The Language Issue

One of the things that many expats to the Philippines want to do is to learn the language. Well, at least we say we want to; in reality once most of us have learned “San Miguel, salamat” our studies end. For me the language thing is a real challenge. I was a good student about 100 years ago but never came close to mastering the two foreign languages I studied for years. I’ll come back to one of those languages later.

Since Janet and I are planning to live in the Philippines and pretty damn soon, I have been trying to learn. The Philippines makes such an endeavor even more complex since there are so many separate languages spoken there. No, I am not talking about different dialects of the same language, but completely different languages. Fortunately Janet speaks Cebuano or Visayan, which is the dominant language in the central part of the Philippines, including Janet’s home of Cebu, as well as Dumaguete, Negros, where we will eventually find ourselves.

So, prior to our recent trip to the Philippines I did some work on language basics. Janet helped, though I sensed it was at times frustrating for her. I worked on simple stuff: please and thank you; good morning/afternoon/evening. That level of language. I also had some help from a new source: Dumaguete vblogger, Bud Brown. You can see him here: @

Bud is a sweet guy, even older than me, and I began to watch his adventures living in Dumaguete. But Bud has an advantage over most of us: he speaks Visayan and Tagalog (the language of Luzon) pretty well. Of course, he developed those skills though hard work and a 40 year relationship with his asawa, Gloria.

The point being, his videos show him speaking Visayan to local residents. For me I find it difficult to learn language via rote memorization and much easier to learn by watching and seeing the words used in context.


For example, one of the first words I learned though Bud is tchinelas – flip flops. He loves to give inexpensive tchinelas to local kids who don’t have any or whose tchinelas are worn to their end of life. Since I love wearing sandals and flip flops I mastered tchinelas, which is pronounced without the “t.” So, say it with me – chin-e-las. Very good, class. Salamat.

Janet and I quickly became fan’s of Bud’s videos and she began to quiz me based on some of the words I was learning.

Once we hit the Philippines, I was determined to use as many Visayan words as I could. I said please and thank you, palihog and salamat, whenever possible. I greeted people with good morning/afternoon/evening, struggling not to confuse maayong buntag, maayong hapon and maayong gabii.

I tried as much as possible and I think people did appreciate it but I find that many Filipinos want to speak English to an American as much as I wanted to speak Visayan to a Filipino. So my maayong buntag would be answered with “good morning, sir.”

I also tried to throw in a smattering of kamusta ka, how are you, and when someone asked me  how I was, I answer maayo, good, because I didn’t know how to say, “OK – waiting for my next San Miguel.”

I did however learn that if you say, Okay lang, as often as possible you sound much more Filipino than if you just say, “okay.” So okay lang became my go to expression.

Our itinerary on this trip was a week in Alcoy, Cebu, a week in Dumaguete, and then a final week in Palawan. While I won’t say that my language skills improved significantly the first couple weeks, I did enjoy trying. We then arrived in Palawan. Unfortunately, Janet had failed to mention that they speak Tagalog in Palawan. So my maayong buntags  failed to elicit the proper response. “They speak Tagalog here,” Janet informed me.

“Tagalog? What good is that?”

“Well some words are the same,” she tried to assure me.

I spent the week mostly saying, “San Miguel, Salamat.”

5 thoughts on “The Language Issue”

  1. Coming from the northern part of the Philippines (Isabela), I grew up speaking Ilocano and Tagalog. My dad’s side of the family speaks Ilocano, and my mom’s side of the family speaks Tagalog. If you’re going to be speaking Visayan most of the time with your wife’s family, relatives, and friends, I suggest you stick to it. Learn as much Visayan as you can. Bill (my husband) is so into learning Tagalog. He has all these Tagalog-English dictionary, audio CD, a book survival phrases in Tagalog and just watching videos on YouTube. These days he got lazy. He just use the Google translator. It works for him. The nasty words worked for him. Don’t know why. Can’t say if he’s getting progress though but he’s trying. When I give him my grocery list, I would write “baboy”, ‘baka, ‘manok’, “gulay”, “isda”. He get those. When I we say goodbye, he would say, O sige ha? Paalam.

    Anyway, learning a new language is fun. While my husband is learning Tagalog, I am also learning Spanish which is the other language that he speaks. I would say it was hard at first, but if you are into it, it makes it easier. Just listen to these people while they talk. They say the same words almost everyday. You will catch up before you know it.

  2. Am here full time for six years now. In the beginning, I learned loads of words and phrases. But last 3 years not much. I can have basic conversation, based around a few hundred words. When others are talking, I usually know what they are talking about, but sometimes I get it completely wrong.

  3. We were over to visit back in March, and my asawa’s family (her uncle in particular) very kindly said “Steve, you really need to learn Tagalog before your next visit.” Sooo, even though I think they all speak more Visayas than Tagalog, I will endeavor to get some Tagalog chops (as we musicians say).

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