“You Speak What?” Why I am Learning Tagalog in Graduate School and How it Helps the World

By Hannah Bassett

I primarily study fisheries, but over the summer I spent 4-6 hours a day, five days a week in Tagalog class with two teachers and my seven classmates. Followed by another 2-3 hours studying Tagalog on my own. For two months.

Oh, sorry, “What is Tagalog?” you ask. Tagalog is the language on which most of the national language of the Philippines, Filipino, is based.

Back to my story…

Did I mention that I was living in a monk-like room in a ‘well-loved’ apartment decorated with empty alcohol bottles, packed with four undergraduates and one block away from frat row at the University of Wisconsin, Madison? (For all the Badgers out there – I was right next to the Terrace!). For two months, I was a country away from my home in Seattle, as my fiancé and I spent what little spare time we had on the phone, planning our wedding that was just two months away.

There were most definitely times I asked myself, why? – Why, why, why was I spending so much time on something that was not directly related to my area of research?

Kuwarto ko, saan nakatira ako para dalwang buwan sa tag-init habang inaaral ang Tagalog sa Southeast Asia Studies Summer Institute (SEASSI). Isang maganda at simpleng lugar para mag-isip! My room where I lived for two months over the summer, while studying Tagalog at SEASSI. A nice and simple place to think!

Sure, there were glimpses into the rewards of speaking another language: when I successfully said a new sentence, when my brain hurt, but I knew it was because I was creating more synaptic connections, or when I thought about the Philippines-based fisheries research that I would eventually be able to do with my new ability to connect with people. Just meeting my classmates was reward enough.

OK, maybe there were a lot of clear reasons why learning a new language was awesome.

Ilan sa mga kaklase ko. Some of my classmates. From left to right: Joy Sales, Doctoral Candidate at Northwestern University; Christina Ayson, Masters Candidate in Asian American Studies at UCLA; Jaynel Santos, Masters Candidate at Cornell University; and me. In the background, Jorge Bayona, Doctoral Student in History at the University of Washington. Selfie credit: Joy Sales.

One particularly rewarding moment was also one of the least expected. On my way to Newfoundland for an International Marine Conservation Congress, I found myself sleeping in the Montreal airport after two canceled flights, an extra bus trip and two missed conference days. The airport was cold, pop music was blasting and my sleeping chair was hard. My initial excitement about spending four whole days in the research world had turned to disappointment that I would now miss more Tagalog classes and only make it for one conference day.

But, I saw a little glimmer of light when I learned that the airport Burger King sold coconut water. In line to buy a little can of tropical hydration, I came across a Spanish-speaking woman having trouble ordering a hamburger. The cashier didn’t understand Spanish, so I translated the order into French (we were in Montreal, after all). That didn’t work so I tried English. She got it that time, turned to the cook and said “isa lang”. My hazy brain did a double take; had she just spoken Tagalog? I asked her to repeat it and sure enough she said, “isa lang” or “only one.” She and the cook were Filipino!

I had learned in class that the Philippines are the largest exporter of workers in the world, so it immediately made perfect sense. The cashier and I proceeded to have the most extensive Tagalog conversation I had had to date with a non-student, non-teacher, ‘real’ person. My exhaustion lifted and I left with a grin on my face. I had helped a woman order, connected with a Filipino in Montreal and used English, Spanish, French and Tagalog (admittedly with varying levels of competence).

These are the moments made possible by knowing different languages and they are priceless. But, ultimately, I am not studying Tagalog just so I can meet cool people all over the world or resolve burger-ordering dilemmas.

Our wedding was in September and went off without a hitch (well, the hitches remained within an acceptable level thanks to many helping hands) and my husband Peter and I decided to go to the Philippines for our honeymoon. We stayed for two weeks on Siargao, a small island known for its surf. I practiced my Tagalog wherever we went. Pinoys’ (or Filipinos’) eyes lit up in amazement, and I think a bit of pride, when they heard a foreigner attempting their language (even if poorly). Local Filipinos told me I was doing well, said “keep learning, it is important” and patiently taught me new words or waited while I attempted to get a sentence out. We laughed at my mistakes and took a lot of selfies.

Ilang mga larawan sa honeymoon namin. A selection of photos from our honeymoon (clockwise from top): posing with our friend Jappy and his family at a fiesta they invited us to share in; Jappy and I showing off a flying fish, or bangsi, from his catch when he let us tag-along for an evening fishing trip; me and Jappy again; Peter and I enjoying a couple of fish that Jappy sent us home with at a local restaurant; Peter with a bangsi.

Peter started to learn words too and our meals became study sessions, with the wait staff becoming our tutors and friends. With our focus on the language, we also became acutely aware of how other foreigners spoke to the hotel staff. In contrast to my bumbling attempts at Tagalog, we watched as many foreigner visitors spoke loud, poorly enunciated English to the waiters. Their communication was largely devoid of pleasantries, which could theoretically be a tactic to make what they were saying more understandable, but it didn’t take much observation to see that some were simply being rude. Met with a lack of understanding, the foreign patrons repeated the same phrases over and over, without speaking clearly or slowing down and continuing to use slang or shortcuts that wouldn’t commonly be heard in the Philippines. In our two weeks we saw only one pair of tourists attempt to learn even the most basic Tagalog.

The lack of effort to speak the local language was not limited to tourists – immigrants (read this to learn why I didn’t say ‘expat’) turned out to be similarly unconcerned. We met an American man who had lived in Siargao for 16 years who barely spoke any Tagalog or Visayan (the local language) and an Italian man who was married to a Filipina woman and had just opened a restaurant there, but hadn’t made an effort to learn the language. (She gave him a hard time for that after we met. We all did in fact!). Of all the foreigners we met in Siargao, only one spoke a good amount of Visayan and he had a local Pinay wife and a child and had lived there for more than five years.

This is why I am learning Tagalog. Because, as simply stated by my classmate and colleague Joy, “If you’re an outsider, you should acclimate to the place, it shouldn’t acclimate to you. If outsiders mold a place (i.e. colonialism, tourism), then the place is no longer for the locals, but becomes transformed into a ‘paradise’ for outsiders, and that’s just f***** up.”

Guro ko, Ate Jessica at ako. , Ate Jessica and me. Navotas Fish Port Complex, Metro Manila, Philippines. Photo credit: Peter Elkins.

Currently I am in Metro Manila continuing my Tagalog lessons and doing fieldwork for my Master’s thesis. It continues to be an uphill battle and I continue to have days when I ask myself ‘why?’ But, unsurprisingly, the benefits outweigh the costs.

Learning Tagalog has allowed me to speak with fisherfolk, resource managers and conservationists to understand the motivation behind the use of a highly risky fishing practice, called ‘compressor’ fishing and its extent in the Philippines. Breathing through long hoses that funnel air from a boat-based compressor directly to the fisher’s mouth, compressor fishers in the Philippines (and many places around the world) can access deeper areas of the sea for longer periods of time to enable more catch than would be possible with breath-hold diving alone. Often their catch is of high-valued species and, with extended time at depth, they are able to carefully select which animals to harvest. But, the economic benefits often come at a price, with injury to the diver and exploitation of the resources being common outcomes.

The importance of this practice to fisherfolk livelihoods, health and general well-being requires that I approach it with a culturally-grounded understanding of its complexity.

While many of the people I have talked with speak English, being able to converse in ‘Taglish,’ the commonly spoken combination of Tagalog and English, has allowed people I’ve spoken with to represent their experience accurately, without being white-washed.

Often I am asked, “Why are you learning Tagalog? Everyone speaks English there” and, almost to a person, this question has come from foreigners who visit the Philippines regularly but have not learned the language. This distinction is important because these are exactly the people who need to be most aware of what their presence in the country means within the larger context.

The Philippines was a colony of Spain for 371 years, then an unincorporated American colony for 44 years. The country was briefly occupied by the Japanese during WWII and finally achieved independence in 1946, though the American influence has remained strong to this day. The Spaniards required Spanish fluency to hold any governmental position, but actively denied the local population the opportunity to learn the language despite local demands for it. According to Jorge Bayona (his back was pictured earlier), Spanish was withheld because the friars wanted to keep their monopoly on being able to communicate with the natives in their many languages (there are more than 100 different languages throughout the 7,000+ Philippine islands) and the secular officials didn’t want the natives to have a single language they could all communicate in. Despite all of this, a generation of Spanish-speaking ilustrados, or Filipino educated class, emerged.

In contrast, the Americans introduced English to the Philippines and indoctrinated the country through an education system shaped largely around that of the US. English has remained so prominent that it is the second national language, along with Filipino, it is used in all government proceedings as well as most larger businesses, and school children are still required to learn it in addition to Filipino and their regional or provincial language. So, most Filipinos you meet will speak three separate languages, but no, not everyone speaks English fluently. Considering these aspects of Philippine geography and culture, I think it becomes clear that to expect English fluency is akin to propagating a long history of colonialism in which language has been used as a tool to control.

Guro ko, Ate Jocelyn, at ako sa bahay niya pagkagaling sa simbahan. My teacher, Ate Jocelyn, and me at her house after church. Quezon City, Philippines.


I make this point not to say, “Don’t use English ever” or imply that English is inherently bad. Literacy in English helped Filipinos and people all over the world connect through what has become a global language. This is a great thing! In fact, the top two jobs held by Filipinos – Overseas Filipino Workers, or OFWs, and call center workers – have hugely benefited the country economically and are, in part, possible due to their high level of English proficiency. It is common that in the Philippines and other countries, people who speak two different languages are able to communicate due to English being their common second language. These situations are not the problem.

What is the problem is the assumption that everyone should know English. That when you visit a country, the local people should conform to your language and culture and you are not responsible for conforming to theirs. When this is the attitude and, as we saw play out in Siargao, visitors are effectively saying, “My language/culture/way of life is better than yours and I am not the one who needs to put effort into this communication.”

Limang estudiyantes galing sa University of the East Caloocan sino ginagawa ang dokyu tungkol sa pagrerefurbish ng Navotas Fish Port Complex. Five students from the University of East Caloocan who are making a documentary about refurbishing the Navotas Fish Port Complex. Photo credit: Peter Elkins.

My hours of studying are not only ensuring that my research efforts here are productive but that they are working against colonization in the process. Learning the language has come with learning local culture (both inherently and by design) which means that when I reach out to request an interview, I can do so politely – according to custom here, not where I come from. When I speak broken Tagalog, I sound childlike, I make mistakes and I am humbled by the attempts to connect; not them. On a deeper level, learning the language and speaking it helps me think more like local people than I would if I were strictly speaking English. There are certain phrases that I hear every day here in the Philippines for which words don’t even exist in English. This reflects different values and customs. So, when I introduce myself in Tagalog, it shows Pinoys that I care about their values, and I do.

My good friend and freelance journalist, Serena Renner, recently visited me in the Philippines. To ease my transition to Manila, she and I and my husband, Peter, went to the often raved about, island of Palawan. I translated and helped us get around the bustling tourist center of El Nido, off to some hidden beaches on rented motorbikes and from one town to another on countless tricycle rides. We made new Pinoy friends and had fun swapping English words for their Tagalog counterparts. For how much Serena travels for work, I was surprised when she told me that she’s become less interested in visiting places without speaking the language herself or being with someone who does. She certainly doesn’t have a hard time finding her way around (she is a navigation pro), but, as she was reminded during our trip, language makes all the difference. When you can’t have a basic conversation with people, your encounters inevitably feel less connected and less authentic, she said.

Nagpapa araw kami ni Serena noong biyahe niya! Serena and I soak up the sun during her visit! Nagtabon Beach, Palawan. Photo credit: Peter Elkins.
Nakikita ni Serena ang mga local na aktibidad sa isa sa maraming biyahe namin sa trisikel. Serena checks out local activities on one of our many tricycle rides.

To learn the language of every country you visit might not be feasible for most and I certainly don’t do this, nor do I advocate for it. But there are some best practices that are both easy to follow and abundantly rewarding:

1. Be respectful. This shouldn’t have to be said, but, at a bare minimum, be nice to people when you travel, you are in their home.

2. Be patient, be humble and know that the responsibility is on you to communicate in a way they understand and not the other way around.

3. Learn what words you can while you are there – hello, please, thank you, excuse me, no problem. These go a long way and take minimal effort.

4. Best yet, learn some useful phrases before you go. The resources are endless these days with online learning modules, YouTube videos, even educational videos for kids on a topic you care about. Reach out to people from the country you plan to visit who live nearby or who you might know through a friend. If you’re lucky, they might even share some slang that will wow the locals.

Lastly, if you are planning to live, work or travel abroad for any length of time, learn the language. You’ll make more friends, you’ll experience the places you visit more deeply, your life will be better and so will theirs.

My studies in Tagalog and Filipino culture were funded by the Foreign Language and Areas Studies (FLAS) Fellowship as awarded by University of Washington’s Center for Global Studies and Southeast Asian Center at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Affairs. I thank these organizations immensely for this opportunity and recommend FLAS Fellowships to anyone interested in furthering their language and cultural studies.

I also thank Lily Zhao, Serena Renner, Joy Sales, Jorge Bayona and Eddie Allison for their thoughtful edits and contributions to this blog post.

For further reading on language and decolonization in the Philippines see the following articles:

Rafael, V.L., 2015. The war of translation: Colonial education, American English, and Tagalog slang in the Philippines. The Journal of Asian Studies, 74(02), pp.283-302.

Bernardo, A.B., 2004. McKinley’s questionable bequest: Over 100 years of English in Philippine education. World Englishes, 23(1), pp.17-31.