Hey, we all make mistakes!

It’s true, isn’t it?  Every one of us makes mistakes.  We can only hope that we make few serious mistakes, and that we learn from the mistakes that we do make.

Over my years of visiting the Philippines (from 1990 until 1999) and my years of living in the Philippines (2000 until 2012 so far), I have noticed a lot of mistakes that foreigners make when it comes to the Philippines.  Today, I thought I’d take a look at a few of them, some of them might surprise you.  Maybe you can pick up on a mistake that you have been making, and change it.  You never know!

Flowers from WowPhilippines

Of course, this list of “foreigner mistakes” is not all inclusive, just a few off the top of my head.  Maybe you know of other such mistakes, and can list them in the comments at the end of the article, so that we can all learn.


Mga Mangga
Mga Mangga

In English, if we want to make a word plural, we just add an “s” at the end.  So, a ball is a nice toy, but if you have more than one ball, you have balls (no jokes here, guys!, I promise, this is not a pun!).  On some words, if we want to make it plural, phonetically we add the “s,” but in writing we have to add a few more letters to make the spelling correct.  For example, I enjoy eating a mango from time to time, but since others in the house want a mango too, when I go to the market I buy mangoes.  Mangoes, not a mango.  See what I mean.

In the various Filipino languages, though, adding an “s” does not make a word plural.  So, if you see a kid, that’s a bata in Bisaya or Tagalog.  But, if you see a group of children along the street, they are not “batas.”  No, to make a word plural in the Philippine languages, you would add another word, “mga.”  So, when you see a group of children, you are seeing “mga bata.”

In Bisaya or Tagalog, a mango is “mangga.”  When you make that trip to the market, remember, though, you need more than one mango to feed the family, so be sure to purchase “mga mangga.”  What is “mga mangga?”  It is mangoes.

A ball is bola.  Balls are “mga bola.”

So, remember, to make a plural, you cannot just add an “s” at the end of the word, that does not work in the Philippines!

There are no caribou in the Philippines

This is a carabao
This is a carabao
This is a caribou
This is a caribou

Yes, you heard me right, there are no caribou in the Philippines.  As far as I know, there is not a one.  A caribou is the same as a reindeer.  We have water buffaloes in the Philippines.  A lot of foreigners call the water buffalo a caribou.  That’s not correct.  The local name for a water buffalo is a carabao.  CARABAO, not CARIBOU.

But, Bob, they are pronounced the same!

No, I’m sorry, they are not pronounced the same.  A Caribou is pronounced like “Care i BOO”.  A water buffalo, Carabao, is pronounced “Care a BOW” (as in taking a bow after you sing).  See, they are pronounced differently!  Remember, a Carabao is not the same animal as a Caribou like you would find in Alaska and other cold weather environments!

Learn to spell the places!

Generally, I am not the “spelling police,” if somebody leaves a comment and misspells something, it does not get my anger up, nor do I try to shame them for spelling something wrong, especially since the words are not standard English words.  That said, though, when it comes to the names of places, especially a place where you intend to move to, I really think you should learn to spell the word!  For example, I get lots of comments and e-mails from people who ask about Mindanao, the island where I live.  There seems no end to the way people spell it.  If you are planning to visit or live in Mindanao, though, I think it’s important to know how to spell it.  It’s not that hard to learn how to spell a few words, right?

Knowing the langauge

One thing I get a laugh out of is when people claim to know the language after only a short time of living here.  They may know a dozen words or so, but they are certainly not fluent.  One very common thing is when they learn the word “na” which (among other things) means “already” or “now” in the local language.  So, instead of saying “I already ate, I’m going to sleep now,” they say “I ate na, I’m going to bed na.”  Yep, they just use the word “na” along with everything else in English, but they say they know the language.  ha ha…   Don’t say that you know the language when you just say “na.”

Now, let me say this, nobody has to learn the language here.  You can indeed get by with just English, if that is what you want.  Your life will be fuller, though, and more enjoyable if you learn the language, and even if you just know some common phrases, that will help you fulfill your life too.

Pet Peeves

So, those are just a few of the “foreigner mistakes” off the top of my head.  I know there are many others, and I encourage you to share the ones you can think of.  My real pet peaves are #1 and #2, the pluralization and the whole carabao thing.  😉  I guess the carabao thing is something that I shudder at because I really love the carabao, it is such an interesting animal, and also a workhorse in the Philippine society!  ha ha…  Which “foreigner mistakes” bother you?

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.

Learn a Philippine Language


  1. says

    Well Bob you haven’t even touch any “foreigner mistakes” that I’ve heard so far. . .first I’m not angry, I just think people, “foreigners” need to know that first and formost, you are not in your country. Repsect, understanding, and humility will take you a long way. I’ve lived in the Philippines from 1974 to 1986 and I make trips there every year to see my son and his family. I’ve been married to a lovely Filipina lady for 35 years. I want to say this, venture foreth with caution in certain areas of the Philippines. Normally most Filipinos are basicaly friendly and would give you anything you want. But then, there that .01% who would take your clothes off your back. I love the Philippines and enjoy the time I spend there, generally in the summer months. I advise to whom ever goes to the Philippines is, try to learn the language, (Tagalog) since ther are over 96 different diolects throughout the Philippines.

    • says

      Ha ha.. of course, Al, I have been saying those things for years already. I agree about learning the language, but would not advise only Tagalog. Like me, I speak Cebuano, because that is the language that is most widely used where I live.

  2. says

    Bob – here is a mistake I’ve been making for fifteen years until my wife corrected me lately. Our daughter’s name is Isabella. But the province in northern Luzon is Isabela, with one “L”.

  3. AmericanLola says

    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing… we had a friend who ordered ‘totoy sa manok’ in a restaurant, much to the amusement and confusion of the waiter!

    I think the ‘caribou’ mistake is the one that gets me! Oh! And calling the coconut water the coconut milk!

  4. Miss August says

    Tagalog/Filipino word for carabao is kalabaw.

    Is it pet peeve or pet peave? I’ve never seen it spelled p-e-a-v-e before.

  5. Miss August says

    @AmericanLola: Just last week, I had to tell someone the difference between coconut water (also called coconut juice) and coconut milk. I love the water/juice straight from a young green coconut. So yummy!

      • Miss August says

        I stand corrected – “There is a difference between coconut water and coconut milk.” :-p

        • mike cowan says

          Time out, now I’m totally confused. I was asking Miss August “What is the difference between coconut water/juice and coconut milk?” I always used both terms interchangeably. My syntax check didn’t work.

          • says

            Hi Mike – Coconut juice (Coconut water, or Buko juice/water) is the clear liquid that comes from inside young coconuts (still green). Coconut milk is extracted from mature coconuts by grinding and then pressing or squeezing the meat of the coconut. They are not even similar to each other! 😉

            • mike cowan says

              Thank you, Bob. Tina never told me that, either. That’s at least two things I’ve learned from you today. I never really thought there was a difference because I always mix it with Tanduay anyway.

          • Miss August says

            LOL. I thought you were correcting my grammar!

            Bob is right about the coconut water/juice and milk explanation. :-)

  6. mike cowan says

    I think I AM a patrolman with the spelling police, or at least I tend to be. With spell check how do people get their computers to type those errors? (Loved ones have told me what I need on my laptop is a thought check feature.) When I’m reading other’s post’s, I keep in mind that English might not be their first language. Thus, if I’m able to understand what they are trying to communicate, they’re using correct English. Just not formal English. Which is better than the second language that I don’t know.

    Thank you, Bob, for the pluralization lesson. Tina and I have been married 28 years and she never told me that! Probably a payback. She pronounced ‘hamburger’ with a soft ‘g’ until we had children who corrected her when they reached elementary school. Darn kids. I loved how she said that.

    Sometimes the locals don’t help though. Is it Legazpi City or Legaspi City? I see both versions when there.

    As for the local fauna…for all this city boy knows, it’s a papa bear moo cow.

    • Ricardo Sumilang says

      Unfortunately, spell check only checks spelling and would not catch the error between pluralization of the noun and the noun in the possessive case. Some folks like to add the apostrophe at the end of a singular noun before the letter “s” not realizing that, in so doing, they are not pluralizing the noun, but unintentionally changing the usage of the noun to that of ownership.

      A brief anecdote to illustrate that lack of knowledge of some of the common words in a language can be very embarrassing: An American official riding the Manila-Dagupan train on his way to the Summer Capital of the Philippines during the American colonization of the country was quite flabbergasted to hear a peasant lady with a jar of water balanced on her head calling, “Tu-big”, as she walked past the window of the train while the official was using the train’s urinal.

  7. chasdv says

    Hi Bob,
    I don’t think i do too badly considering i don’t live there yet.
    Having a background interest in nature etc, i know the difference between Caribou and Carabao, lol.
    I also know that Buko juice is the water from a young coconut and coconut milk is squeezed from the ground up flesh of a ripe coconut, lol.

    It’s pronouncing some names where i fall down. I remember once pronouncing Gingoog pretty much the way it sounds, Sheryl doubled up in laughter at my attempt, lol.

    • says

      Hi Chas – Gingoog is a name that gives a lot of people trouble… thankfully, I know how to pronounce it, and I am betting that you do now too! 😉

  8. says

    Pedant warning: I think Bubalus bubalis carabanesis is actually a subspecies of the domesticated water buffalo. I always enjoy telling my Pinoy friends that the Australian Buffalo is considered as one of the most dangerous animals in Australia. They just scratch their head in disbelief.

    • says

      Scratch away : ) Fiona and I were camped near a remote aboriginal community in northern Australia with wild Buffalo all around the area and boy were they unpredictable! Sometimes they would just walk off when they saw you, more often they would charge and keep chasing. I think it had a lot to do with their breeding season. I prefer the Carabao : )

    • sergio borges says

      ehehhehe certainly would be a grave mistake to confuse the docile Indian buffalo with the indomitable African buffalo. extremely violent and dangerous animal!



  9. Mars Z. says

    Most often seen here on the posters from other countries are writing Philippines as Filippines, Philippinos, etc. Remember: The country is Philippines, the people-Filipino/s, the language taught at school is Pilipino.


    • says

      Hi Mars – You are so correct on this one. I have actually had Americans argue with me that the Philippines is spelled with two “L’s” – Phillipines. Ha ha… it ain’t so!

  10. ScottF says

    Ok. I’m going to tell a story that happened to me shortly after meeting my wife. I had been spending as much time as possible with her family here in the states and felt I was comfortable enough with some words to impress her family. My wifes family is from Pangasinan, and speak panggalatok(pangasinense) and Tagalog. So, I went into the room where everyone was eating and asked for rice, in her provincial language, which is “baaw”(pronounced ba-ow). Only, I pronounced it bao(ba-o). As you can imagine, everyone was laughing quite hysterically. I quickly realized I said something not rice, and asked what was so funny. Needless to say, I found the meaning of that word!!! LOL!!

    I am hoping this is not too crude to post here. I apologize if I offend anyone.

        • Ricardo Sumilang says

          If memory serves, “bao”, pronounced, “ba-o” is Tagalog for a polished half of a coconut shell used for drinking like a cup. At least, that is what I remember in the olden times in the province. In ScottF’s story above, “ba-o” may have sounded like, “ba-ho”, the Tagalog word for stinky. But, since they were speaking in Pangasinense, I don’t know, if that’s a word in their language.

    • Bong says

      This reply is more than one year late. But I have read all the comments and no one clarified what “bao” in pangasinense means. I hope nobody gets offended but the word refers to female genetalia.

      Hi Bob, this is my first comment since I was directed by Dr. Dave’s link in facebook to bobnewyork’s article narrating his hospitalization here in the Philippines. I have been reading everyday since. I enjoy reading LIP. Keep up the good work!

  11. James P says

    Is there a Carabao brand coconut milk? I don’t recall the one I opened that night after dinner for what I thought would be something nice for dessert. I can not recommend this, at all. This product always needs to be cooked before consumption.

    But the Carabao however, wallowing just off the road in that wet rice field when I’m really hot and uncomfortable now, joining that animal has tempted me more than once, Bob.

  12. Bob New York says

    Many times I have noticed when Filipinos want to pluralize something when writing or speaking English, its ” Just add the letter ” S “. A common example would be the word ” stuff ” many times I have seen it written as ” stuffs ” another one is ” foods “. Things like this remind me of what I read on the introductory pages of an American Dictionary where it stated that the ” English Language is one of the most far flung languages in the world ” . This is why at times I can differentiate describing differences in English in different parts of the words such as British English, American English, Filipino English etc.

    It may be true with many of us that when we ” read ” printed words on paper or an internet screen if it is a word spelled in nearly any form of English, if we don’t know any better, in our own minds we may pronounce it in our own way until we learn otherwise. When I first learned of Mindanao, in my own mind I pronounced it as minda-nay-o because that is the way my eyes and mind read it and later learned it is pronounced minda-now.

    As a visitor, for the most part I do just fine using American English. It is my own curiosity that gives me the desire to find out more about some of the words I see or read that are used quite often, especially what I see on signs such as ” Load Na Diri ( I hope I spelled that one right LOL ) which I was told it translates to something like ” Buy Load Here ” ( cell phone load / minutes ) .

    I am sure at time my Iliganon friends get a good laugh how I may pronunce some of their words, names or locations that I only know of from reading in print but it works the opposite way around also and some of them I have found to be quite memorable and interesting and I appreciate it when they inform me of the proper way it is spoken there.

    Speaking of the liquid from coconut ( juice, milk, water etc. ) all I ever heard it called here in the USA is coconut milk. Thanks for the clarification on the difference. I have heard of ” Fermented Coconut ” . I have never tried it can someone give a description of it ?

    • says

      Hi Bob, I never thought of it in conjunction with this article, but you are exectly correct, Filipinos also pluralize English incorrectly.

      Load na diri translates to load is here or load is here.

      Fremented coconut juice is “tuba,” or coconut wine. It is not for me… And it will rot out your teeth. :-)

      • Mars Z. says

        Ha ha! Tuba comes from the sap of the coconut bloom before it opens. The sap drips as it is cut and drips into the collection bamboo tube. Red powder coloring is added for flavor from a certain bark of a tree. Fresh collected tuba is good—if your stomach can adjust to it. A poor man’s wine!


        • RandyL says

          I don’t know if this is common but my sister in law and her husband mix their tuba with Coke. Seems to go down smoother and, according to them, makes the tuba last longer. haha

    • James P says

      In some areas locally the young coconut water is fermented to drink as tuba.
      I’ve used it myself often as a 40:1 fuel additive.

  13. jonathan says

    Hi Bob,

    All the while, I thought some foreigners are really committing just spelling mistakes for the animal carabao as carabou so it really never bothered me. I never bothered to research though that there is such an animal as a carabou hahahah. Oh well.

  14. Rey says

    Tuba or coconut wine is actually from the nectar of a cut sap or unopened coconut flower and not from the coconut water. :)
    Freshly harvested or collected nectar (tuba) is also sweet and looks like coconut juice. The red color of Tuba came from the powdered bark of a mangrove tree which i guess acts as a preservative.

  15. says

    Hi Bob – You have just proved the theory that ‘the man/ woman who never makes a mistake, never makes anything’.
    When boiling potatoes just don’t shout out when in the Philippines that the ‘Tatties’ are ready, otherwise you will get some funny looks.

  16. Jim Hannah says

    Never heard of Tatties Bob? Reminds me of my brother-in-law, who came to the UK and got a job in a restaurant. Day 2 on the job, he resigned because the head chef kept asking him to bring more tatties, and he was to embarrassed to ask what tatties actually were!

    Never forget, also, that in the Philippines, you don’t just cut the grass when you are mowing the lawn…

  17. Charlie Tuna says

    In regards to mistakes, I am thinking it must have been an over-sight or something of that nature that I have not seen one comment or post about Memorial Day U.S.A..
    To all U.S. of A. readers, please reflect on what is left of the day U.S. time.
    God Bless America

  18. RandyL says

    One of the funniest mistakes I get a kick from is watching expats try out their new found language skills by using a word or two, only to get totally confused by a response in full dialect. Then they’ll scratch their heads and revert to English. Like you said, just one or a dozen words will not get you by and unless you commit to learning the language, better stick to the language one knows best. I guess I have to say though Bob that the most common mistake among expats in the RP is ASSUMPTION.
    That pretty much covers everything! 😀

    • says

      Hi Randy – Ha ha.. that’s true… knowing just a few words of a language can be dangerous, because people will think you understand and start speaking to you straight in that language! I see it all the time. In fact, I do that myself, if an expat or somebody says “Maayong Buntag” (good morning) to me, I start speaking straight Bisaya to them, just for the fun of seeing their reaction! ha ha

  19. Bruce Michels says

    I have learned so much about coconuts just know I almost feel edjumacated on the subject. I never knew you milk a nut? There is almond milk soy milk and ccoconut milk. Wow!! :)

  20. JohnM says


    I actually thought of one today that is often confused…. “sandos” does not refer to sandals, slippers, or flip flops. It refers to the thin T-shirt thing that ladies wear that doesn’t cover their shoulders. I think most people misunderstand when they see the sign at government offices “No sandos allowed”

  21. Dick says

    I think the biggest mistake i have made so far since living in the Philippines has not been a gramatical one…I teased my gf about her english one day…oops…big mistake. what i find confusing sometimes is the gender thing, the he/she when referring to a certain woman or man is interchangable?

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