In all the years I’ve been involved with the Philippines I can count on the fingers of one hand (more like the fingers of one finger) the number of American husbands of Filipina wives who learned to speak Tagalog (or, to be politically correct, “Filipino”). And, looking beyond those Americans with Filipina wives, there are the Aussies and the Brits and all the expats and executives I’ve known over the years who lived in the Philippines and never learned a word of the language. Nobody bothers. And this is in stark contrast, for example, to the expatriate community in places like Tokyo, or Rome, where many speak the host country language.

So when I opened my email and there was one from my cousin-in-law Gary Neely, (he’s married to Rosario Sagales Neely,Rena’s first cousin), with the subject line: “Tagalog”, I was delighted to read the following:


I want to learn Tagalog. I feel it is only appropriate for me, especially if we get to visit Rose’s family next year. I am considering purchasing the Rosetta Stone learning system as I have heard good things about its ability to help you teach yourself. Do you have any other recommendations for any programs?

What a simple, obvious –and yet rare  — thought.  Of course it shows respect, and is the right thing to do, but hardly anyone does it.  And so I was delighted to offer some thoughts, and over the course of the day we exchanged a few emails about what my experience was, and how best to learn.

As it happens — although I didn’t use Rosetta Stone system to learn Tagalog, I did use what is reputed to be the Rosetta Stone system when I learned Russian and Amharic at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute before going to live in Russia and Ethiopia. It’s a good program, probably the best. It’s not magic — nothing is — but it definitely gives you the biggest return on the hours (and hours) you invest in learning a language.  The biggest way it differs from traditional language training is that it places an emphasis from day one on teaching you skills and strategies to be able to extract meaning from overheard conversations among native speakers of the language.

It’s ironic that the US Government saw fit to give me a year of full-time Russian language training for Moscow; 9 months of full-time Amharic training for Ethiopia; and zero language training for the Philippines. The theory, of course, is that learning Tagalog is not necessary given the fact that Fililpinos are taught English and use English regularly.  I was disappointed about that — felt like one of the reasons I was working for the government in an overseas capacity was to learn the languages and cultures of the places they would send me. I felt a bit like I was being cheated of my experience of the country I was about to move to.  But then …. just because Uncle Sam didn’t hand it to me on a silver platter was no reason not to learn it.

When I got to the Philppines I found out that, indeed, you can “get by” and make your desires known to pretty much anyone without knowing Tagalog. But making your desires known is only part of it.  Presumably when you live someplace, you want to know what’s gongon around you, and if you’re living in Manila without understanding Tagalog, you’re living in a bubble and don’t “get” much of a sense of what’s going on around you. Yes, you can follow the politics pretty well in English, courtesy of the Inquirer, Star, Bulletin, Malaya, etc. But you can’t really get a feel for what’s happening in pop culture, you can’t watch the movies, or the TV follow pretty well without it I guess).

So I started learning it word by word, without bothering with grammar and basically learning the way a child learns.  (The language gurus at the foreign service institute call this being a “point integrator” — grabbing words and phrases and memorizing them and letting the grammar sort itself out later.)  As an Embassy officer, I had a driver in those days, Teddy,  and I used to pepper Teddy for words and phrases during the traffic clogged journey down EDSA to the Embassy, and home again.  I also played a lot of golf in the first couple of years there, so I turned each golf outing into a language lesson courtesy of my caddy, Rosie,  who thought it was a hoot that I was trying to learn Tagalog.   I also listened to Tagalog songs and learned words that way. (I’ll never forget the lyrics to the first Tagalog song I memorized, something by Lirio Vital: Ikaw ang buhay ng pagibig kong ito, ikay ang tangin sigaw ng puso ko, sabawat sandali…..but then came along the one that really got stuck on my brain like glue, the big hit from then 18 year old Timmy Cruz’s first album — Boy — the ultimate Taglish song lyrics with the never to be forgotten line: “I love you boy, if you only knew, naiinis na ako sayo, sobrang manhid ka at di mo napapansin…”)

Yesterday in my exchanges with Gary, I remembered (and explained to him) that my “secret weapon” which I used in all the language learning I did, was to carry around 3 x 5 index cards and would constantly, whenever I came across a word or phrase that I felt I should learn, just write the English on one side, Tagalog on the other, and stick it in my pocket with the rest of the words I was working on. Later, at night on the couch watching TV or in the car going somewhere, I would just pull out the flash cards and try to master 20 words or phrases a day. (That was it the Philippines, where I was doing it “on the side” …when I was studying Russian or Amharic fulltime it was 100 words a day.)  I would learn Tagalog-English first –(passive learning), and then flip the cards and memoriz English-Tagalog.   The thing is, if you’re just persistent, at 20 words a day you’ll have 600 words in a month and 5,000++ words in 10 months and guess what — 5,000 words is about all anybody uses in everyday day-to-day conversation.  With 5,000 words you can get along and “get” what’s going on around you pretty well.

I found that learning Tagalog, even in this hit or miss way,  easier than with most languages because it’s phonetic and the grammar is simple, and anyway Filipinos are so forgiving that you don’t have to worry too much about being perfect. Once I started getting a few hundred words under my belt, it was rewarding on multiple levels.   First, I could tell what was going on around me – at least get the gist. that person walking past you in Megamall, or at the next table in a restaurant , or the cashiers chattering with each other at the super market — was generally comprehensible, so I didn’t feel like I was in a bubble.  Secondly, the reaction from Filipinos when I spoke it with them was always terrifically gratifying.  Unlike, say, in France, where if you use it, you damn well better get it right or they will just look at you like you’re the lowest form of life–Filipinos are delighted that you’re even trying, and generally incredulous that you actually can speak and understand it, thrilled that you care enough about the culture to put in the time and trouble.

The other part that’s a hoot is that unlike with other languages where, when you get stuck in the mud, you’re really stuck in the mud, in Tagalog, when you don’t have a word or phrase, just throw in the English and keep going and no one will miss a beat.

So … back to the original questions….if it’s easy and fun, why do thousands upon thousands of foreign spouses never even try?  Is it because there is a presumption that learning any language is a big chore, so why bother if you don’t have to?  Is it because they lack intellectual curiousity?  Or do they lack respect for the culture and the people, even if they are married into it?

I’m not sure whether there is a particular disrespect towards the Philippines and Filipinos, or whether it’s just a general “America-centric” view of the world.  I do know that an American married to a Frenchwoman, a German, or Italian, is far more likely to learn the language than an American married to a Fililpino.  It’s a shame.

But — to not end on a negative note, YouTube has produced a hero in this regard, the exception that proves the rule.   Meet “Americkano speaking Tagalog”…..I love this guy, who to my ear has learned his Tagalog by hearing it spoken around the house — his inflections, his whole manner of speaking it is not school-taught, you can tell that he’s been living in an around a lot of people speaking Tagalog.  Love this guy.

Good luck Gary — if you can be like this guy when you visit Rose’s parents, you’ll be a hero, and you’ll deserve it. And just for thinking the way you do, and making the effort, you’ve separated yourself from about 99% of all Americans married to Filipinas…..


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