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...
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.
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.
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.