If You Want Easy Grammar, Learn Tagalog

In spite of the fact that I'd had 2 years of Spanish classes, and in spite of the fact that I think Spanish is the best first choice for a second language. In spite of the fact that I was enrolled in German classes at the time, the first foreign language I actually ever used was Tagalog.

Sure, I eventually went on to use Spanish — a lot! — as there are plenty of opportunities for it here in the US. But in my first year of high school, on my first day, in my first class, I gave some help to a Philipino guy who was having a lot of trouble understanding English, and instantly I had a new best friend.

I helped him with English and he taught me about Tagalog. My job was much easier, since English was everywhere. And while I never came close to fluency, I did learn a lot of his language and actually used it, with him and his family, which is more than I could say about my Spanish or German at the time.

It also helped that Filipino grammar is remarkably easy. And fascinatingly different from anything I had ever seen...

General features

The alphabet, like most things about Tagalog, is simple. Five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and 15 consonants (b, k, d, g, h, l, m, n, ng, p, r, s, t, w, y). Other letters find their way in by way of loan words, but not often. There is no palatization to worry about, and a letter always makes the same sound.

The only thing that prevents it from being a phonetic language is a lack of consistency in stressed syllables, though one does start to develop a certain "feel" for getting it right with some regularity.

Nouns are not declined. There are no cases. There are no articles. There are no genders. Heck... there aren't even plurals. Pangalan is name, a name, the name, names, whatever.

Verbs are not conjugated. You don't change endings for subjects. There are no past tense, present tense, future tense. There are perfective, imperfective, and subjunctive variations of verbs which are all formed very simply. While not exactly one-to-one equals, these three forms can be used roughly the same as past, present, and future. Eg: naglalakbay ang lalaki means the man is traveling, whereas naglakbay ang lalaki means the man traveled.

Tagalog verbs also introduce a new concept: they come in active and passive variety; basically, for an active verb the subject is the focus, and in a passive verb the object gets the focus. Most verbs are active, but many are passive, and often they are available in pairs.

Speaking of subjects and objects, these things are simplified too. Basically, the most important noun is marked by ang, and non-focused nouns are marked by ng. For example, ang pangalan ng lalaki is the name of the man.

Pronouns come in two forms, the ang form and the ng form. Possessives are conveniently formed using the ng form of the personal pronoun. Eg: pangalan mo, your name.

If the previous word ends in a vowel, ang is contracted to ng and attached to the end of the previous word. Ano ang (what is) becomes anong.

There is, essentially, only one preposition: sa, which means in, at, on, to, etc. Eg: ang biyahe sa Pilipinas, "a trip to the Phillipines".

Word order is generally a verb followed by nouns and modifiers. Gusto kong pangalan mo: I like your name.

Once you understand those basics, you can see that it's actually a very simple language. If we look at the previous example in its component parts, we get: gusto ko - "I like", ang - (the next noun is the important one), pangalan mo - "your name".

Even easier: lots of loanwords

Filipino borrows a lot from Spanish and a lot from English. So if you know even a little bit of both of those languages, you're well on your way to speaking Tagalog.

Here are just a few loanwords:

kumusta : how are you? (spanish: como está)

kuwarto : room (spanish: cuarto)

puwede : can (spanish: puede)

gusto : like (spanish: gustar)

kwaliti : quality

titser : teacher

aprub : approve

The names of days an months in Tagalog are all Filipinized versions of the Spanish names. Tagalog has it's own number system, but people often just use English for numbers.

Imagine a language littered with English and Spanish vocabulary you already know, in which you don't have to do any conjugation!

Sample words and phrases

To demonstrate how easy it is to learn Tagalog, I'll give a few examples. The word maganda means good, nice, or beautiful. (The same way bella does in Italian.)

So if you say maganda ka, it means "you are beautiful".

The word umaga means morning. So now you can say magandang umaga, or good morning.

The word babae means woman, and the word ito means this. Therefore, you can say ang maganda ng babae ito to say "this woman is beautiful".

And using gusto from above, and reversing those particles, we get gusto ko itong magandang babaeng ito, to say "I like this beautiful woman".

I'm sure you're starting to get the idea.

Impressions

Tagalog vocabulary is pretty simple. Because word meanings are slightly more abstract than we're used to, you can really understand and say a lot without the need to know a lot. I've seen it estimated that as little as a 1000-word vocabulary would be enough to be functional and have meaningful conversations in Filipino society.

With its simple grammar, particles to determine noun function, words with vague meanings, and Pacific sound palette, I'm sure you can see why Toki Pona reminded me of Tagalog.

For anyone looking for an easy and fun language to really get you interested in learning a new language, you can't really go wrong with Tagalog. Naturally, no language is particularly useful without someone with whom to use it, but since Tagalog is the fourth most-spoken language in the United States, it shouldn't be too hard to find someone.


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  • Sounds interesting! Tagalog has been on my "wanted" list for a while. The Asian flare with Spanish & English vocabulary sounds like fun!

  • I can't help but read this post since I'm a Filipino myself...It's good that you actually find tagalog easy...and you're right most of the words are loan words, and believe it or not, many people ask me some translation of some words and some of the words I say are actually just plain English words, that is, if used casually in the Philippines particularly in the capital...Anyway, I found an error in your post particularly about the sample phrase..."gusto kong maganda ng babae ito" doesn't actually make sense (I giggled a bit...sorry.. ^__^)...I don't mean to harshly critic you in any way, but I just wanted to correct it...It should actually be "Gusto ko itong magandang babaeng ito"...I know it further complicates the actual phrase you want to convey (and I know it's just a sample)...but yeah...And, and, and before I forget...using that exact phrase isn't really much of a problem if you're with a girlfriend or wife or something similar to that...but with a stranger, a big no-no, many people might think that you're a weirdo or something...hahahaAnd I agree...Tagalog is seriously a fun language to learn, and while you learn it, you learn the ever-growing and ever-changing culture of the Filipinos as well...:D

  • Thanks so much for the correction.

  • It really is fun. And the grammar is fascinating for how different it is from anything else I've ever seen.

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  • That's awesome, I keep thinking I'd like to learn Tagalog since I want to visit the Philippines eventually, but the fact that English is SO prevalent there kind of kills my motivation--I know, I should do it anyway, and I'm sure I'll learn some Tagalog before I go, at a minimum.I knew it borrowed a lot from English and Spanish, though I hear more Spanish than English. Would you say it's actually closer to being a Romance language due to the Spanish influence, or is it still more Asian than anything? I speak English and Spanish so, yes, I should definitely go for Tagalog, it can't be that hard considering...Have you ever been to the Philippines, by the way? How did you like it?Cheers,
    Andrew

  • I've never been to the Philippines, but I do plan on going.It's definitely not at all like a Romance language. The grammar is more similar to Turkish, than it is to any other grammar I have seen.I expect that the loan words from Spanish are more recognizable to you as loanwords because when you hear an English word it's not natural to think of it as a loanword. Many of the English loanwords are naturally the same as the ones you find in all languages: film, budget, taxi, manager, etc. But I do find that Filipinos tend to count in English, and there are some concepts that are just easier to describe using common English expressions. Also, there are a handful of words that have unexpected meanings, like "tomboy" which in the Philippines is slang for "hooker".You should really make an effort to learn a basic vocabulary of 1000 or so words. You'll be surprised how much can be said and understood with just 1000 words when the language is simpler, as Tagalog is. If you focused on Tagalog for a month or two, you could become properly conversant. Much less investment of time and energy than in most other languages.

  • You should really make an effort to learn a basic vocabulary of 1000 or so words. You'll be surprised how much can be said and understood with just 1000 words when the language is simpler, as Tagalog is. If you focused on Tagalog for a month or two, you could become properly conversant. Much less investment of time and energy than in most other languages.
    Thanks, that's kinda what I suspected. I'm big on using SRS (Anki), too, so I've no doubt I could get through a thousand or so words in a couple of weeks...Cheers,
    Andrew

  • The direct translation for "tomboy" in Tagalog is lesbian. I don't know if it's slang for "hooker", maybe it is. However, I've never heard it in that connotation...I was raised in Manila until I was 6. I still understand Tagalog but I've lost my native-like fluency.

  • we count in Tagalog as well which includes numbers in both Spanish and native Tagalog words. Using tagalog, spanish, and english numbers just depends on what you want to talk about and whether you want to sound educated and posh or just common

  • There are a number of thing that make a language easy or hard to learn. If it is similar to a language you already know, it's simple. If it is different, it's hard. Everyone knows that. The teaching method is more important than the grammar. You can learn 3 or 4 rules for German past participles, or you can just read a of past participles and learn there is only one rule, which has to do with rhythm. Some people teach 16 rules for adjective endings when they can be reduced to six. Genders and plural forms are easy if you learn them along with the noun. (You have to learn the noun anyway.) Verb tenses are formed the same way as in English.On the other hand, English lacks inflections and thus looks easy, but it is highly idiomatic and word order plays a very strong role. I remember a native speaker of Kanada who could not figure out why "corner cupboard" and "cupboard corner" had different meanings. When two nouns occur in a row, the first one can have accusative, instrumental or some other meaning, which is the source of many jokes and misunderstandings. A German once offered to pay me money to reveal the secret of adverbs. These sentences all have different meanings:Only she told me that she loved me.
    She only told me that she loved me
    She told only me that she loved me
    She told me only that she loved me
    She told me that only she loved me
    She told me that she only loved meShe told me that she loved only meSpanish starts out easy but gets hard later. German starts hard and gets easy later.How hard it is to learn a language is also a function of how motivated you are to learn it.The only languages that are genuinely difficult to learn are polysynthetic languages.

  • The tips that you give are all good. It can help a certain student to improve their writing skills in English. Also, in that way, it may lead them in to a good writer who can write well in English language.TOEFL Essay Questions

  • Lol what? No conjugations or plurals? Are you kidding? Tagalog has one of the most complex verb systems of any language. And plurals are represented by "mga", dude. This post is awful. There are past, present, future, and infinitive tenses in every verb focus of Tagalog (Tagalog uses focus instead of sentence structure or declensions).Indonesian does not have tenses in the same sense as a lot of languages (coincidentally, Indonesian and Tagalog are cloesly related languages). But Tagalog most definitely does.You also overstate the amount of loanwords in Tagalog from Spanish and English. That's only about 10-15% of Tagalog's lexicon. Tagalog does not use a true alphabet. It uses a syllabary through Latin letters. It functions similar to Japanese, where you always make consonant-vowel sounds in tandem.You don't even know that the term for the people is "Filipino", not "Phillipino" lmao. No offense, but I have studied Tagalog for years, and this post is so off. Tagalog is considered one of the most difficult languages for an English speaker to learn. It sounds like you took like Tagalog 101 or something and act like you know the language. I should show this to my Tagalog professor, who is from the Philippines lol

  • Verbs are not conjugated? Are you serious??? Lols! That's probably THE one aspect of Tagalog that people who try to study it find hard to learn, let alone master. Tagalog verbs are some of the hardest verb conjugations to master. You claim that Tagalog was the 1st ever foreign language you have ever used, but tell me, did any native speaker ever understood you when you talked without conjugating your verbs? I'll give you a quiz. I'll use the word "KAIN", which means "EAT" in English. How do you say in Tagalog (1) "I want to eat a mango" and (2) "We eat mangoes every morning"? Can you please translate these into Tagalog without conjugating the verb KAIN, without sounding silly to a native speaker??? I bet you you can't, without sounding silly. Ok, I'll give you a lesson. The first example sentence (1) is translated into Tagalog as "Nais kong KUMAIN ng mangga". Notice that the verb KAIN is changed to "KUMAIN". The second example (2) is translated into Tagalog as "KUMAKAIN kami ng mangga tuwing umaga". Again, the verb KAIN is changed into KUMAKAIN to denote intent/focus and tense. I won't bother discussing how the verb magically changed but notice that the word EAT in both sentences in English did not change but it takes on 2 different conjugated forms in Tagalog? So your implication that Tagalog is easy that you simply need to know where to put the "root word" of the verb in the sentence then you get a completely logical and understandable sentence is simply ridiculous. You will hardly ever hear a Tagalog speaker use the root word of the verb even in simple conversations, it is almost always conjugated. You must be comparing or confussing Tagalog with other Austronesian languages like Bahasa Malaysia and Indonesia. Although Tagalog share many similar words with these 2 languages, they do NOT share the same morphological qualities of the Tagalog verbs. Sorry mate but this seems like a pretentious post masquerading as a pool of insights about a language you hardly understand.

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