Acculturation: Language

Last week, I wrote an article about my acculturation in the Philippines, and told you that over my next few articles I would be expanding on the topic, and focusing in on specific areas where I have become more in step with Philippine culture, and have done things to make my life in the Philippines more enjoyable and more in harmony with my surroundings.  Today, I want to focus in on language.

Anybody who has read this site even just a few times has probably come across some of my articles about language, because it is something I have written about many times over the past 4+ years.  I’ll give a little refresher on the topic while I also go into the acculturation aspect.

My Cebuano Graduation Day with Bebe, September 2011
My Cebuano Graduation Day with Bebe, September 2011

When I first moved to the Philippines, in May 2000, we lived in General Santos City, in South Central Mindanao.  Like most foreigners who move here, I had really no intention or even a flicker of a thought about learning to speak the local language.  Heck, they speak English here, so why would I bother myself with learning to speak any of the local languages?  That’s just a hassle!  Well, one thing you will learn quickly after you move here is that while most Filipinos can speak English, they don’t speak English often, especially if they are in a friendly discussion with others.  For example, if you have a few Filipinos over to your house, they will all sit around and speak in the local language, leaving you sitting there in your own house with basically little or no idea of what they are talking about.  You did the inviting, maybe you are serving them dinner, but basically you are often left out of the rest of the entertainment, because it is almost all in a language that you cannot understand.  The first thing you think is that your guests are rude, because they are not including you in the conversation.  Everybody is sitting around having a wonderful time, laughing, joking, etc, and you are sitting there wondering what is going on, clueless.  It is frustrating.

The next thing that happens is that as you go around town, everybody around you is talking in the local tongue.  You start getting paranoid, and you think they are talking about you.  Maybe sometimes they are, but 99% of the time they are talking about something else, and the conversation has nothing to do with you as you walk by.  You may think it will never happen to you.  But, I’ve had that reaction, and I’ve seen many foreigners get angry and even confront people.  “Why are you talking about me like that,” they say.  The Filipinos are at a loss, because they have no idea what you mean, they were really just talking about their own kids or what happened during dinner last night.  I have seen this happen so many times, and I have had it happen to me too.  Basically, it just makes it look like you are paranoid and crazy.

Why did I move here?

With fellow Cebuano Student Lucky.  Lucky was also a student of my teacher, Bebe.  Lucky and I enjoyed getting together to practice Cebuano.
With fellow Cebuano Student Lucky. Lucky was also a student of my teacher, Bebe. Lucky and I enjoyed getting together to practice Cebuano.

As these things happen, you start feeling a lot worse about living here.  Why did you move?  Why don’t they speak English here?  I thought everybody in the Philippines could speak English.  Well, the fact is, almost everybody here can speak English!  But, it’s not the language of choice.  Many here are shy or ashamed to speak English, especially to a foreigner.  They worry that they will say it wrong, their accent will be misunderstood, maybe the foreigner will laugh at them.  It’s not an unnatural feeling either.  I know that as I learned to speak Cebuano, there was a time when I was very shy to speak Cebuano to the local people.  I feared that I might make a mistake and sound stupid!  Same feeling for the Filipinos in speaking English!

So, after I have lived in the Philippines for about a year or so, some friends from the States came to visit me.  We were sitting out on my porch having some drinks and talking.  One of my friends told me:

Oh, Bob, you would not believe how it is in the States now.  There are so many Mexicans coming up into our country!  They don’t even learn English either!

Oops!  It struck me when he said that.  Let’s see, I am an American.  I am living in the Philippines.  I can’t speak the local language.  At that very moment, I decided that I would learn to speak the language.

Which Language to Learn?

Well, the Philippines has many languages.  As you move around from town to town or region to region, they speak a different language.  The national language is Filipino, which is largely just Tagalog.  Tagalog is the language of the north.  Much of Luzon, particularly central Luzon, speaks Tagalog.  So, I should learn Tagalog, right? Wait!  Not so fast!  In the region where I lived, most people did not use Tagalog.  Oh, they can speak Tagalog, they learned it in school, but the language of choice was Cebuano (Bisaya).  So, learning Tagalog would leave me in the same position as if I only knew how to speak English – I would not understand most of the conversation going on around me.  I would be frustrated with that.  So, I decided to learn Cebuano.

Finding the right teacher

My learning of Cebuano had many pitfalls along the way.  I started in GenSan, and had a good teacher.  But, my teacher had other things to do, and quickly lost interest.  He cancelled the class after only a couple of months.  I quickly found a different teacher, but he was teaching me a lot of Tagalog, saying it was Cebuano, and leaving me very confused.  We were not a good match, so I cancelled with him.  After moving to Davao, I found a third Cebuano teacher.  This lady was an English Professor at Ateneo de Davao University, and she agreed to teach me and a friend during her off time.  She was a good teacher, but I quickly discovered a problem.  You see, I was taking the course with a friend.  He knew no Cebuano at all, I knew not a lot, but much more than he did.  It held me back, and was frustrating to me.  That didn’t work out.

In 2007, I found Bebe Metillo.  Bebe teaches Cebuano as her job.  That is all she does.  Up until I met Bebe, she taught only Missionaries.  I was not a Missionary, but I really wanted to learn how to speak Cebuano.  Bebe was hesitant to take a non-Missionary, but she agreed to give it a try.  I studied with Bebe for 4 years, finally graduating from the class in September 2011.  I am now fluent in Cebuano, and I have no problem carrying on a conversation in Cebuano.  In fact, it is my personal policy that if I go out to town, or basically anywhere outside the house, I try to speak only Cebuano.  Of course, there are exceptions, like if I see other foreigners while I am out, or if I am out specifically for a meeting with a foreigner.  When that happens, of course I speak English.  Oh, but I do have a few foreign friends who can also speak Cebuano, and when that is the case, we mix up the language, much like Filipinos do.  We speak a mixture of English and Cebuano.

Learning the language changed my life

My Cebuano Coaches at Bankerohan Market.  I tried to go to Bankerohan Public Market at least once per week to practice language with the local people.  I made a lot of friends there.
My Cebuano Coaches at Bankerohan Market. I tried to go to Bankerohan Public Market at least once per week to practice language with the local people. I made a lot of friends there.

What I know from my language experience in the Philippines is that my life is a lot more enjoyable since I learned the language.  I understand what people are saying around me, and when I am walking by, I really never hear people talking about me, even though that is a paranoid thought that a lot of foreigner have!  Not only is my life more enjoyable, I also find it quite entertaining and enjoyable to go places like the public market, and engage in conversation with many of the vendors and such.  There is really nothing much like the feeling you get when you start speaking Cebuano to a Filipino who doesn’t have any idea that you can speak the language.  They open up and are instant friends when they find out that you can speak the language.

One thing that you hear from a lot of foreigners is about the “skin tax” in the Philippines, meaning that they charge higher prices for foreigners.  Well, let me tell you, when you can speak the language, you just don’t have that problem.  People treat you fairly and don’t try to overcharge you and such.  When foreigners complain about the skin tax, I often urge them to learn a little of the language, it will really help a lot when it comes to prices and such.

Language is the key to acculturation

So, probably the biggest part of my acculturation to the Philippines has been through learning the language.  In fact, I plan to start learning Tagalog this year too!  Also, I will say that probably every other aspect of my acculturation, which I will continue covering in coming weeks, stems from the learning of the language.  It seems to me that by learning the language, you come to have a better understanding of the culture, and why Filipinos think the way they do.

Learning the language is, without a doubt, the best thing I’ve done since moving to the Philippines.  I should have done it earlier!

Post Author: MindanaoBob (1354 Posts)

Bob Martin is the Publisher & Editor in Chief of the Live in the Philippines Web Magazine. Bob is an Internet Entrepreneur who is based in Davao. Bob is an American who has lived permanently in Mindanao since May 2000. Here in Mindanao, Bob has resided in General Santos City, and now in Davao City. Bob is the owner of this website and many others.

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  1. Joseph says

    Unfortunately, I have about the worst ear for languages imaginable and I truly would love to be able to converse in languages like: Spanish, Mandarin and because I live here Visaya or Tagalog. Next best thing is my 4 year old daughter is learning them all. In a way better I don’t know visaya because when I get extremely irritated with some Filipino and then I curse them out and scream at them in English, they generaly have no clue (as in the case with most things). Imagine how much trouble I’d get in if I did this in Visaya. My wife has enough challenges with me and interaction with Filipinos as it is as it is ha ha ha ha.

      • Joseph says

        That’s not fair. Actually I go many days without doing just that. I am very happy here and I love the Philippines. Yes I do get challenged by the people and it really comes down to the many cutural issues you have yet to deal with that tend to piss off many if not most expats who decide to make it their home. I am not about political correctness or pollyana things that so many sites tend to be. This is a site about Living in the Philippines and I shall continue if allowed to speak for the half that has challenges with it’s people using constructive and objective reasoning and explanations. I shall refrain from personal attacks on individuals. Nevertheless, this is a country that has so much potential if only its people were taught to think for themselves but the culture holds them back. Anyway plenty of time for that. Love ya Bob.

        • says

          Hi Joseph – I think that what I said is fair. Most of the time when you comment, you have scathing things to say about the Filipino people, which I think is not fair, because most Filipinos that I have ever met are wonderful people.

          You say that there are “many culture issues” that I have yet to deal with. Strange, I believe I have lived here a lot longer than you, and I believe I have dealt with most every cultural issue there is. Yes, you are free to speak your mind, as long as you refrain from personal attacks, that has always been the policy here. But, it also should be remembered that I am also free to speak my mind! 😉

          Have a good day, Joseph.

          • Joseph says

            I was refering to your new series in addressing various cultural aspects of life here that you have yet to deal with in that new “series” . I think Filipinos are wonderful people as well. Perhaps run an article on the things that drive expats crazy here and then have a perspective on those issues. I mean sit around a table with a typical group of expats and you will hear hundreds of things that drive them nuts. Seems an appropiate subject. As for living here longer, yes but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this place out. You have gone the extra step to learn a language but in all honesty you are no more an authority on the Philippines than perhaps Paul or any other expat living here for many years. We see this country through many different eyes and experiences. You certainly have an expertise in Mindanao in particular General Santos and Davao. If I am missing something but I don’t think I am out of line saying this.

            • says

              OK, I thought you meant cultural issues which I had not encountered, now I understand what you meant, stuff I had not written about yet in the series.

              I don’t sit around a table with groups of expats. I have one on one meetings with readers when they are here. I have a few expat friends who have been here longer than I have. We get together and talk, but all of us are more acculturated here, and really tend to have similar feelings about other expats – they don’t really try to adjust or blend in with the local culture. But, I don’t set around with groups of bitching expats who thing that everything here sucks. If I thought that, I’d move somewhere else.

              As far as being an authority, I don’t recall ever saying I was an authority at all, or that I knew more than anybody else. What gives you the idea that I said that? If you can point me to a quote on any of my 2,000+ articles that I have written where I said that, I’d be surprised. Because I don’t feel that way. There is only one thing that I am an authority on – my opinion.

        • David Aaron says

          Hi Joseph. When you do the article on “things that make Expats crazy’ and I then assume try to fix “their culture” so it can be just like home.

          Quote: “Nevertheless, this is a country that has so much potential if only its people were taught to think for themselves but the culture holds them back”

          Please can you give me a heads up when you have nearly completed the task so I can find somewhere else to live.



          • Joseph says

            No plans to do an article. Expats across the board have the same critism of this place with mostly the sme things driving them crazy. No matter. I love the Philippines and I see a great future ahead for the Country. My main issues here are really with the Church and how much damage it does to the people here keeping them ignorant and subservient. And not to mention using the Philippines as a drop off point for their Pediphile Priests.

            • says

              I don’t see how you can say “expats across the board have the criticism of this place…” The expats I hang out with don’t. I think you mean, Joseph, that the expats you hang out with have the same criticisms. You can always choose to hang out with a different crowd. That’s what I do.

            • John Miele says


              That statement has to be one of the most obnoxious, arrogant, and idiotic things I have ever read on this site.

              For someone who hates the Church so much, it was absolutely pure F*cking genius to move to a country that is 85% Roman Catholic. Pedophile priests? Are you one of these old goats that has a wife or girlfriend that is 30 or 40 years younger? It ain’t that different, Bud.

              No country is perfect, and I can tell you that there is plenty that I don’t like in the United States.

              You know what my problem is here? Other expats that espouse the arrogant, paternalistic views that you just did.

              • Joseph says

                What is with you guys. Just because I come to the Philippines and call this my home and enjoy it despite things I don’t like and agree with and I’m not alowed argue or bitch against an institution that ruins this Country and its people. John I have been coming to this Country for over 30 years . I have a pretty good idea about the place. You’ve been here what a couple of years yet intellectualize and make a textbook argument on all your articles like everyone fits that definition. Like you are so sure if a foreigner did this or that they will suffer consequences based on article 3 paragraph 2 of this or that document. Please.

                Anyway, you woud have to be blind not to see how many challenges here are that need to be worked on and many have to do with the cultural aspects inherited from the spanish and the Church. SO Is there anything wrong with wanting to change them and in the process make the Philippines a more productive place to be. And yes most expats think along the same line about it. I have probably done more with my wife to elevate people in this country we meet and can help to have a better life not by trying to change them but give them more self respect, educate them and provide them better opportunity and help them think and act not just be a yes sir, yes mamn mentality. We have the most loyal dedicated helpers, yayas, etc… that would do anything for us so please don’t lecture me on my attitude. I am against a system that creates this. I do what I can as a guest here.

              • Cheryl says

                John, you are one of the best writers here and I truly enjoy most of your articles, but you have made a comment that needs to be addressed right now.

                “Are you one of these old goats that has a wife or girlfriend that is 30 or 40 years younger? It ain’t that different, Bud.”

                That is an extremely ridiculous comment on YOUR part. There is a HUGE difference between a man being with or marrying a woman much younger as long as she is of age than a grown person molesting children. Big big difference.

                Most of the time you make really smart and well thought out comments. That was not one of them.

              • says

                No doubt, Bruce. Joseph has been causing trouble here on LiP for several years now, just keeps using different names to do so. He’s not so hard to spot, though, even when he changes names, as there are few that have such a bad attitude as he does.

          • says

            Ha ha… good catch David! The fact is, it is “thinking for themselves” that lead to the local culture. I think that Joseph meant that he wants them to “think like he does” and not think for themselves! 😆

            • Joseph says

              My mistake on the authority comment. Other people call you an authority.

              Regarding thinking for themselves. I mean in terms of being able to make a decision without the culture of having to go up the chain of command for practically every little thing. I mean it could be as simple as my going into Motorstar the other day and asking the manager about replacing all the plastic framing on my scooter. He said he would check. Two days later he still hadn’t checked. Ok I am use to that so a day or so later I went in and asked one of the salesman about a contact number for a the main office of motorstar in Manila and I got a “Sorry sir I am not authorized for that information”, Well can you look it up for me. Sir you will have to wait for my supervisor. Now you can take this sort of inaction to amost any level here and it follows a similar pattern. This is a fundamental reason this Country loses so much opportunity in so many areas including tourism, lost sales, etc. Inaction can be a dangerous thing. A form of complacency. Yes if you live here you have to accept it and I do and I easily found the contact number I was looking for online. Just a terrible pattern here.

              All my friends and people I associate with have lived here for many years and we don’t sit around and bitch too much anymore. We just avoid as much contact with the culture as we can except for our spouses. Nevertheless, we think about the culture the same way. If anyone living here has any kind of brain in their head there is no other way to see the culture for what it is. A breeding ground for ignorance, complacency and inabiiy to make decision on ones own. Wanting to change this is not a bad thing. That is called progress.

              • says

                Hi Joseph – There are certainly inconveniences here, and things that I disagree with. But, I choose to concentrate on the positive and look for ways to improve my own life rather than telling Filipinos how to improve their lives. I find that I can make a lot more progress that way. It’s hard to get 100 Million people to all hear you and follow your directions! 😉

              • Cheryl says

                Wow Joseph. What are your real reasons for wanting to live in the Philippines? You say you love the Philippines yet you try to avoid the culture as much as possible.

                You say this country is a breeding ground for ignorance. LOL. What gives?

                There are things here that I strongly disagree with but I personally love the culture. It would be difficult for me to live in a place where I avoided the culture and thought was a breeding ground for ignorance.

                You certainly do your share of bashing the Philippines. In fact you are quite often bashing the Philippines. So why do you REALLY want to be here? If it is so bad that you “try to avoid the culture” then why would you want to be here?


              • Tagabukid says

                I am Filipino and Bisaya and thus I declare myself the “real” authority here, haha. Palag? 😛 Anyway here are my thoughts:

                1) The churches here do have a lot of political clout, but their effects on our daily lives is really quite minor. Very few Filipinos are what you would consider “über-religious”. True, you will find a crucifix in almost every house, a statue of the Virgin Mary, a picture of Jesus, throngs of people on Christian holidays, etc. etc. but that doesn’t quite equate to blind subservience to the Church. We’re not that obsessed about pointing out the sins of other people, for example, unlike the more kookier fundamentalists of the Bible Belt in the south in the US. Priests and nuns are held in respect which would seem like worship to a foreigner, but if you know a bit of our culture, you’ll realize it’s the same kind of respect shown by Filipinos to their parents. It’s neither special nor unwarranted, and it most assuredly does not mean they can get away with anything just because they’re of the cloth. We had 300 years of abuse under Spanish friars, we have no compunctions with defrocking one every now and then.

                2) Please never ever scream at a Filipino. Screaming and cursing in anger at someone you just met or someone you’re not that familiar with is unheard of in our culture. Not even employers get the right to scream at their employees here. The only times it is acceptable is if it is between family, between two people with a long history of animosity between them, or if it is aimed at someone who just did something really horrible (like murder). Everything else is obnoxiously rude and will earn you lifelong hostility (I’m not kidding here, grudges last for a very long time among Filipinos). It’s the equivalent of someone punching you in the face.

                3) If you’re going around screaming at people, I’m not surprised you’re dissatisfied. You’ll only ever be able to see the masks Filipinos put on when dealing with someone too important to ignore and too rude to actually be bothered helping. Our social interactions are layered. The way Filipinos deal with you depends on how you deal with them. We always try to avoid confrontation. If a foreigner gives off the “I’m superior than you” vibe, we respond by being what they expect us to be. Simply to avoid drama.

                And let’s face it, the expectations of foreigners can be extremely unreasonable sometimes, it verges on the childish. I once had the unpleasant experience of being a bystander when an Italian (his accent was very thick) guy was screaming at a waiter in a small out-of-the-way restaurant for not having table knives. The poor guy was trying to explain that we eat with spoons and thus never had the need to have knives, but the Italian was having none of it. He wanted a knife, and he wanted one now. The manager came out and soothed him and let him leave without paying. The Italian probably thought the waiter was going to be fired, so he went away with a self-satisfied smirk. As soon as he was gone, there was a loud sigh of relief in the restaurant and everyone actually comforted the waiter by making fun of the Italian, including the manager.

                4) I do acknowledge that the “Yes sir, Yes ma’am” problem is real. But do try and put yourself in our shoes. We’re a third world country. Most of us are wretchedly poor, no matter how educated. To a foreigner, something like the above is just an annoyance. To a Filipino, it could cost him his job. Of course we’re intimidated by you and of course we’re terrified of the prospect of losing a source of income. Sadly, that includes letting go of initiative in favor of obedience simply because experience has taught us that that is what pleases most foreigners the most. Most large businesses here are NOT owned by Filipinos, or at least regular Filipinos. They’re usually owned by foreigners, by the megarich jet-setting dual-citizenship Taglish-speaking quasi-Filipinos, or one of the haciendero political dynasty families (Motorstar, for example, is Chinese-owned).

                See the problem now? It’s been hammered into us again and again, that no matter how hard we try we’ll never really achieve much unless we had the money or power in the first place. The last time we tried to really steer our own destiny as a nation, we got backstabbed by the Treaty of Paris by both the Spanish and the Americans. We eventually got independence, but a mere two decades later, Marcos happened. So we’ve learned not to try.

                If you’ve bothered to learn about our culture, you’ll know about the “Bahala na” mentality. It’s a coping mechanism in response to the same attitudes you’re showing now. Who are you kidding? You’re not going to “empower” us by flaunting how powerful you are. You’re just adding to the disillusionment and making us build our walls even higher.

                You say you’re avoiding our culture. I say you don’t have to. Everyone around you is already hiding it from you.

              • Larry says

                “All my friends and people I associate with have lived here for many years and we don’t sit around and bitch too much anymore. We just avoid as much contact with the culture as we can except for our spouses.”

                I wish the Philippines would kick people like you out of the country. You expect to be treated like a modern day colonial master. Rubbish. Why move there with this type of attitude? Because you wanted to marry a young girl and live someplace cheap? Because you couldn’t hack it in your country of origin any longer?

            • John Miele says

              Yeah Joseph, sounds like you are a regular Dr. Albert Schweitzer there… Just how could the country survive without your input and generosity?

              • Joseph says

                Wow. Sorry God, I mean John for trespassing on your domain. Yes you are the true authority on the Philippines, its laws, and I will defer to you from now on oh holy one.

            • John Miele says

              Joseph (Corey): Now I see why Bob banned you… I have never claimed to be an expert on this site…

              I’m not the one who became so obsessed with a website that I had to post under a pseudonym.

              I’m not the one who wrote me a whining letter on facebook about how Bob and you didn’t see eye to eye and I was, quoting you, “wasting my talent” (So, I guess I really AM your God, so that makes you my bitch, huh?)

              You have very rarely written and comment on this site that is not insulting or patronizing to Filipinos in some way, shape or form.

  2. John Leick says

    Thanks Bob! I believe you, and suppose I will need to do this. There is still 18 months to go, so I will practice here. A friend gave me a Tagalog book. After reading this I feel a little more motivated to actually open it for the first time. But being stuck here really leaves me at a disadvantage. Not many Filipinos in Wisconsin! My ex moved from Quezon City when she was a little girl, but she refused to speak Tagalog around the house. Her mom would speak Tagalog, and she would speak back in English. So now I have three children who cannot speak a lick of Tagalog, half their heritage:(

    • says

      Hi John – You can do it! One thing I might recommend to you is that you can find plenty of people who will teach you Tagalog on Skype! There are language learning websites where there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of people offering lessons via Skype.

      Don’t worry about your children. When we moved to the Philippines, our kids could not speak Cebuano or Tagalog. They are now fluent in both. With Cebuano, the kids were fairly fluent within a couple months of living here. Tagalog took a bit longer, since it is not widely spoken in the part of the country where I live.

      Getting started while still in the States would give you a big advantage, John, although the time when you will really learn is when you live here and are surrounded by the language. But, believe me, you will have a happier life once you can speak and understand the language.

      • Allan Kelly says

        Hi Bob.
        Skype! I never even thought of that! I have a small book I have been studying and was planning to buy the Roseatta Stone program, but a person to person would be a lot better. No way my wife could teach me. We would probably end up divorced! My wife never talked Tagalog or Ilocano around our kids, so they didn’t learn any until we visited the Philippines. Anyway, good idea. I will give it a try.

        • big p says

          The Roseatta Stone course has a log in section where you speak with other people in Tagalog. I bought the course and went through the first section and found it easy to learn and when I hear the words can sometimes understand them. I have dificulty recalling and pronouncing the words. If I would spend more time with the course I am sure I would improve. If a dummy like me can learn anything with it it must be good.

      • John Leick says

        Thanks. Quick question. I have narrowed it down to where I will live, Tagaytay or Cebu. In Tagaytay I know Tagalog is spoken, but how about Cebu, both are spoken, right?

        • says

          Hi John – Both are spoken. But, if you are in Cebu, best to leave the Tagalog behind, because Cebuanos hate Tagalog. They feel it was forced upon them by those in Manila. You will be treated better if you speak English than Tagalog in Cebu. If you speak Cebuano, though, you will be treated like part of the family. If you speak Tagalog… well… best not to in Cebu! 😉

  3. Jeff R. says

    I used to live overseas before and I’ve always recognized that you must speak the local language. You may not necessarily need to be fluent but at least be what I call functional. There was always two huge problems with those I knew who never made the attempt to learn the local language. One is they could never get everything they wanted or needed. I remember working with a group of people in a remote location once. They couldn’t have bought food if I wasn’t there to translate. They also could never do all of the things that would make life in the country really enjoyable. The other big problem is they didn’t get much respect. My experience has been that the locals are accommodating to people they know are visitors but they expect residents to assimilate. This includes learning the language. I’ve recently started learning Cebuano just in case the day comes that I am fortunate enough to be able to move to the Philippines.

    • says

      Hi Jeff – I think you hit the nail on the head! Tourists are here to have fun and explore. Residents come here to live and become part of the culture. Learning the language is very important for a resident, but not for a tourist. Even for a tourist, if you know some of the local phrases (hello, how are you, please, thank you, etc) it will make your trip more enjoyable. But, as a resident, learning the language earns you respect, and a place in the community. I could not agree with you more, Jeff! Good points there.

  4. says

    Hi Bob, As a lover of languages myself, and an expat in the Philippines, I can verify that so many points in this article ring true. Although my (Filipina) wife and I have spoken Tagalog in our (California) home for years, I knew, from the moment our plane landed in Cebu, that I would try my best to learn Cebuano (Bisaya). My Filipino friends all say that could speak English but after awhile “nakaka-nosebleed!” (It’s so stressful for them). When I speak the little Cebuano that I know, they just fall over themselves trying to help me. I really encourage all your readers, that live in the Visayas, to try to learn the local language. It’s worth it!
    Bud Brown

    • says

      Hi Bud – Your encouragement to the readers should go to expats in the Visayas region and also in Mindanao, since Cebuano is also the most widely spoken language in Mindanao as well.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I don’t know if you know this or not, but one of the things, Bud, that really encouraged me in learning Cebuano is that I saw some of your Tagalog videos on YouTube, and I was really inspired by you. I had already started learning before I found you on YouTube, but I found your videos at a time when I could have easily quit, but hearing you speaking Tagalog was a real push for me. Thanks for that!

  5. Steve Ames says

    First let me say that my wife and I enjoyed finally meeting you last month. I am working on learning Bisaya from my wife and will be ordering your flash cards and audio program. I realize the need to learn the local language from my years in Germany with the military. Your article did mention one thing that I am curious about. You said your teacher was hesitant to teach someone who was not a missionary, I am wondering why that was.
    As always a good post with lots of good information.


    • says

      Hi Steve – I enjoyed meeting you guys as well! It was a busy time for me, right before Christmas, but I’m glad we were able to squeeze in a meeting!

      I think that Bebe was hesitant to teach a non-Missionary because she thought that a non-Missionary would be less committed to sticking it out and finishing the course. She is quite a stickler about that, she won’t seek somebody to learn, she only teaches a person when he or she is ready to do so and has some commitment!

      Thank you Steve!

  6. Neal in RI says

    This whole language topic hits home even here in the US amd even under my own roof. When Linda has a get together with a bunch of her Filipina friends I am usually home and more times than not the only Kano in the house. So here I am in my own house feeling awkward because I cannot understand or add to the conversation that is going on. I pick up the gist of the conversation but I usually just stand around with a beer in my hand looking like a dufiss.
    Hopefully it will be easier to learn there when I will be immersed in it.

    • says

      Hi Neal – Ha ha.. I remember those days myself! But, you are right, it will be easier when you are here surrounded by the language. But, even then, you still have to want to learn, and push yourself to get off your butt and learn (at least I did). Good luck to you, Neal!

  7. David Aaron says

    Hi Bob. Thanks for the article.

    Like you we decided a few months ago to learn Bisaya. The reason? Simply because we find that during business meetings when topics become ’emotional’ our clients usually break into Bisayan to express themselves and these emotional aspects are often the most important insights to the discussion. Also now that we have been here for some time they will discuss something (in Bisayan) for several minutes then turn to me for my thoughts assuming I have fully understood the discussion only then to realise we are not locals. Like you we have issues finding the right teacher but we have found someone who seems quite good. Our only issues are that I leave the country often (heading to Laos in February for 5 months) so have to change between languages which is somewhat confusing for a simple soul like me. Also that we find regional dialects confusing as one person in one village will pronounce award entirely differently than another village.

    We will preserver though



    • says

      Hi David – Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Regarding your comment about having to “switch” languages due to your travel – that is one of the reasons why I was somewhat hesitant to learn Tagalog, I was afraid of mixing it up with my Cebuano, and I didn’t want to do that. I’m going to give it a shot, though!

  8. gordon says

    Very good article and so true.
    Like you it took me a few years to learn how to speak Tagalog but once id mastered it my life here became so much easier. Myself and my wife have run a business here for the past 11 years and for the first few years i always felt left out as even though we discussed things before doing them it ultimately came down to her dealing with suppliers, customers etc.
    I know have a very active role in our business and find that people are very happy to deal with me even when my wife is not around. Can think of a couple of occasions when i have sealed deals that she might not have ( she wont admit to that though!!).


    • says

      Hi Gordon – Thank you so much for your comment. I’m glad to hear that your language experience was also rewarding to you. I know that it helped me immeasurably. Your role in your business, as you describe it, is really great, and I can understand why you feel so good about learning the language.

  9. Simon Harrison says

    Good article again Bob. I have been so busy all these years and so I only know 50 – 100 words. Even that helps and makes the people so happy when you put little sentences together. They really do love it when you talk Tagalog to them. I will make time sooner or later to learn the whole language.

    • says

      Hi Simon – 50 to 100 words is a good start, so just keep plugging away! I am not sure how many Tagalog words I know, but starting later this year when I start studying Tagalog, I’m sure I’ll be memorizing vocabulary again! 😆

  10. dans says


    no disrespect to your site, but i really wanted to address this to joseph, let me speak using my own language to joseph.

    joseph, if you are reading this, go ahead and find a filipino that can help you undestand what i am about to say to you.

    isa kang ubod at nuknukan ng bobo, masyadong mataas ang tingin mo sa sarili mo, kundi hindi ka ba naman abnoy, kaya kong magsalita ng iyong lenguahe pero hindi mo alam ang lenguage ko, sino ngayon ang mas matalino. ako o ikaw?

    bob: short translation..

    joseph, i can speak your language but you can’t speak mine.. who’s the idiot and stupid now??

  11. ScottB says

    Bob . . . been a while since I’ve commented on your site but I visit it nearly every day. Anyway – I have been a teacher in a predominantly Spanish-speaking city. I’ve learned enough Spanish to greet my non-English speaking parents; however, I refuse to speak Spanish in the classroom . . . the students needed to learn English to survive here! I won’t be an “enabler” of their resistance to learn English.

    Then the day came when I had some new students from Vietnam. These kids spoke “zero” English, but within a year had worked up enough of a vocabulary that they challenged even some of my native-English speakers. It’s not because my Vietnamese students were “smarter”, but that they recognized the value of learning the local language and worked very hard to become fluent as quickly as possible. I think that’s the responsibility of anyone who decides to live overseas.

    Just to emphasize what some other readers commented on – about learning even just a little. I had purchased the Rosetta Stone level 1 for Vietnamese and learned a few basics. I wanted to be able to greet the parents of my Vietnamese students, as I was certain they were not learning English. They were always happy to see me and we would exchange “pleasantries” in Vietnamese — even though it has been several years since I was their kid’s teacher, when I see the parents in the store they immediately come to me and do our little conversation. We are friends for life.

    I will visit the Philippines for the first time in February this year, and will visit some friends in Bohol. I’ve taken up a book and CD on Cebuano just so that I know how to say “hello, how are you, I’m a teacher, I am American”, and so on. Will I be able to carry on full-fledged conversations? Probably not, but at least I will have made an attempt.

    One comment about Joseph’s rantings above . . . he said the he and his friends avoid the culture . . . well no wonder he has poor opinions of the place. You may not always agree with the culture, but never ignore it . . . go out and experience it, embrace it, try to understand it . . . that’s what I will be doing in Bohol . . . soaking up every minute of what there makes the Philippines the Philippines.



    • says

      Hi ScottB – thanks for sharing your story about dealing with Vietnamese students, I really enjoyed reading about how things worked out. I can see that those parents really appreciated your efforts to befriend them, and show them respect by learning their language, even just a little bit. Congratulations on that! And, I can assure you that your efforts will pay off big time when you go to Bohol! Enjoy your trip!

      • ScottB says

        Bob – just wanted to add a little side note . . . my two students ended up graduating in the top 5% of their class are both now in college majoring in chemistry.

    • David Aaron says

      Hi ScottB. With that enlightened attitude you will be very welcome here in Bohol.

      Hope you enjoy it as much as we do!



      • ScottB says

        Salamat David. I am truly looking forward to my visit to Bohol. If things work out I may be able to visit Bohol regularly, as well as other parts of the Philippines.

  12. PapaDuck says


    You really give people the incentive and motivation to want to learn since you are a success at it. I know i will put the effort out. Take care and have a nice Saturday.

  13. Cheryl says

    Bob, I am Cheryl’s fiance and have been coming to the Philippines for over four years now. I have lived here for months at at time and made many visits. The more I have visited here for long stretches the more I have realized that you are EXACTLY right about learning the language. It is not needed, but it sure makes things more fun and happier.

    An example: The more Tagalog I learn the more I enjoy the Philippines. I did not realize that I could enjoy the Philippines more than I first did, but having started to learn the language it is true.

    Just the other day I was in a restaurant and spoke part of my order in Tagalog. Geez, you would have thought I gave the waiter a million pesos. The smile on his face and his response made me feel so good.

    And you are right about helping avoid the skin tax. When you can speak the language it just seems like you are more accepted and respected. I am not sure those are the right words but the feeling of fitting in seems so much greater.

    And for those of you that are men and single…learn the language. LOL. It is so much easier to get a date when you can speak their language! And the ladies really seem to like it.

    Learning the local language has so many advantages, some of them small and some of them large. One of the large issues to me is what Bob mentioned in the article….knowing what others are saying. I find it so hard to enjoy a conversation with my fiances family when they are speaking their language.

    They are not doing this to hide anything or be rude. It is THEIR language and they should speak it. It is up to me to learn it…and them (at least a little) to help me learn.

    For me learning Tagalog still seems overwhelming. This language seems to have so many words and syllables to say compared to the same phrase in English. And the language moves soooooooooo fast! But study, be patient, and don’t give up learning…it is now a must for me to learn Tagalog.

    • says

      Hi Cheryl’s boyfriend (sorry, you didn’t say what your name is). I really enjoyed your comment. You know, over the past few years, when I have written about language learning, I have been told (mostly told in person) by people who read what I wrote that learning language is a waste of time, that it is not important, etc. But, often, a year or two later, the same person who said that will come back to me and tell me that they now realize I was right.

      I do think that learning the language is a super-important to do. So much of what you wrote rings true with what I experienced too.

      Keep on learning the Tagalog, and I know the rewards will just keep on coming!

  14. Bruce Michels says

    love your article you wrote. Being married for 32 yrs to my asawa I can really say this. Learn the language and you learn the culture, learn the culture and you will learn the language. They go hand in hand.

  15. James Watt says

    Before I moved to Mindanao I thought it would be a good idea to learn Tagalog.
    What a mistake that was!
    On arrival, I learned from others that Visyan is the language.
    Another mistake.
    Where I live in Davao Oriental, I’m better off learning Mandayan.
    Either way, in 40 something years of travelling abroad, I have always found that learning at least the basics opens doors.
    I do not claim to speak any language apart from English, but when folk see me for the first time and exclaim “Americano”, and I reply with “mayaan buntag” (for example) the change in their faces and attitude is a delight.

    I feel ashamed I cannot hold a conversation with them (yet). Some people feel ashamed they cannot speak my language well enough to be understood.
    It’s up me to address that issue, by increasing my vocabulary.

    Of course’ I’m “talking to the converted” on this website.
    But it’s nice to have the opportunity to do so.

    It’s a long journey to Davao, but it’s nice to visit once in a while, just to get out of the sticks ha ha!

    • says

      Hi James – Congratulations on getting started with learning the language. No problem with learning Tagalog, although it is not as useful in daily life down south, were you and I live, there are till goo reasons to learn it!

      If you make it to Davao City, look me up and let’s have a cup of coffee!

  16. James Watt says

    Hello Bob.
    I find that most foreigners let their wife do the talking for them.
    My asawa lets me initiate contact.
    The reason being, most foreigners have a pinoy wife. I do not, we are both foreigners. Ha ha

    Out here in Davao Oriental there are a few dangers for us. Obstacles on the road make darkness hours a hazard for driving. Not only that, there are groups of people who may wish to remove our valuables, or our freedom.

    I’m not sure about your government, but ours will not pay one centavo in ransom money.

    We’re planning to be in Davao city in about 2 weeks (1st week in February)
    We normally stay in the Lanang area, not too far South of the airport.
    But last time, we stayed in Tagum City and used public transport to get to Davao.

    I do not know where you reside, but perhaps we could meet at a mutually convenient place. There is a nice restaurant we go to, but for security reasons I’ll not mention it on this site.

    De-caffeinated coffee suits me fine. But the odd 3 in 1 will not hurt me. Ha ha.

    • says

      Hi James – My wife is Filipina, but still, I want to be able to communicate for myself, and not rely on my wife for my very existence. I love my wife dearly, but I am an individual, and I don’t want to live my life in a way that I am dependent on her for an ability to be part of the community and communicate with others. Just as when she lived in the States with me, she was free and able to live a daily life on her own, and that is how I want to be here.

      I live not far from SM City Davao, a bit of a ways from Lanang. We’ll work out something, though! 😆

  17. john says

    Hi Bob.
    I thank you for you articles.
    I burst out laughing as I first read this. Because I could relate. Philippino’s all talking, with no English. with some later admitting, they were scared of speaking English to me. That I would not understand thier broken English.
    I have been to the Philippines 2 times. and I felt this way all the time. I love the Philippines and my Filiipino family and friends I have made there. I still live in the States, but I plan to retire in the Philippines, and guess what? My wife is from Davao. We have begun starting busineses there. My wife is enjoying life in America right now, but we are planning our future in Davao. Maybe we will meet face to face one day.

  18. Aaron B. says

    What a great write up and one I definitely agree with. I was just in the Philippines for two whole weeks in March, traveling all over Mindanao from Davao through Bukidnon and up towards Butuan City, Cebu and finally Bohol. Being able to speak Cebuano fluently made all the difference in the world.

    To be fair, I’m Filipino. Born in Cebu and grew up in Mindanao until I was ten. Then I moved here to the States and it would take 20 years for me to set foot in the Philippines again. That was a month ago. Growing up in the States, my only connection to the language was through my mom and to an extent some relatives and friends here and there. My step-dad is American (and white, and proud of it… lol) and didn’t mind that my mom and I maintained speaking the language at home. And throughout my Americanization process I never felt any resentment towards speaking Cebuano. I later learned that I’m the exception and not the rule.

    Before making the trip people warned me that I’d be in for a shock. After all I had been gone for 20 years (not to mention all my formative years were spent here in the States) therefore my attitude, culture and worldview are essentially American, even if I still speak Cebuano. Well much to everyone’s surprise (including myself), I was able to pick up where I left off. As far as people were concerned it was like I never left the country. In some cases my Cebuano was better than the locals as a lot of people tend to speak a mixture of Cebuano, Tagalog and English which I found appalling. Mostly because I’m a purist. lol

    Speaking the language definitely opens the door to the culture, even if it’s a place you haven’t been to in a long time. In my case it made reconnecting with people I have not seen since I was a kid easy and effortless. But what stood out to me the most were my encounters with some of the expats. Some spoke the language, some did not but I could tell that the ones who did had a much better time. :)

    • says

      Hi Aaron – It sounds like you had a wonderful time reconnecting with your country of birth! That’s really great news. And, yes, I also believe that speaking the language helped you make the connection!

      Thanks for sharing your story.

  19. Digger Hill says

    People that avoid and criticize the Philippine culture are, as the majority of comments say, sadly missing much. Sadness is key here because negative people frequently were complainers in their own country long before they came here. I submit its not the Philippines making them unhappy–it is a personality type that would be dissatisfied in any heaven–even find fault among angels and saints. Not to say the Philippines couldn’t use some improvement here and there. Sure they could but lets be real here–expats aren’t going to change it and speaking for myself–I am no reformer–more like a refugee leaving a culture in my own country I found tiresome–but that country raised me from a pup so I am circumspect in taking its inventory. Just the same here, Filipinos put up with us, allow us to live here cheap, marry their women, idle our days away etc. and on some level, as their guests, we ought to be gracious and grateful and keen to pick up a word or two in their own language daily that lets them know we respect them.

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