Learning Filipino

Ezra Ferraz
The benefits of speaking Tagalog are not quantifiable in dollars and cents, nor measurable in job titles and resume credits

When I say something to a stranger in Filipino, I am usually met with a laugh.

Perhaps it’s because my thick Americanized accent bleeds through the words. Perhaps it’s because I speak in a slow and measured way, like someone trying to control a stutter. Perhaps it’s because I stare off into the distance, as though hoping the right sequence of words will materialize in the air.

No matter the reason, they laugh.

I know my fellow Filipinos mean no harm. At the heart of it, they are probably just amused at how I sound, which, I’ll admit, must sound comical. Just picture an American actor doing a really bad British accent, and there, essentially, you have me.

In one telling example, my attempt to say, “Saan ba tayo?” (Where are we headed?) sounded more like “Saan ba toyo?” (Where is the soy sauce?) Of course, the student I said it to – we were transferring from one room to another during a conference – did not call attention to the gross mispronunciation. By the look on her face, however, I could tell what she thought: Why the [expletive] do you need soy sauce for?  

As humorous as these little exchanges can sometimes be in hindsight, I can’t pretend that they don’t affect me in some deep and profound way. It’s the context that gets to me. Usually I’ll be asking someone I encounter – a taxi driver, a security guard, a waiter – “Kumusta ang araw mo?” (How is your day?)

In other cases, I’ll see someone who looks interesting and try to strike up a conversation. A college student holding a book on economics might prompt me to ask, “Ano ang kurso mo?” (What is your major?), while a single mother with a toddler in tow might spur me to ask, “Ilang taon ang anak mo?” (How old is your child?)  

In other words, I am trying to connect with people. In the hustle and bustle of the metro, the beautiful madness that is Manila, I merely want to show genuine interest in my fellow Filipino, however brief our time together.

Part of it is professional duty: writers are supposed to be curious in anyone and everyone. Part of it is something deeper, one which can be poetically expressed by the fact that we have the same blood coursing through our veins. Should we ever be too busy to talk to our brothers, our sisters?

You could argue that I could just talk to my fellow Filipinos in English. Indeed, I could – they speak it impeccably well – but I choose not to. To do so does not feel right. If Tagalog is our mother tongue, it only makes sense to use it in speaking to my brothers and sisters.

But when they laugh, I feel like my very attempt to connect with them is in of itself laughable, and I end up retreating into silence. Somehow this kind of rejection feels as sharp as any I’ve felt at the hands of a crush – it simultaneously makes me painfully aware of my own shortcomings as well as my inability to fully overcome them.

In short: I cannot speak Tagalog to any passable degree, and it did not appear like I would be getting better anytime soon. I do the only thing I can do: I continue on with my day.

The dollar value

That I am unable to connect to my fellow Filipinos, due to my shaky command of Tagalog, frustrates me to no end. I take it as a personal failing, I really do. 

While I was born and raised in the United States, I see my background as no excuse. Many other balikbayans are as comfortable speaking in Tagalog as they are in English. I had plenty of opportunities to become as fluent as them, particularly in college. The list of obscure subjects I chose to pore over instead – behavioral economics, developmental psychology, Russian literature – now puzzles me. How did I prioritize these over mastering my mother tongue?

The answer, I’m sure, lies in considerations of material gain. A person could study any range of subjects (biology, sociology, history) or practice any number of skills (writing, accounting, coding), and there will be a pay-off in the distant future. It may be hazy and abstract, but it’s there, motivating you to press onward.

Fluency in Tagalog offers no such reward. With the obscure subjects I studied college, I could at least believe that they were essential material for my future books. Tagalog, on the other hand, what good would that do? Insert here the image of a younger me scoffing, fountain pen firmly in hand.  

If I had listed on my resume – Tagalog (fluent) – under languages, American companies would not have noticed in the slightest. Those two words would have snagged me no interviews, nor garnered me any job offers. It would be overlooked with everything else in the bottom third of my resume, or, at the most, be read quizzically aloud: “Tag. A. Log?”   

Even now, here in the Philippines, where Tagalog is the national language, I can get by just fine without being fluent. The circles I run in – journalists, writers, and entrepreneurs – are largely composed of balikbayans like me, third-generation Filipinos, American and European expatriates, or Filipinos who simply prefer speaking English. In short, I can go from dawn to dusk speaking the same brand of English I spoke with my peers at Berkeley.

And it’s not just my professional circles, either. Everywhere English is held up as the language you need to master if you wish to have a wide range of employment opportunities, including everything from managing a support line at a call center to serving as a concierge abroad in an anglophonic country.

If English is the wave of the future, destined to bring economic prosperity to the Philippines, does that make Tagalog a thing of the past?

Filipino as a bridge

The answer is not as dark as you would think. In fact, Tagalog is important for the very reason that it withstands this kind of what’s-in-it-for-me analysis. The benefits of speaking Tagalog are neither quantifiable in dollars and cents, nor measurable in job titles and resume credits. Instead, they’re purely one of kinship, and, as I often try to remind myself, that should be enough.

Take, for instance, riding the jeepney around UP Diliman. I’ll be waiting for it on the curb along with other students and community members. To some of them, I might appear stressed about the time. I stare at the point in the horizon where the jeepney will emerge. My one fist is clenched over the fare, rubbing it as though it were some kind of talisman. My posture is stiff and tense – pedestrians have to move around me to continue down the sidewalk.

However, I’m not late in going anywhere. I’m simply focused on the words that I will need to soon say. In my head, I recite them: Bayad po. Bayad po. Bayad po. (Fare, sir. Fare, sir. Fare, sir.)

When the jeepney pulls up, I’ll hop into the front seat and hand over the fare. Many times I hesitate with such self-consciousness that I don’t say “bayad po” until the driver has already deposited the coins into his container or even started driving again. It’s as if I have a 5-second delay when speaking Tagalog.

The delay, of course, causes him to laugh. Or is it my pronunciation of “bayad po,” even though there is little room in it for error? Whatever the case, I’m left with a decision. I can sulk in silence until I reach my destination, which is not very far, anyway. Writing, which I will do shortly at a coffeehouse, can provide me with some sense of communication, of connection, for the night. This is the easy choice and one that I take often.


When my spirits are strong, I sometimes put my pride aside and gently push for conversation. I’ll ask a follow up question: “Kumusta byahe mo, kuya?” (How is your commute, older brother?)

And then other: “Kumain ka na?” (Have you eaten already?)

And one more: “Napanood mo ba huling laban ni Pacquiao?” (Have you watched Pacquiao’s last fight?)

These phrases look great on paper, I realize now, so you’ll just have to imagine me butchering the pronunciation. Of course, don’t imagine me being that bad – these are phrases that I’ve memorized because they are great conversation starters. Pacquiao is, by far, one of the best, so long as I confine it to his boxing fights and not his political ones.

After my first question, they usually stop laughing, the novelty of my atrocious accent having worn off. They will speak openly, in Tagalog, over the din of the engine and of the city. The person can see that what I lack in my knowledge of Tagalog grammar, I make up for in earnestness: I truly want to know how they are doing, who they are, and what brings them to our shared moment in time.

On these rare occasions when I converse with someone I could have easily passed by in ignorant bliss, the payoff, if you want to call it that, is well-worth it. In these cases, the city and all its elements that seem to conspire against us – the heat, the traffic, the noise – recede to somewhere far, far away. It takes with it all my worldly worries: the deadline for my next Rappler column, the date I have on Friday, the overdue Meralco bill. Left in its place is but a warm feeling, like a meal shared with an old friend.

If this sounds intense, it’s only because it is. But it’s not speaking Tagalog that’s the hardest part. It’s the concentration it takes to extend yourself beyond the bubble that is your own life and reach out to someone in theirs. – Rappler.com


Rappler business columnist Ezra Ferraz graduated from UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California, where he taught writing for 3 years. He now consults full-time for educational companies in the United States. He brings you Philippine business leaders, their insights, and their secrets via Executive Edge. Follow him on Twitter: @EzraFerraz

#BalikBayan is a project that aims to harness and engage Filipinos all over the world to collectively rediscover and redefine Filipino identity.


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