Category Archives: Tagalog

Eight Different Anki Cards: a Peek Inside my SRS

Thanks for commiserating with me last week during the Great Whine-Fest of 2014™. I’m happy to report that I didn’t quit, and that taking a big step back this month was a great idea. My motivation is climbing once again. I may even start a new lesson in my Tagalog course next week.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing fun, unstressful language activities: reading books in Spanish, listening to a few podcasts while doing errands, and running through my anki decks every day.

I love anki.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with anki, it’s a free* spaced repetition software that allows you to build your own decks and practice what you’re learning. Difficult words come back more often, and easy words are spaced farther and farther apart,. The algorithm allows you to spend the bulk of your time on new or difficult stuff, while reviewing stuff you already know just often enough to ensure that you don’t forget it.

* Anki is free for desktop and android. The iPhone app is quite expensive at 25 dollars.

I started using anki in May 2013, and – with the exception of a 6-week break in March/April while I was walking the Camino de Santiago – I’ve used it nearly every day since.

Here’s a look at anki when I opened it this morning:


I have five decks that I run through most days:

French – vocabulary: words that my students stump me with. Sometimes a student will ask me something like “How do you say hinge in French?” and my mind draws a blank. I add those words to anki to help me become a better teacher. This is my smallest deck, with between 0 and 3 reviews most day.

Spanish – basic vocabulary: English-Spanish deck that I started in May 2013. I don’t add new words every day, although I do try to add a bunch every week or two. Most of the cards are very simple word-for-word translations, sometimes with a few examples. As I’ve grown as a language learner, my cards have gotten more varied.

Spanish – practice makes perfect: cards built from the exercises in the Practice Makes Perfect workbooks. Most of them are either English-Spanish translations of sentences, or else cloze sentences with missing words.

Tagalog: a variety of cards all mixed up together. By the time I started learning Tagalog in May 2014, I didn’t want to clutter up my anki dashboard with more decks. My Tagalog deck includes vocabulary cards; grammar cards; translation cards; audio cards; and conversation cards. This deck takes about 3/4 of the time that I spend on anki every day.

libros: sentences pulled from novels. These are mainly words that I want in my passive vocabulary. Reviewing the cards in this deck is pleasant, quick and very unstressful.

So what might you see if you opened one of my decks?

1. vocabulary: L1 -> L2

These are words that I want to be able use when speaking or writing. They come from everywhere and anywhere: Skype conversations, books, courses, articles, texts that I’ve written, movies or TV shows.  A lot of the cards in this deck are very simple (one word on each side), while others include example sentences.


2. vocabulary: L2 -> L1

Most of my Spanish vocabulary cards go from English to Spanish. They worked very well for me, so I followed the same pattern when building my Tagalog deck. Except that I found myself reading or listening to a sentence filled with familiar words that I couldn’t process!

I knew that happy = masaya, but for some reason this didn’t necessarily translate to masaya = happy. And so, for tricky words in Tagalog, I build two cards, one going from English to Tagalog and the second going from Tagalog to English.


3. picture vocabulary

Don’t like translations? Picture cards are great for concrete nouns and verbs. I really like picture cards, but they do take longer to create.


4. sentences from novels

I started creating cards by pulling sentences from novels this month, when I realized that using an ereader meant that I could both read extensively and highlight unknown words without breaking my flow. After finishing En Llamas, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy, I went back through the highlighted words and added some to anki. These are often words that I was able to understand from context, but that I’d like to add to my passive vocabulary.


5. sentence translation

While some learners will avoid translation at all costs, I find it very useful at times. I use translated sentences to practice grammar and sentence structure:

I also use translated sentences to help build my ability to carry on conversations:


6. cloze deletion

I use cloze cards in a relatively unsophisticated way, usually to practice grammar concepts (por vs para; ser vs estar; verb tenses). There are some much more creative uses of cloze deletion in language learning, and it’s definitely something that I’d like to explore further!


7. conversation practice

I created these cards when I was first starting to learn Tagalog. I found myself needing to repeat the same short conversations or descriptions over and over again. While I did this with tutors and with my husband, I also found it very useful to practice out loud by myself.

In this card, I’ve put a question on the front (Do you have any siblings?) and prompts on the back (name, work, residence, description, etc)


8. audio

I add audio cards very intermittently. On the front, I add an mp3 audio clip from one of my courses (nothing is actually written on that side of the card). On the back, I put the transcript in Tagalog. I find spaced repetition of audio extremely useful, but I’ll admit that these cards take a bit more effort to make – and so I don’t make as many of them as I might.


So there you have it! My anki decks!

It might seem like a lot, but I’m actually kind of lazy.

The vast majority of my anki cards are very quick to make (hence the very limited picture and audio cards).

I like to keep my total daily time on anki at around 20 minutes, so if it starts taking much longer than that, I lower the number of new cards per day.



I hope that you found something in this post useful! If you use anki, please share in the comments how you organize your cards or decks!

Motivation (Or Lack Thereof): a Rant of Sorts

OK guys, let me just say it:

I’m seriously struggling with motivation right now.

Not with Spanish. My love affair with Spanish continues unabated. If I could do nothing but watch TV in Spanish, read books in Spanish, twirl in flower-filled meadows with Spanish, then I’d have no major complaints.

But Tagalog? Tagalog and I are going through A Rough Patch.


Please…tell me more.
(source: ambro on

I’m not sure what it is…

  • The fact that I still babble like a toddler after nearly six months of daily study?
  • The fact that native material is so far beyond my grasp that the only texts that I can sort-of-kind-of-mostly understand are in my textbook?
  • The fact that I still find myself falling into the trap of translating word for word every time I try to express myself?
  • The fact that I can understand every single word in a sentence, and yet have no stinking clue what the sentence actually means?

I’m going to go with all of the above.

This isn’t a post about ways to keep up motivation when it’s lagging. It isn’t a post about pulling the positive from the negative. I’m not looking for encouragement, or tips, or suggestions.

No, this post is about complaining! Whining! Grumbling and groaning! 

Oh come on, don’t tell me that you don’t enjoy a good whine every now and then.

Here’s the thing: I don’t really like doing packaged language courses.

When I was learning Spanish, I had so many resources to pick and choose from. I could play games, read interesting articles with full audio, watch TV made for learners, listen to great podcasts, even read simple books within a few months.

(And yes, I do realize how annoying that last paragraph is if you’re currently feeling about Spanish the way that I’m feeling about Tagalog. Sorry. Please feel free to tell me off in the comments.)

Only a bit of what I did in Spanish felt like work: anki, grammar exercises, audio drills. But it was ok to do the boring stuff, because it helped me have more fun with the fun stuff.

Well, in Tagalog right now, everything is the boring stuff.

I want the fun stuff! Where is the fun stuff?


It’s OK. I’m OK.

This is just that predictable 5.26 month itch.

I’ll keep doing my daily study for the month of October: anki, memrise, reviewing what I’ve already learned, working a bit in Elementary Tagalog, clawing my way through every painfully tiny bit of progress.

This too shall pass.



Graeme Weatherston

In the meantime, please grab some cheese and a glass of whine, and share your language-learning woes in the comments. Come on guys…tell me I’m not alone in this.

(Please note: this is a positivity-free zone. I reserve the right to delete any inappropriately upbeat or helpful comments. Remember what no one’s mom used to say: if you can’t say something grumpy, then don’t say anything at all.)

“Let it Go” from Disney’s Frozen – a Treasure Trove for Language Lovers

In case you didn’t know, Disney’s Frozen was big last year. Really big.

Let It Go was the song of the hour. You’ll find video after video on YouTube, some with millions of hits: parodies, covers, children belting it out in the carseat.

It’s everywhere.

There haven’t been any official translations of Disney movies into Tagalog, but the talented DisneyDubAmy on YouTube has translated and recorded several Disney songs. Let It Go was the very first Tagalog song that I learned. And trust me when I tell you – I sing it loud enough that the dog leaves the room!

For side-by-side English and Tagalog lyrics of Bumitaw, click here.

Tip: you have to sing it loud.

While Bumitaw is an unofficial Tagalog translation, the song (and the movie) have been officially translated into dozens of different languages. Try googling “let it go + your target language” and see what pops up.

I like both the Latin American Spanish version by Carmen Sarahí and the Castilian Spanish version by Gisela. If you’re learning French, the gorgeous Anaïs Delva performs in both the Canadian and the European versions.

Actually, all of the singers who voice Elsa are incredibly talented, as you can see from this video in 25 languages:

What’s that you say?

You’d like to translate Let It Go for yourself, with the help of Google Translate?

Well, I’m happy to report that it’s already been done for you! Melinda Kathleen Reese ran the lyrics through multiple layers of Google Translate, and ended up with this masterpiece:

(And if you think that’s good, you should check out her versions of Wrecking Ball or Royals.)

Now go! Sing! Twirl in the snow! Unleash your inner Disney princess!

I know that I will. Much to the dog’s dismay.

Monthly Language Update – August 2014

Maybe it’s the years that I spent in school – as both a student and a teacher – but I always feel as though September is the start of a new year!

With regards to languages, though, I don’t have any radical changes planned. I’ll keep moving forward in the same way that I have been over the past few months.

Spanish Update for the Month of August:

Goals for August:

  • Finish El último héroe del Olimpo DONE! 
  • Watch at least eight TV show episodes – DONE!
  • Finally finish up the last few chapters of my Practice Makes Perfect Verb Tenses book – DONE!

Super Challenge Update

I continued chipping away at the Super Challenge, a massive-input challenge with a goal of reading 100 50-page “books” and watching 100 90-minute “films” in Spanish by December 31st 2015.

spanishchildrensnovelsreading – 30.2 “books” completed

This month I finally finished the fifth and final Percy Jackson book, El último héroe del Olimpo. If I’m honest with myself, I was done with this series after book three, but I finished all five out of sheer stubbornness.

Overall, I liked the series. The author obviously did his research, and I loved all of the Greek gods, monsters and heroes. That said, by the fifth book, reading started to feel like a chore.

I started reading Los Juegos del hambre, and I was pleased to find that I’m enjoying it much more.

aquinohayquienvivawatching – 16 “films” completed

I watched four more episodes of Aqui No Hay Quien Viva (“No One Could Live Here“) on YouTube. I mentioned it last month – it’s a silly, funny, light comedy show with 90+ episodes. We tend to watch a lot of dark, violent shows with immoral characters – Hell on Wheels,
The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones – so it’s nice to watch something upbeat in Spanish.

It’s also interesting from a language-learner’s perspective, because there are lots of different registers in the show. The characters come from different generations, social and educational backgrounds, and they each have their own way of speaking.

I also watched three episodes of Buffy la Cazavampiros and one episode of Los Simpsons.

Other Spanish this month:

I finally finished the Practice Makes Perfect Spanish Verb Tenses book! I started working in this workbook over a year ago, but I put it away for months and months. It feels good to finish. Now I just have to apply the more complex grammatical constructions during conversations.

During the month of August, I spent four hours talking in Spanish over Skype with two tutors – four and a half hours fewer than during the month of July.

I’m still listening to Buenos Días América most weekday morning. I’ve also listened to several interesting podcasts on RTVE. In particular, I enjoyed Tanzania, la tierra del Kilimanjaro on Nómadas and El español y su importance creciente on Futuro Abierto.

Goals for September:

Tagalog Update for the Month of August:

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been learning Tagalog for four months now! Let me tell you, I am learning slooooowly. I don’t feel like I’ve improved much over the past month, despite focusing on the language for more than an hour every day. I keep reminding myself that I’m in no rush to learn.

Goals for August:

  • Finish lessons 8 and 9 of Elementary Tagalog – DONE!
  • Finish units 7 and 8 of Teach Yourself Filipino – DONE!
  • Find a good children’s TV show – DONE! (variety of short cartoons and stories)
  • Learn to sing a song in Tagalog – DONE! (Bumitaw)

tagalogbookCourses: Elementary Tagalog and Teach Yourself

This month, I worked through lessons 8 and 9 in Elementary Tagalog. In July I learned how to use mag- verbs. In August, I learned -um- verbs. They’re definitely a bit trickier for me, but I do feel that I’m getting more comfortable with verbs in general.

In August, I also worked through units 7 and 8 in Teach Yourself. The topics in both courses complement one another, although I find that I rely more on Elementary Tagalog for grammar explanations.

Other Tagalog this month:

  • Spoke on Skype for six hours and forty-five minutes with two italki tutors
  • Listened to three newbie podcasts on KalyeSpeak
  • Created a 30-minute YouTube playlist of short Tagalog songs, stories and cartoons
  • Transcribed and translated a short Tagalog cartoon: Pixie Can Share
  • Read nearly every day from my book bin full of easy stuff
  • Learned to sing Bumitaw (the unofficial Tagalog version of Let It Go) – very loudly
  • Kept up with my anki and memrise decks

Goals for September:

  • Finish lessons 10 and 11 of Elementary Tagalog 
  • Finish units 9 and 10 of Teach Yourself Filipino 
  • Learn to sing two new Tagalog songs
  • Transcribe two more short Tagalog cartoons
  • Translate four more Napoleon easy readers

Happy September, everyone! What are your language goals for this month?

Pixie Can Share – short cartoon with Tagalog transcript and English translation

One of my goals for the month of August was to find a children’s show in Tagalog that I enjoyed. Last month, I watched a few episodes of Jollitown, but they felt a bit like half-hour fast food commercials with more English than Tagalog.

After some digging, though, I found lots of short cartoons from Jollitown on YouTube.

I like them because the voice actors use normal children’s voices, not the awful squeaky cartoon voices that I find hard to understand in any language. They’re a bit heavy-handed with “the moral of the story is…“, but they use simple, natural, conversational language – which is exactly what I need right now.

Yesterday I spent the better part of an hour transcribing a four-minute cartoon. It was a huge challenge for me, but it’s amazing how clear and slow everything seems now that I actually know the words that are being said.

(Many thanks to J for helping me with the many, many words that I guessed and butchered!)

Since I went through the trouble of transcribing it, I figured that some of you might be able to use it!

**Spoiler alert: Pixie is pretty bratty, and she’s a champion fake-crier. And while the narrator claims that she changes at the end, I remain skeptical.**

Pixie Can Share

PDF with Tagalog transcripts and English translation: PixieCanShare

I’ve almost certainly made mistakes – please feel free to correct me!


This is just a screenshot, so don’t drive yourself crazy multi-clicking on the play button. I just put it here for the *millions* of people pinning Tagalog learning resources.

Reading Easy Stuff

readingesasytextsI used to teach grade one French immersion. My students came to me without a word of French, and were expected to function exclusively in that language within just a few months. At least a third of them spoke a language other than English at home.

These kids had to learn to read. And they had to do it in French.

By the end of the school year, all of those six-year-olds could read – in their second (or third) language.

After having taught reading and literacy to children for years, I’m a firm believer in the importance of easy books. The kids who advance the fastest aren’t the ones who cart thick books around with them or the ones who start “reading” chapter books before they can sound out simple words. The kids who learn the fastest are the ones who take in a steady diet of just-right books.

For children, an independent reading level is 95%. That means that – in order to best benefit from a text – a child should be able to make out more or less 95% of the words on his or her own. Anything less than that, and the result will probably be frustration, boredom and lack of progress.

So what does this have to do with you? 

Well, if you’re learning a language, then you’re probably reading. Lots of language learners focus on intensive reading, where you might re-read the same text multiple times, combing through it for new words, grammatical structures, and expressions. That’s important work.

But no less important is extensive reading: reading lots, for pleasure, without stopping to look up words unless absolutely necessary. It’s my favourite kind of reading, the kind that has the biggest impact on my progress. And I think that the 95% number can be applied to extensive reading for adult language learners.

I talked about how to do this when I shared how I was using children’s novels to learn Spanish:

I aim for 95% (or better) comprehension for extensive reading. Anything less than 95%, and a book is probably better suited for intensive rather than extensive reading. To figure out if a book is the right level for you, choose a random page. Count the number of lines on the page, and the number of words on one line. Multiply the number of words on one line by the number of lines on the page, and then multiply that number by 0.05.

Using a page of Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate as an example:

  • 29 lines on the page
  • 10 words in a line
  • 29 x 10 = 290
  • 290 x 0.05 = 14.5

So if there are any more than 14 unknown words on that page [that you can’t easily infer from context], then it’s not at a 95% comprehension level. Read the page, counting the words that you don’t know. If there are fewer than 14 – then you’re good to go. Any more than 14, and you might find the frustration level too high to really enjoy the experience of reading for pleasure.

from Using Children’s Novels to Learn Spanish

That’s all well and good if you can find books that you can read. But what if your reading level is so low that a novel that you can read with 95% comprehension simply doesn’t exist?

(ahem…me and my new friend Tagalog)

So where can you find just-right texts if you’re at a low level in the language? Is extensive reading even a possibility at this level? Yes, it absolutely is. And what’s more, I think that it’s crucial for beginners to read and re-read a variety of texts for pleasure – no matter what their level may be.

Enter the book bin!


A book bin is exactly what it sounds like:

A bin. Of books.

Of course, you can also use a box, a shelf, a bag or a pile on your nightstand. Or you could just collect all of your texts electronically on a tablet, if that’s what floats your boat! The important thing is to have a collection of just-right texts that you can read with a high degree of understanding.

My Book Bin Filled With Just-Right Tagalog Texts

tagalogsonglyricssong lyrics

I haven’t learned all that many Tagalog songs yet. But when I do learn one, I make myself a lyric sheet with the Tagalog on the right and the English transliteration on the left. This song sheet is from the unofficial Tagalog version of Disney Frozen’s Let It Go. While I’m more likely to read while singing to the YouTube video at the top of my lungs, sometimes I like to just read the words.

tagalogdialoguestexts from courses

I’ve made a book with copies of reading comprehension exercises from one of my language courses. Depending on the length, I either type them out or scan them after working through them in the lesson. These are texts that I’ve already read intensively. I usually spend a few minutes of every session reading at least a page, marking my place so that I can pick up where I left off next time.

tagalogstorybilingual picture books

Bilingual picture books are a great resource for beginners! I bought four bilingual Tagalog-English picture books from Pinoy Culture in Toronto. Each page has text in both Tagalog and English. I read the Tagalog, trying to understand it as best I can, and then read the English, matching the words.

tagalogeasyreaderhomemade easy readers

I have a set of easy readers that my young students loved in French. They use very simple, straightforward sentences, with lots of repetition and simple present tense verbs. I’m working on translating them into Tagalog, with the help of my husband and tutors. I use sticky notes to cover the French text, creating lift-the-flap bilingual books.

tagalognotebooklanguage notebook

I mentioned my tutoring notebook in an earlier post. It’s a collection of useful phrases, vocabulary, paragraphs that I’ve worked on with my tutor – basically anything that I’ve learned during a session and that I know I’ll want to review again. I find it especially useful to re-read corrected paragraphs, since I generated them myself and they’re full of the words that I personally need.

hardtagalogbooksomething too hard

I always let my students have one aspirational book in their bin. Usually it was something non-fiction with lots of pictures of trucks, baby animals, or snakes eating rats. This is my aspirational book: a Tagalog picture book about the People Power Revolution of 1986. I haven’t yet felt the urge to push my way through a page or two – but it’s there in case I feel like it one day.

So how do I use a book bin?

The answer is ridiculously simple:

  1. Collect a variety of readable texts
  2. Set a timer for 10, 15 or 20 minutes
  3. Read

It doesn’t matter what I read, or in what order. All of the texts in the bin are useful, so I just read whatever I feel like first, and then pick up something else. I might read the same picture book three times one day, understanding a bit more every time. The following day I might focus solely on texts that I’ve already read intensively, so that I understand almost every word that I read. It really doesn’t matter. I don’t stop reading until the timer sounds.

And that’s it.

Easy, right?

I’ve got an extra chair on the front porch and some hot water in the kettle if you care to join me.


Why am I Learning Tagalog?

When I tell people that I’m learning Tagalog, I generally get one of two reactions:

  1. Taga-what?
  2. Oh. (pause…) Why?

The fact is that most Filipinos speak beautifully in English. I don’t need to learn the language. But, despite that, it just made sense to choose Tagalog as my first non-European language.

source: Vlado on

source: Vlado on

So why Tagalog?

For love. My husband immigrated from the Philippines in his mid-20s. Never mind that he speaks perfect English. Never mind that we’ve been together for 13 years and I’ve never felt any need at all to learn Tagalog. Never mind that he’s perplexed and a bit amused at the fact that I’m learning Tagalog. I’m doing it for love. Right?

(By the way, whoever said that marrying a native speaker was a foolproof way to learn a language – you’re a big liar.)

For family. My in-laws can all speak English very well. When I’m in the room, they speak English. But they speak to one another in Tagalog when I’m not part of the conversation, and J is constantly engaged in rapid-fire Taglish on the phone with his parents or siblings. While I don’t need to speak Tagalog to be fully integrated in the family, I’d really like to wow everyone with my Tagalog conversation skills in the nearish future. So I guess you could say that I’m doing it to impress my in-laws. Luckily for me, they’re very easy to impress.

For money. Nah, just kidding.

For daily run-ins with Tagalog-speakers. There are a lot of Filipinos in Canada. Walk down a street in any major city, and you’ll probably cross some Tagalog-speakers. Once I learn Tagalog, I’ll be able to eavesdrop on even more people on the subway! I’ll also have lots of opportunities to practise once we move back to Toronto.

For travel. We’re hoping to go to the Philippines in the next few years. Of course, we’re  interested in visiting areas with local languages other than Tagalog, but we’ll also spend some time in Manila and the surrounding areas.

For sheer language-loving fun. Code-switching (changing from one language to another when speaking) is not only accepted in Tagalog, it is Tagalog. Tagalog – or “Taglish” – is peppered with English words, expressions and interjections, to the point that today’s Tagalog is a rapidly changing language. From a linguistic perspective, I find this absolutely fascinating. Tagalog offers the challenge of a completely different grammatical backbone, while still using the Roman alphabet. And if I don’t know how to say a word, I can just say it in English with a Filipino accent, and no one will care. Perfect, right?

Why Tagalog?

Well…why not?

What made you decide to learn a language?

Monthly Language Update – July 2014

July’s been an interesting month! I’m on holidays, which should mean that I have more time for languages. But the truth is that the less I have to do, the less I get done!

Still, I’ve managed to do at least some Spanish and some Tagalog nearly every single day. I call that a success!

Spanish Update for the Month of July:

Super Challenge Update

Just in case you missed earlier mentions of the Super Challenge, it’s a massive-input challenge. The goal is to read 100 50-page “books” and watch 100 90-minute “films” in your target language by December 31st 2015. This challenge is perfect me because…

  • I’m at a level where I need massive input in Spanish
  • I like the long-term marathon feel of the challenge
  • I’m really lazy and I like that I can track my progress simply by tweeting updates

spanishchildrensnovelsreading – 23.3 “books” completed

I’ve decided to stop counting articles for the Super Challenge, and to only log actual books or novels. This month I finished the fourth Percy Jackson book, La Batalla del Laberinto and started the final book in the series. I’m most definitely ready to be finished with this series! I’m less than a quarter of the way through El Último Héroe del Olimpo, so that will probably keep me busy for most of August.

Once I finish, I have three books to choose from: Los Juegos del Hambre, Harry Potter y el Prisionero de Azkaban and Como Agua Para Chocolate. I’m not sure which one I’ll end up reading first, but I hope to start before the end of the month

aquinohayquienvivawatching – 12 “films” completed

On my tutor’s recommendation, I started watching Aqui No Hay Quien Viva (“No One Could Live Here“) on YouTube. It’s a silly comedy about a group of nosy, obnoxious, ridiculous people living in an apartment block. Apparently it was very popular in Spain when it was airing. It’s a challenge to watch comedy, since I don’t understand every single word. But it’s a good challenge!

I’ve also started watching El Tiempo Entre Costuras (“The Time in Between“) on DramaFever. It’s a period drama set during the Spanish Civil War. The costumes are beautiful and the story is compelling.

Other Spanish this month:

During the month of July, I spent eight and a half hours talking in Spanish over Skype – seven 60-minute sessions with tutors and three 30-minute sessions with a language partner. Some days the words just pour out of my mouth. Other days…not so much.

I also listened to a lot of podcasts. I try to listen to a minimum of 30 minutes per day, while walking the dog or working around the house.

Goals for August:

  • Finish El Último Héroe del Olimpo
  • Watch at least eight TV show episodes
  • Finally finish up the last few chapters of my Practice Makes Perfect Verb Tenses book

Tagalog Update for the Month of July:

I spent a week with my Tagalog-speaking in-laws, which was a very cool experience. It wasn’t exactly immersion, since they spoke a lot of English, but when they were speaking Tagalog, I was able to pick out a lot of words and express myself using simple sentences. Everyone – parents, siblings, uncles, cousins, various other people who are related (or not) in various other ways –  was extremely encouraging.

Fact: it’s very easy to impress my Tagalog-speaking family!

tagalogbookTara, Mag-Tagalog Tayo!

This week, I completed lesson seven in this book.

Each lesson includes a variety of exercises: grammar, reading comprehension, listening comprehension, writing, vocabulary. I like the pace of the lessons, and really enjoy working my way through the book.

In lesson 7, I finally started learning to use verbs, which has really opened up a lot of possibilities during conversations. I’m starting to feel like I’m building a strong base in the language, which is exciting. I use this resource nearly every day.

teachyourselfTeach Yourself Complete Filipino

I just finished unit 6 in this book.

This turned out to be an excellent choice as a secondary resource. Each lesson includes various dialogues and exercises, following a family living in the Philippines. While I do glance at the exercises, my study is mainly focused on the dialogues.

I don’t use Teach Yourself every day, but I do try to learn a new dialogue a few times per week. I listen to each new dialogue multiple times, until I feel completely comfortable with all of the expressions and sentence structures.

Other Tagalog this month:

  • Five hours of Skype conversations with several different italki tutors. I’ve now settled on a few that I really like.
  • Listened to the first three newbie podcasts on KalyeSpeak – a great podcast for learners!
  • Watched the first two episodes of the children’s show Jollitown on YouTube. They were…weird. I don’t know that I’ll be watching any more.
  • Kept up with my anki decks and started working my way through several courses on Memrise

Goals for August:

  • Finish lessons 8 and 9 of Tara, Mag-Tagalog Tayo!
  • Finish units 7 and 8 of Teach Yourself Filipino
  • Find a good children’s TV show
  • Learn to sing a song in Tagalog

Happy August, everyone! What are your language goals for the rest of the summer?

Working With a Language Tutor When You’re a Beginner


I’ve always believed that there’s only one way to learn to speak a language:

speak it.

When learning a language, I like to start working with tutors and conversations partners quite early on – within the first month, in fact.

There’s a danger in starting early, though. Time is long when you don’t have enough words to fill the silence. If your target language is much weaker than your language partner’s, there’s a chance that you’ll fall into the bad habit of speaking English instead of the language that you’re learning. If you’re working with a tutor who’s afraid of silence, you might find yourself following his or her generic lesson plans and learning to conjugate verbs instead of doing the very messy, very individualized work of communicating.

I generally advocate informal conversation as one of the best ways to use a tutor, but when you’re an absolute beginner, an informal conversation can feel like Mount Everest. Luckily, there are lots of different strategies and approaches that you can use as a student to help you make the most of tutoring sessions – right from day one!

(This post contains examples from my current Tagalog study, but the tips are applicable to any language that you might be learning.)

1. Consider starting with shorter sessions.

For the first few weeks, I stick to 30 minute tutoring sessions. Any longer, and my brain starts to melt and I revert to English. Two half-hour sessions are often more useful than one full-hour session. Once half an hour starts to feel too short, I increase the sessions to 45 minutes, and – eventually – a full hour. It’s taken me a little over two months of regular tutoring to get to the point where I have the mental energy to work on Tagalog for 45 minutes.

Warning: on day one, even 30 minutes felt like it was about 28 minutes too long!

But you keep practicing, you keep learning, you keep asking questions – and before you know it, 30 minutes will seem like nothing at all.

2. Consider working with more than one tutor.

By definition, a beginner needs a lot of repetition. To really feel confident, you’ll need to repeat the same conversations – over and over and over again. At the beginning, these will be simple conversations: introducing yourself, talking about the weather (fact: nearly every conversation with someone from the other side of the world will start with the weather), talking about your kids or your wife or your dog or your budgie, talking about your job.

If you work with more than one tutor, you can have the same conversation over and over again – except that you can have it with different people. Not only does this give you even more precious practice, it also mixes up the reactions and questions you’ll get from the other person.


From my italki session schedule: three teachers in three days.

3. Be clear about what you want, right from day one.

You’re the only person responsible for your learning, so it’s your responsibility to be clear about what you want from the start.

When I send a message to a tutor asking for a first session, I start by introducing myself and explaining why and how I’m learning a language. I also let him or her know very clearly what I want:

  • stay in the target language the entire time
  • correct my pronunciation and sentence structure
  • write new words in Skype as they come up
  • don’t plan any lessons in advance – let our conversation lead the lesson

This last one is tricky for some teachers, especially if they have pre-made materials that they like to use with their students. Some tutors are very inflexible or lack confidence and insist on “sticking to the lesson plan”. After giving a teacher like this a few chances to change, I would switch tutors if not satisfied. You’re paying your tutor to provide you with a particular service; if you’re not getting it, then it’s fair to look elsewhere.

4. Make a cheat sheet.

It’s ok to have a cheat sheet. In fact, I think that it’s imperative to have some kind of a cheat sheet.

I have a Tagalog notebook that I use just for tutoring. It has basic greetings, sentences that I use often, a list of “help!” phrases (ie. “I don’t understand”, “Could you please repeat that?”, “How do you say _____?”, etc), words that I want to learn, and so on.


page one of my tutoring notebook: talking about the weather, of course!

I jot down words as I’m doing a tutoring session, write sentences as I’m working through new ideas, and write down vocabulary that I know I’ll need before a session. I look over the last few pages before a tutoring session, leaf through it often while in a conversation, jot notes as I practice, and review afterwards. Pretty much every single word and expression in my notebook ends up in anki, since they’re all words that I need in my active vocabulary. My notebook travels with me everywhere I go, so if I find myself with a few minutes here and there, I can easily review and practice a bit.

5. Use pictures as props.

The cliche would have us believe that a picture is worth a thousand words. Even if you don’t know a thousand words in your target language, a picture can provide a good jumping off point for speaking as an absolute beginner.

Gather photos of special people and places. You can show one to your tutor, and then describe what’s happening in the photo. Depending on  your level, this can range from something extremely simple (This is my brother. He is a man. His name is John.) to more complex descriptions (The man wearing the red shirt is my brother John. He works as a teacher at the high school. He lives in a small town with his family. etc.) From there, you can work with your tutor to expand your descriptions, and practice answering questions about your photo.


Pet-owners know that it’s true: we never run out of things to say about our animals.

To work on your listening and questioning skills, you can ask your tutor to do the same with a picture of someone from his or her family.

6. Try conversation cards.

In the very beginning of learning a language, students find themselves asking and answering lots of simple questions. I created conversation cards so that I could randomize the experience a bit, making it more interesting and challenging.

I cut out cards and hand-wrote a question on each one. Then, on the other side of each card, I wrote some prompts so that I could practice formulating the questions myself. One card, for example, might have the word “ilarawan” (describe) on one side, followed by a list of possible people (sister, mother, brother, friend, pet). If I can’t remember how to structure the question, I can just flip the card over and look at the other side, where I’ve written the question out: “Ilarawan mo ang _______ mo.” (Describe your _________.).

hand-written conversation cards - perfect for practice during tutoring sessions

hand-written conversation cards – perfect for practice during tutoring sessions

Early on, these cards made up the bulk of a half-hour session. I would shuffle the cards, and then my tutor and I would take turns asking each other questions. This let me practice multiple skills: asking questions, making statements, listening to another person’s questions and statements. It also made repeating the same thing over and over a bit more interesting for both of us. As I learn new questions and structures, I can easily create new cards.

For printable conversation cards in English, Tagalog, French and Spanish, as well as a more detailed description of how I use them, click here.

7. Read prepared texts and dialogues.

Reading a text with your tutor can be very useful for working on pronunciation. I don’t spend more than five minutes per half-hour session practicing a dialogue with a tutor, but those five minutes are very useful. I generally send my tutor a short dialogue from one of my Tagalog resources, and then we practice it multiple times:

  • she reads each line and I repeat, while she corrects any errors in pronunciation or rhythm
  • we each take a role and read it in character two or three times
  • we exchange roles and repeat
  • I try to create new sentences using the structures in the dialogue

While I do think that there’s value in reading with a tutor, I don’t believe that it should make up the bulk of the session. Still, it’s another tool in the box!

8. Practice in between sessions.

The importance of ongoing practice simply can’t be over-emphasized!

re-read your notes

If you don’t go over what you’ve learned in between sessions, then very little of it will stick. Make sure that you understand what you worked on, and prepare questions for next time.

talk to yourself

…or to your cat, or to your baby, or to your potted plant, or to your cup of coffee. Describe what you see or narrate what you’re doing. If you get stuck, write yourself a quick note so that you remember to ask your tutor next time you meet.

prepare for the next session

So you can talk about the weather, you can say your name and you can say where you live. What do you want to talk about next time? Maybe you’ll want to talk about your job. Take a few minutes in between sessions to look up important vocabulary and try to create some sentences. This will give you some meat to work with during your next session with your tutor.

practice using flashcards or SRS software

I use anki for spaced-repetition of vocabulary. For Tagalog, in addition to my regular deck, I also created a conversational deck. I put questions in Tagalog on one side (the same ones that I wrote on my conversation cards) and a few useful sentences and prompts in Tagalog on the other side. I have that deck set up with only 3 new cards per day. When I read the question, I answer it out loud, saying as much as I can, then flip the card and try to add more details.

As my spoken skills improve, I add new sentences or details to the back of the card. I never “fail” any of these cards, nor do I mark them as “easy” (even if they are). I’ve been automatically marking them as hard, so they’ll keep coming back at the lowest interval. I’m really pleased with the experience so far! It’s made my Skype conversations much more fluid.


A conversation card with a question (Do you have siblings?) and prompts for possible answers

I don’t expect this to be a “forever” deck like my vocabulary deck. Once I’m feeling comfortable enough with basic conversations, I’ll delete it. But for now, it’s very useful.

keep learning on your own

Whether you use a course, a textbook, a website or a podcast, it’s important to get lots of input from various sources. Read, write and listen to your target language in between tutoring sessions. Tutoring is just one part of a balanced approach to language learning.

Working with a tutor can seem a bit daunting at first, but if you take the plunge, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can progress!

Do you have any other suggestions for working with a tutor when you’re still new to a language?

Looking for a tutor? Italki is an excellent source of talented, affordable tutors from around the world. Let me know if you’re looking for Tagalog or Spanish tutors – I can recommend some very good ones!