Monthly Archives: May 2014

Learning Filipino / Tagalog From Scratch

On May 1st, I started learning Tagalog.

There are well over a hundred and fifty distinct languages in the Philippines – languages, not dialects – but only two of them have official language status: Filipino (or Tagalog) and English. Estimates place the number of Tagalog-speakers at over 24 million worldwide – five of whom just happen to be my husband, his siblings and his parents.

learning Tagalog

Because the only thing that’s cooler than a thumbs-up is a thumbs-up with a Filipino flag painted on your hand. (Photo by domdeen @

I’d planned on starting with Pimsleur. I think that Pimsleur is a decent introductory language program. It helps with pronunciation, and starts building automaticity right from the beginning. And it’s also free from the library. Bonus!

So I tried the first Tagalog lesson at the dining room table, with JP sitting next to me.

me: *repeating along happily
him: Nobody talks like that. 
me: No, but look! It’s Conversational Tagalog. See?!
him: … 
me: There are half-hour lessons! All audio! I can practice every day! 
him: … 
me: It’ll be awesome
him: Nobody talks like that.

So much for Pimsleur.

And so, after a few weeks of trial and error, I’ve settled on a few different resources which I’m hoping will help me learn to talk like a real, live person.

tagalogbookTara, Mag-Tagalog Tayo! This textbook and workbook, with MP3 audio, is forming the backbone of my learning at this point. It’s meant to be used in a classroom, so I have to adapt some of the activities. Having access to a native speaker is really helpful, since I can ask JP to clarify vocabulary, do role-plays and read through dialogues with me. There are some decent dialogues in the audio at full native speed, which I enjoy, although I wish there were more of them. The grammar explanations seem pretty solid, so for now I’m not planning on buying a dedicated grammar book.

Skype tutors. My Tagalog is not yet at a level where I can have conversations. But I can practice very specific skills using vocabulary and sentence structures that I’m working on in my textbook. For now, I’m mainly introducing myself, talking about myself on a very basic level, and asking and answering the same simple questions over and over again. And over and over again. (This is why I have to pay someone to talk to me at this point.) We also read dialogues together to work on my pronunciation, rhythm and intonation. For now, I’m aiming for two half-hour lessons per week. I book all of my tutoring sessions with italki tutors.

Notebook entries. You can also post texts on italki and have them corrected by native speakers. I’ve only posted a few so far, but my goal is to put up a new notebook entry after every lesson. I put any corrections into anki so that I can practice them later.

Filipinopod101. I paid for a one-month subscription to filipinopod101 at an introductory price of a dollar. Unfortunately, the content is lacking and I don’t plan on renewing my subscription. As of now, there are only 20 lessons for absolute beginners, and I’ll finish those by the time my month is up. The lessons that are there offer a decent source of very simple dialogues, although I don’t bother with the full lessons as they’re mostly in English. You can get a free week as a new member, or a month for a dollar after signing up. Hopefully they’ll add more content in the near future.

Anki. I have three anki decks, all of which I’m building myself. The first one has basic vocabulary and sentences from my textbook and tutoring sessions. The second deck is a picture vocabulary deck that I’m building based on the 625-word list from Fluent Forever. The third is an audio deck. After I finish a lesson on filipinopod101 or learn a dialogue in my textbook, I create an audio card with the dialogue, Tagalog transcript, and English translation.

Tracking my learning via a language log. I’ve kept a Spanish learning log on the HTLAL forums since late July of last year. I find that tracking my learning keeps me accountable and creates a record of my progress. I started my Taga-log on day one. You can check it out here.

teachyourselfComplete Filipino: A Teach Yourself Guide. I recently ordered this book with audio. I haven’t received it yet, so I can’t tell you exactly how I’m going to use it. I just knew that I wanted another resource, and I wasn’t having much luck digging around online. I’ve heard very good things about the Teach Yourself language courses, and this one was published in 2011, so I’m hoping that it has modern, colloquial language. At less than 30 dollars, I thought it was worth the gamble.  Let’s hope I was right!

I spend anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes per day on Tagalog. I’m moving very slowly, but I’m OK with that. I’m not in any rush.

Over the next few months, I’ll write more about what I’m doing, what works, what doesn’t, and what you might want to try if you’re interested in learning Tagalog.

Tara, mag-Tagalog tayo!

(Yeah, yeah, I’m totally cheating by just typing out the name of my textbook. But it means “Come on, let’s talk Tagalog”, so I thought it was fitting.)

(Also, please don’t worry if you’re here for the Spanish. Spanish still is – and I suspect will always be – my first language love, and I have absolutely no intention of replacing it. Look for a balance between Tagalog and Spanish learning in future posts.)

The italki World Cup Challenge is almost here!

language_challenge_2014worldcupConfession time: I don’t actually know much about the World Cup. I know that it’s a Very Big Deal, and that people all around this big, beautiful world of ours care very much about its outcome.

But that’s about as far as my World Cup knowledge goes. I know it’s important, but the truth is that it just isn’t a mainstream thing in my world.

What I do know about is language learning. And I know that one of the best ways to ramp up your language level is to commit to actually speaking it with a real, live, human being. So if italki is creating a World Cup challenge to help people learn a language – then sign me up, even if I can’t tell you who I hope wins the World Cup!

How it works

Members pledge 200 italki credits (the equivalent of 20 US dollars) and commit to taking 25 one-hour tutoring sessions during the months of June and July. Anyone who succeeds in the challenge will get back their 20 dollars and win 400 credits (the equivalent of 40 US dollars) which they can use to take even more language classes!

No, the challenge isn’t free. You have to pay your pledge – which you’ll lose if you don’t complete the challenge. And you’ll also have to pay for the language classes that you take. But by investing some money in the challenge, you’re much more likely to actually complete it.

Is it worth it?

I say yes. I learned Spanish to a relatively advanced level in a year – and much of the credit for that goes to my intensive sessions with italki teachers.  I just counted out of curiosity, and I’ve taken 96 classes with various teachers since I started using italki in July of 2013. I took part in an italki challenge last summer, and was amazed at the progress that I made in a very short period of time.

I believe – both as a teacher and as a student – that languages are about people, and that language learning works best when it involves connections with other human beings. I can make my way page-by-page through a workbook, watch a dozen movies, and memorize 2000 vocabulary words – but until I actually have a conversation with someone, then I can’t really test what I know.

So yes, I’m definitely a fan of Skype tutoring sessions.

Even if you aren’t planning on taking part in the challenge, or if you don’t have the budget right now to pay for one-on-one language classes, it’s still well worth your while to check out italki. There are lots of ways that italki can help you learn a language, most of them free!

I’ve signed up for the challenge. In June and July, I’ll be taking 25 hours’ worth of one-on-one language lessons. My goal: 18 half-hour Tagalog sessions (for a total of 9 hours) and 16 one-hour Spanish sessions.

Care to join me?

Special offer until the end of May

If you’re thinking about signing up for italki, you might want to consider doing it before the end of May. New members purchasing credits using this link will get 10 dollars’ worth of free credits.

Disclaimer: if anyone signs up using this link, I will also get some free italki credits, at no extra cost to you. These are the only affiliate links you’ll see on my blog. And I only link to italki because I believe that it works. I’ve taken 96 lessons with professional teachers and community tutors on italki since July 2013. If that isn’t a vote of confidence, then I don’t know what is!

Home from the Camino de Santiago.

Well, we did it.

Over the course of 37 days, my Dad and I walked nearly 800 kilometres, from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago in Spain.

camino de santiago

What I saw through most of the trip: my Dad’s back. He’s fast!

The Camino de Santiago was everything that I’d hoped that it would be: challenging, inspiring, exciting, adventurous, fun. We’ve been home for 19 days now. Almost three weeks. I figured that I’d have put up several blog posts by now to share my experiences.

But the truth is that I was still processing everything. And I came home really sick, and then I got called in to work early to take care of a mess there, and then I was kind of overwhelmed and decided to spend my evenings binge-watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix.  I still haven’t fully processed my trip, looked at my photos, or even unpacked.

Things are settling down now. I miss Spain, but I’m happy to be home with my family. Life is getting back to its regular busy, happy whirlwind.

Did I love Spain? 

Yes, yes, a million times yes! The food, the people, the scenery, the wine…Spain is in my blood now. And did I mention the wine?

Walking 25 km a day leads to a very interesting state of mind. Every day was essentially the same – get up, eat, walk, stop for coffee, walk, stop for lunch, walk, stop for a beer, walk, find a bed, wash socks in the sink, write in a journal, connect with other walkers in the albergue, eat, drink wine, talk, laugh, go to bed early and repeat – and yet every day was completely different.

Leon Cathedral

Cathedral in Leon

Was my Spanish good enough for my trip?

Yes, absolutely. 

I was able to chat with local bar owners and hospitaleros. The more I chatted, the more my confidence increased, until I no longer hesitated at all before jumping into conversations with strangers. In the beginning, I felt shy. By the end, I just wanted to talk and talk and talk to everyone! 

Even better, I was able to forge friendships with Spanish peregrinos. While walking the Camino de Santiago, strong friendships can take hold very quickly. I was pleased to find that I could talk about just about anything with my new friends, both simple and more complex. My listening comprehension improved to the point that I felt comfortable following along during rapid-fire conversations between 5+ Spaniards at a time (although of course there were times when I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Ha!). 

It took some time to get used to the way that Spaniards interrupt each other! Conversations are very loud and boisterous – even more so than they are in my loud and boisterous family. I took it as a compliment when my new friends interrupted and talked over me – I figured that it meant that they accepted me as “one of them”. Conversations were never boring.


Free tapas in Astorga – be still my heart!

My best language experience:

The albergue in Grañon – a beautiful, rustic hostel within a church, where you sleep on mats in the loft – is a magical place. Peregrinos gather to share food and stories over a communal meal, and then participate in a sharing circle to talk about their hopes for their camino. By beautiful coincidence, my French, English and Spanish meant that I was able to communicate with all of the 11 other pilgrims sharing the albergue with us.

The hospitalero asked me to translate the sharing circle between all three languages, which I gladly did. I retold French-speakers’ stories in Spanish and English; English-speakers’ in French and Spanish; and French- speakers’ in English and Spanish. Sharing people’s stories like that, seeing them smile at each other, knowing that I was helping people communicate across language barriers…it was a truly special moment for me.

I acted as a translator in some capacity almost every day, sometimes during large noisy multi-lingual communal meals, other times when someone needed help finding supplies in a pharmacy. I had to talk on the phone in Spanish a few times – now THAT was hard! But I managed!

camino de santiago markers

Just follow the arrows…

Did my Spanish improve?

Honestly? I’m not sure.

I really don’t think that it did, at least not technically speaking. The experience of the camino is such that you find yourself talking about the same things over and over again. After the steep adjustment of the first few weeks, I’d say that I coasted during the last month. 

But in other ways, I guess that I did improve! My confidence sky-rocketed, so that I jumped into loud group conversations without any hesitation. When asking for very simple things that I asked for over and over again (a bed in an albergue; directions to the next town; a beer at a bar), I was mistaken at times for a Spaniard. Of course, a few more sentences, and that fell to pieces! But still, I assume that my accent, speed and rhythm improved.

So what now? 

Good question.

I joined the Super Challenge on HTLAL, which means that I’ll read 5000 pages and watch 150 hours of television in Spanish before the end of 2015. I’m definitely shifting to using exclusively native materials. More about that in an upcoming post!

I’ve also started learning Tagalog at the rhythm of half an hour a day (more details on that soon!). I have to figure out how to balance my time so that I have enough mental energy to learn some basic Tagalog, continue improving my Spanish, and also read in English.

The next week or two will be about finding that balance – and, of course, getting back into blogging!


Keep moving forward…