Visaya region, and since it`s not their native language they tended to speak in a way that was easier for me to understand. But I also picked up some basic Bisaya phrases as well, because I could see that it makes the locals very happy. From the Bisaya that I learned, and the resources I looked at a little bit, it looks like Tagalog and Bisaya are really not that linguistically different – but a very large proportion of the vocabulary is different. The phonology, morphology, and grammar are very similar, and lots of words are the same or similar – but maybe not the majority of words. It seems easy to learn one if you already know the other, and if I was planning on staying long term in the Visaya region, then Bisaya would definitely be the more useful language to focus on.

For now I`m going to keep studying Tagalog, because I love the Philippines as a whole and I have no idea where I`ll end up next time. It might be another part of the Visayas, it might be an Ilocano-speaking area, it might be a Bikolano-speaking area, who knows. Since I`m not focusing on a certain region, I`ll keep learning the national lingua franca – even though the locals may not be thrilled to speak it. But I`ll have some fun learning a bit of the local regional language wherever I go.

My Trip Itself

I flew from Osaka to Manila on Philippines Airlines for the first time, which was not really any better than the low cost carrier Cebu Pacific. The only difference was that I got food. There were still no TV screens, there was still insufficient legroom, it still looked gloomy inside the cabin. But who cares, it got me there at a decent price.

I had a comfortable time in Manila as usual when I passed through, but I had an amazing time in Negros Oriental. I flew from Manila to Dumagete on Cebu Pacific, and then took a motorized tricycle to the Dauin area where I stayed at Aqua Landia Resort. This was quite a lovely resort with relaxing gardens, with easy access to nearby marine santuaries. Wifi and telephone signals were very unreliable, but hey it`s a Philippine experience!

The snorkeling at the Dauin Marine Sanctuary was excellent and I enjoyed filming the underwater scenery with my new Gopro Hero 4. Have a look below:

The snorkeling was also great at Apo Island, where I swam with giant sea turtles, and saw some amazing coral with volcanic activity beneath the surface that caused an outerspace-like stream of bubbles to flow from the ocean floor to the surface.



I also spent a day riding around the island on a rental scooter, which was another highlight of my trip. Have a look:

I definitely recommend Negros Oriental, especially for diving and snorkeling because of the numerous dive sites in the area. And a short boat ride away is Siqijor Island, which I visited last year and is also a great snorkeling and diving area. There`s always something fun to do in the Philippines!

  • Edojiru Naga

    A strong way to alienate and to anger a group of people is to prevent them from speaking their own language and to force them to speak a language that isn’t their own. I often hear Cebuanos ask the Tagalistas, “Why would you want me to learn Tagalog (aka Filipino) when you don’t even want to learn Visaya? It’s not fair.” Tagalogs tend to look down on native Bisaya speakers and the latter hates them mostly for that matter …. and also MORE native bisaya speakers speak english fluently than tagalogs if you weren’t really thinking one-sidedly

  • LangFocus

    I`m sympathetic with their feeling of marginalization and I understand why it feels unfair to have to learn Tagalog. In the article I was tryiing to convey the irony of a foreigner learning “the national language of the Philippines” only to discover that a lot of Filipinos would prefer not to speak it with me.

    I don`t know what makes you think I`m being one-sided. About the level of English being lower in the Bisaya region, that`s definitely my experience in Cebu, Negros, and Siquijor.

  • melll

    You feel that English is a superior language to both Tagalog and Bisaya. That’s why you feel the need to tell everyone that Bisaya people are better at English, even though that’s not the case. Also, ‘Tagalista’? Really?

  • LolKittunz

    As a Visayan, I’d also counter the claim that we speak worse English than Tagalogs. That perception was probably because you had more contact with educated professionals in Metro Manila than in the provinces. Ironically, a lot of the professionals in Manila are also usually not native Tagalogs, but migrants from the provinces.

    But yeah, as a rule, English is easier for Visayans to enunciate than Tagalog (albeit with an accent). Our grammatical rules on affixes, particularly, are less labyrinthine than Tagalog. Thus we have problems with the really long words that Tagalog sometimes ends up with, after you’ve added all the prefixes, the infixes, and the suffixes, etc.

    English doesn’t have that, so it’s the preferred language in both business and education in the Visayas. In my high school alone, the only teacher that spoke in Tagalog was our Filipino teacher. Everyone else used English. We avoided speaking in our native languages while in class (which is a fairly good way to reinforce the use of secondary and tertiary languages, not so much on actually making sure students understand their lessons fully).

    While yes, we don’t like speaking Tagalog, the resentment at “imperial Manila” is really only part of the reason. The real reason is simply the difficulty of talking with it. It doesn’t help that the intonation of the two languages is different. Tagalog to our ears, sounds so posh (“maarte” in Tagalog) that talking with it seems silly. Think of it as like an American’s reaction to an upper-class British accent. Sure you can emulate it, but you’d feel pretentious talking like that in front of people you know.

    We (all Filipinos) also feel that way with American-accented English, which is why people would consciously “neutralize” (or outright mangle) their accent when speaking to a fellow Filipino in English to avoid being seen as pretentious.

  • Edojiru Naga

    this case was closed a year ago closed-minded tard

  • melll

    If you don’t like being proven wrong, then so be it.

  • Kuya Dan

    Do visit the Ilocano speaking regions 😀 I think we’re a bit more neutral on the situation and where I’m from (Pangasinan), It’s kind of a mismash since many people speak Ilocano, many speak Pangasinense, many speak Tagalog and many speak English. Some can speak two of them or 3 or all etc… so you might get some practice there XD

    In general though, most people can speak tagalog and have less resentment from what I experienced since there’s a lot of language clusters in the region that a lingua franca is really needed. Outside of Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur and La Union, Ilocano is a loose regional lingua franca :/