The Philippines are home to many languages and dialects, including Tagalog. According to a 2000 Philippines Census, over 57 million Filipinos speak Tagalog. It’s the native language of about 28% of the total population in the Philippines. For those living or traveling in the islands, Tagalog is one of the best languages to know. How long does it take to reach beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels?
To speak basic levels of Tagalog, you’ll need 150-200 hours of practice. The intermediate level, which includes a bigger vocabulary and more complex sentences, takes another 250-300 hours. Advanced skills in Tagalog can take an additional 550-600 hours.
A brief introduction to Tagalog
Tagalog translates to “from the river.” It’s part of the Austronesian language family, which includes areas like Madagascar; most of the Indonesian archipelago; all of the Philippines; and the islands in Central and the South Pacific (minus Australia and most of New Guinea). The Austronesian language family has around ⅕ of the world’s languages. While most common in the Philippines, Tagalog is the second most spoken language in American households after English and Spanish.
What’s the difference between Tagalog and Filipino? They’re often used interchangeably, but the two languages have some key differences. Tagalog is essentially the root of the Filipino language. Many blogs describe Filipino as the “upgraded,” modern, or standardized version of Tagalog. For clarity, we will continue saying “Tagalog” through this guide.
How long it takes to become a beginner – alphabet, basic words, and expressions
FillipinoPod101, which gets its numbers from the Foreign Service Institute, says it takes around 150-200 hours to become a beginner Tagalog speaker. You will learn the alphabet, which is basically the same as the Roman alphabet. According to ManilaFYI, that means every letter is familiar to English speakers and, in general, every letter only makes one sound. That makes the alphabet easier to understand than English. ManilaFYI also highlights several challenges because Tagalog is part of the Austronesian language family. It has a different ancestry than Indo-European languages like English, French, Spanish, and German, which makes it hard to guess what words mean based on how they look. Verbs and nouns are also very different. If you know another Austronesian language like Malay or Javanese, Tagalog will be much easier.
After the alphabet, beginners will start memorizing the days of the week, months, numbers, animals, family members, and food. You’ll also begin building sentences like basic greetings (“Hello, good morning, goodbye, etc”) and basic questions. You’ll learn how to introduce yourself (i.e. “My name is X”) and how to ask for directions.
How long it takes to become an intermediate – level speaker- more complex words, varied sentences, and understanding grammar
After about 200 hours of practice with Tagalog, you will likely be a seasoned beginner and ready to take the next step. Referring again to FillipinoPod101, it takes another 250-300 hours to become an intermediate-level speaker. You’ll continue building your vocabulary and expanding to subjects like school, jobs, and hobbies. You’re also able to go beyond the sentences you’ve memorized as a beginner and hold basic, small-talk conversations about the weather, your favorite meal, how your day is going, and so on. Intermediate speakers should also start becoming comfortable with grammatical tenses, verbs, and how sentences are structured.
To hone your pronunciation and listening skills, check out Tagalog TV shows, movies, and music. If you know people who speak Tagalog, you can speed up the learning process by practicing with them. People who regularly speak the language they’re learning always progress faster than those who aren’t having conversations.
How long it takes to become an advanced speaker- complex sentences and concepts, automatic recognition of vocabulary, and easy understanding
Full fluency in another language can be hard to define, but when you’re advanced in Tagalog, the language is very easy to speak and understand. Moving from intermediate to advanced takes longer than moving from a beginner to an intermediate. According to FillipinoPod101, it can take as long as 550-600 hours. Advanced speakers can quickly build complex sentences with correct grammar; clearly articulate abstract concepts; and easily listen and read. Your ability to communicate in Tagalog isn’t limited to small talk or casual conversations; you can participate in and understand more nuanced, professional conversations, too. It may still take a split second for your brain to translate certain words or concepts, but the more you practice at an advanced level, the more proficient you become.
The only way to become an advanced speaker is to practice, practice, and practice some more. You want to talk to people in Tagalog as much as possible, read more challenging books, and watch media in Tagalog. You’ll be perfecting your accent and ease with real-world conversations. The days of repeating memorized phrases and concepts are far behind you.
Why should you learn Tagalog?
You may have a very specific reason to learn Tagalog, but there are reasons why everyone can benefit from learning this language. Here are three:
#1. It makes traveling to the Philippines easier and more fulfilling
Most people in the Philippines speak English, but having some level of proficiency in Tagalog can make your trip less stressful and more interesting. It’ll be easier to get around, read directions, menus, and more. Odds are, you’ll feel more secure knowing you can communicate in the country’s official language if necessary. Knowing the language also helps you connect with people more easily. They may open up more to you and share recommendations on where to visit and what to do and more when you know Tagalog. You also have a deeper access to Filipino culture like books, movies, music.
#2. It opens up more career opportunities
According to the World Bank, the Philippines will become an upper-middle-income within the next few years even as they recover from COVID-19. Even with the pandemic slowing down the economy’s growth a bit, the Philippines attracts a lot of expatriates. Why? It has gorgeous beaches, and a low cost of living compared to Western countries, and a famously welcoming and warm culture. Learning Tagalog makes it easier to live in the Philippines or at least travel there frequently for your job.
#3. Learning a new language is good for your brain
Learning a new language benefits your creativity, your memory, your problem-solving abilities, your concentration, and more. Research suggests that learning a new language even keeps your brain more flexible and more resilient against conditions like dementia. Learning any language comes with benefits, but because Tagalog is one of the harder languages to learn, you may enjoy a boost of the usual benefits.
What skills do you need to learn Tagalog?
Anyone can learn Tagalog, but there are three skills you need if you want to be successful:
Skill #1: Practice
When learning a language, there’s no skill more important than practice. It may seem weird to call practice a “skill,” but developing a routine and sticking with it takes good organization, good time management, and good goal-setting. Once you’ve created a practice plan that works, learning Tagalog becomes much easier.
Skill #2: Concentration
The ability to concentrate varies from person to person; some find it easy while others struggle. Regardless of where you start from, learning to concentrate is an essential skill for learning a language. You need to understand what factors influence your concentration; how to eliminate distractions; what makes concentrating easier; and so on.
Skill #3: Patience
In total, learning Tagalog takes about 1,100 hours. Compare that to a language like Spanish, which takes about 600 hours. Even with the best routine and learning hacks, learning Tagalog will take a while. Be patient with yourself and the process.
Tools you’ll need to learn Tagalog
The tools you need to learn Tagalog aren’t different from what you’d need for learning other languages. What works best varies person by person; some people like a variety of materials to keep things interesting while others like to stick with a few resources. Here are the most helpful options:
- A course plan (can be a traditional course, online course, audio course, etc)
- Tagalog dictionary
- Tagalog grammar book
- Tagalog phrasebook
- Vocabulary flashcards
- Notebook and writing utensils
- Books at your current proficiency (start with children’s books and work your way up)
- Movies and/or TV shows in Tagalog
- Tagalog music
- Online video tutorials
How to learn Tagalog
If you’ve never learned another language before, figuring out where to start can be tricky. Taking a course or using a language app is a very helpful place to start, though you may need additional resources. To stay motivated, set specific, short-term, and tangible goals. That may mean memorizing 15 words and 5 phrases per week to start with. Establish a routine so you’re working with Tagalog every day for a minimum amount of time. Organize your learning around themes (greetings, family, foods, animals, the weather, hobbies, etc), so you can start having conversations quickly and the learning isn’t disjointed. For the fastest and best results, do your best to find someone you can talk to. There are online tutoring sites where you can practice chatting or you can try to find someone local who speaks Tagalog. Your area may also have clubs where people gather to practice. The more you can practice, the faster you’ll learn.