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Learning Tagalog

  1. Tagalog = Filipino
  2. Learning Tagalog pronunciation
  3. Translating "ang" and "ng"
  4. Useful Tagalog links
  5. Formal ("good") Tagalog
  6. Book reviews (Dictionaries, Grammar books)
  7. Grammar notes
  8. External online resources

Tagalog = Filipino

The name "Filipino" (originally "Pilipino") was invented in the 20th century for political reasons. The original plan was to construct a national language based on Tagalog, but no work was done, so plain Tagalog became the national language - under the name "Filipino". Some people point out that "Filipino" has evolved and adopted words from other languages, but this proves nothing since Tagalog has also evolved and adopted these same words. All languages evolve and adopt words from the populations they interact with.

There is a good summary on Wikipedia's page on the Filipino language (February 2010 version).

Learning Tagalog pronunciation

For pronunciation, the best thing is to talk with Filipinos. Most people learning Tagalog know some Filipinos. The language has very little commercial value, so learners usually have social reasons.

The second most useful thing for learning pronunciation is karaoke. Filipinos love karaoke, so a lot of Filipino stores will sell karaoke video CDs. Better yet, you could get a Magic Sing from That's what all the Filipinos have. If you can get someone to buy you one in the Philippines it will be a lot cheaper. Tagalog is easy to read, but you'll need to find the original song somewhere else to hear the tune. This is also useful for parties - Filipino parties often have karaoke and a foreigner singing in their language is entertaining because it's rare (in the oversees expat communities at least; I haven't been to the Philippines so I don't know what reaction you'll get there).

Third is to watch Filipino films. This is also good for learning Philippine culture. Watching them with Tagalog speakers helps since you can ask what certain words mean.

Listening to internet radio or television from the Philippines is also good - although it is usually more difficult to understand a radio conversation than to understand a film or a karaoke video.

I haven't found any useful free software for language learning yet, and I'm not sure if I'd trust a software package to get it right, but the above ways are good enough.

Translating "ang" and "ng"

Some books say that Tagalog "ang" and "ng" are somewhat comparable to the English "the" and "a". This is completely wrong. Any similarities are pure coincidence. The fact is that Tagalog is very different to English and it has a feature known as "focus", which doesn't exist at all in English, and the English concept of articles (the, a) doesn't exist at all in Tagalog.

In Tagalog, for each verb, something has the focus. Some verbs are "actor focus" verbs, and whatever has the focus in a sentence which those verbs, is the actor - the person or thing that did the verb. Other verbs are "target focus" verbs, etc. The thing that has the focus has a marker in front of it. If the thing is a person, the marker is "si" (or "sina" for more than one person), otherwise the thing has the marker "ang". People who are not the focus have the marker "ng", "sa", "kay", or "kina".

For example, the Tagalog verbs "bumili" and "bilhan" both mean "buy" in English, but the first is actor focus and the second is target focus. This means the first puts the emphasis on who did the buying, and the second puts the emphasis on who the thing was bought for. Here are two ways of saying "I bought him some bread":

(Note: "binilhan" isn't the exact right form for the verb, but it's ok for this example. I'll fix this someday.)

The difference is emphasis.

Formal ("good") Tagalog

If you're looking for examples of formal Tagalog, then speeches by politicians are probably good examples. Gloria Macapagl-Arroyo's website has an archive of her speeches. About half of them are in Tagalog and you can usually guess which ones by looking at whether the audience was international or domestic.


Book reviews

The general quality of books for learning Tagalog is very low. The best ones are published in the Philippines, and Western bookshops, including online bookshops, don't sell books from Asian publishers so you have to mail-order, find a speciality shop, or ask a Filipino who's going on holiday to the Philippines.

I've never mail-ordered, so I've no advice or warnings. The prices online are often ten times higher than the local Philippines prices.


The only good dictionaries are:

Grammar books

The Teach Yourself Tagalog box set with a book and 2 CDs is very good. (I originally wrote that it's "not great, and there are a few mistakes in the book" - but now, a few years later, having seen the rest of what's available, I can say that this is one of the best books available.)

The best books, although quite expensive, is the series Pilipino Through Self-Instruction.

Parlons Tagalog (French)
Good, but more than half of the book is information about The Philippines. The grammar and sample sentences are good though.
Websters Tagalog-English Thesaurus Dictionary
This may be the worst book available. I haven't seen it myself, but there's a detailed, credible criticism on Amazon.

The biggest and best available in western book stores is the one by Carl Rubino, but I have it and it's not very good. The best instructional book I have is "Intermediate Tagalog" by Teresita V. Ramos. One grammar book that is ok is Basic Tagalog for Foreigners and Non-Tagalogs (Tuttle Language Library) by Paraluman S. Aspillera.


Grammar notes

Because Tagalog is not part of the Indo-European language family, its sentence structure is sometimes confusing to us English speakers. Whenever I learn something that sounds wrong but is right, I'll try to note it here.

When I was a child, I drank coffee
Noong bata pa ako umiinum ako ng kape


External online resources

Tagalog Wikipedia
This collaboratively written, free encyclopedia contains a few articles written in tagalog.
Project Gutenberg's Tagalog section
Project Gutenberg publishes old books which are not longer restricted by copyright.
The Abante and Abante Tonight news sites
This is the only group I've found publishing news in Tagalog. TV news is almost always in Tagalog, but written news is almost always in English.

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