Thursday, 4 June 2015

Why Most People Fail to Learn Tagalog! #languagelearning #tagalog

I thought it was time for a language related blog post. Oh good…you are thinking :) I’m hoping somehow that some of the burden of learning the Tagalog language will be supernaturally transferred to you through my blog thus reducing the headache I still have after every one of my classes.  Or maybe not, let’s see.
Languages were never really my strong point, probably because I spent most of my time speaking German in my French class and vice versa for the entertainment of other students. I managed an unexpected B in German purely because the question in my final exam was “What do you do on a typical day?” and as it happened, that was the only thing I had learnt over the course of 5 years.

When I knew God was calling me to the Philippines, I began learning Tagalog words and odd phrases straight away. This was when I was still on the Logos Hope Christian Missionary Ship towards the end of 2012. My Filipino friend Arlene helped me and I used a borrowed phrase book. I learned the essentials needed to tell the street children to do things or more often NOT to do things. My first phrase was “sandali lang” which means “wait a moment,” but I was even pronouncing that wrong. However, as I was quickly learning a lot of words I naively thought the rest would be easy. It doesn’t help that saying even the most basic word to a Filipino in Tagalog always results in a ridiculously over the top amount of praise and comments like “You know Tagalog, you are very good.” 

Early mistakes included confusing the words “pusa” (cat) and “puso” (heart) thereby telling an audience that Jesus was living in my cat….hmmm. I was also ridiculed by one of my street kids when I told him that he was “jealous” (inggit ka) instead of to “take care” (ingat ka.) But by far the biggest problem I had was that Filipinos expected me to speak English, so wouldn’t be listening for Tagalog, and therefore wouldn’t understand it due to my accent. And that they would often reply in English, because they want to learn English, or want to impress me because I’m a foreigner. (Foreigners in the Philippines are treated like royalty at times and it’s impossible to change this, i’m learning to try and be gracious.)

My wake-up call came as soon as I started learning Tagalog grammar (that was when the headaches started.) It was also when I somehow told one of my language teachers that I had stopped attending a church because the people there were too small. Being a foreigner and tall in comparison with most Filipinos this was of course hilarious. I had just said the words in the wrong order and this was the result. Other mistakes; “My coffee likes to drink me” and I told a group of children that I liked the cockroach eating my face instead of that the cockroach liked to bite my face, after waking up with a huge lump that locals immediately attributed to a cockroach. Yuck!…There are many many others.

Explaining just one English verb in Tagalog to my parents the other day via Skype had them scratching their heads and searching desperately for a reason to end the call. Let’s see if you can cope :)
The root word “Give” – Simple in English; Gave/Given (past) Giving (present) Will give (future)

BUT in Tagalog…there are 12 words and each time you use a different one of the words you also have to change all of the other words in the sentence.(but explaining that might give someone heart failure so I’ll just stick with the basic verb for now.)  The reason is because Tagalog doesn’t just have past, present and future tenses but also a focus/emphasis within the sentence. You change the word used to change the emphasis in the sentence. In English we would just use our tone of voice to do this (you also need to do this in Tagalog, in addition to everything else, by changing your voice pitch for different syllables, to separate two identical words and to make the words sound correct) You can use agent, object or location focus/emphasis for nearly every verb.  Like this with the word “give”;

The root word “Bigay”                                                                                                    
Agent focus; Magbigay (timeless) Nagbigay (past) Nagbibigay (present) Magbibigay(future) 
Object focus; Ibigay (timeless) Ibinigay (past) Ibinibigay (present) Ibibigay (future)               
Location focus; Bigyan (timeless) Binigyan (past) Binibigyan (present) Bibigyan (future)

Want to learn anymore? Didn’t think so!

The vast numbers of variations continue in every aspect of the language e.g. there are 8 different ways to say a person is very tall rather than the 3 in English. Of course I have to learn all of them so that I can understand if any of them are used (at least that’s my teacher’s logic.) There is also an extra letter in the alphabet “ng” which is very hard for a Westerner to pronounce and they only half pronounce their “t’s” I learnt this when singing in church, it’s amazing how loud that “t” is when no one else is singing it. My teacher tells me to “swallow my t’s” but I haven’t quite figured out how to do this.

The funny thing (or annoying depending on your perspective) is that the Filipinos think that English doesn’t make any sense because of words like “cough” and “cow” and the other anomalies of the language. But from my perspective, the only easy thing about Tagalog is that most of the time the words are spelt as they sound. And I cannot for the life of me work out WHY there needs to be a particular focus in a sentence which definitely quadruples the number of words required and confusion rendered to a Westerner. “Aaah” the locals say “Tagalog is clever because as soon as you hear the verb you know what the focus of the sentence is.” (they start the sentence with the verb as well which is also the opposite to English) Honestly, knowing the focus of the sentence is the least of my worries when I’m trying to work out the meaning of all of the other words, which order they go in, which time tense to use and where to use the tones/gluttal stop etc etc etc……

Please forgive me for offloading this onto you…typing this has made me feel better. I’m sure anyone learning a new language has the same difficulties. Any Filipino readers, no offence intended. I love your country…honestly! And please keep learning English :)

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