Growing up bilingual – Part 2 (or Ten tips for teaching your kids Tagalog)

[This is a continuation of Growing up Bilingual Part 1. Another related post is Ugat Pinoy (Pinoy Roots)].

It was smooth sailing until our kids started school. Then suddenly, speaking Tagalog went out of favor. Everyone else spoke English ALL the time, why not us too?

Now how exactly is one supposed to argue with a preschooler about language (or anything, for that matter)? “Because I said so” proved ineffective, so – gently but firmly, the explanation was given: This mommy speaks Tagalog, and if one doesn’t want to speak it, one can choose another mommy that doesn’t. (Gasp!)

It was a gamble, but it worked. Our preschoolers chose to stay home, and speaking Tagalog is hardly an issue now. On occasion, it has even become a source of somewhat reluctant pride.

Still, it remains very much a challenge. For how can one compete with a language like English that is so conveniently monosyllabic? Most everyday Tagalog words contain at least two syllables, whereas their English counterparts only have one: “kain” = eat,“aso” = dog, “bahay” = house, “tinidor”= fork, “plato” = plate. Not to mention four-syllable words like the one for thumb = “hinlalaki”!

It takes so much less time and effort to say something in English, which makes it all the more tempting to use in daily conversation. And yet, daily conversation is precisely the vehicle by which children learn languages best.

A child constantly immersed in multiple languages day in and day out will learn those multiple languages almost by default. He learns to name things in different languages, converse in different languages, hopefully even think in different languages. And the earlier, the better. Perhaps the “twang” will always be there, but the ability to name things and construct sentences properly will already be learned.

Which brings us to my first tip for teaching kids a second language like Tagalog:

TIP #1: Immerse, immerse, immerse.

Use Tagalog in daily conversation, all day, everyday, preferably starting at birth or, if not,  starting now. This takes patience and commitment since Tagalog’s multisyllabic words take longer to say – though thankfully still shorter than Latin!

With young children, even infants, name everything out loud in Tagalog, even pictures in books. Don’t hesitate to speak complete sentences to them, no matter how long the words or sentences – they learn proper grammar and pronunciation (yes, even of tongue twister words and sentences!) by listening to you first.

With older kids, use Tagalog for lists and labels. Print out daily schedules, menus, shopping lists, or reminders in Tagalog – with little clip arts / photos next to the words, if needed, to remind them. Label food in the pantry in Tagalog – those are self-explanatory. Every time your kids look at and read the lists, they are reminded not only of the Tagalog words and meanings, but also their spelling. (When we translated the daily schedule of tasks for our kids to check off, they not only got a kick out of the Tagalog words but also enjoyed figuring out which task was which.)

Find Filipino classes or camps if there are any nearby – there are only a few of these, unfortunately, mostly in areas with large Filipino communities. If you live in the New York/New Jersey area, there is a school founded by Venessa Manzano called The Filipino School of New York & New Jersey.

Keep in mind that immersion is the best way to learn a language. And if your children are not surrounded by other Tagalog-speaking Filipinos all day, then you’re their only hope for immersion.


This tip actually came from my Ate (older sister): When explaining what a Tagalog word means, DO NOT TRANSLATE. Simple but brilliant!

For when one translates a word into English, the child continues to think in English:

“Aso” means dog.

However, when one explains a word using Tagalog words, the child will have no choice but to listen and try to think in Tagalog:

“Ang aso ay hayop na kumakahol.” (A dog is an animal that barks.)

At the least, the child might ask what the other strange words you mentioned are, leading to further discussion:

“ Ang kahol ay ingay ng aso.” (A bark is the sound of a dog.)

You could use signs or sounds with your explanations, but as much as possible, NEVER directly translate into English.

TIP #3: No bilingual books.

I made this mistake when buying books back home for our kids. I was thrilled when they started reading the books – only to realize they were reading the English translation and completely ignoring the Tagalog words!

Buy books that are in pure Tagalog instead – if you can – choosing ones that are age-appropriate or even lower than their reading level. My mom was able to find some “Teacher Ning” easy-reader books (more like pamphlets) from a major bookstore back home that were easy to read with short words and adorable black-and-white drawings, perfect for children to read aloud (with frequent corrections of pronunciation, of course) and learn new every day words.

TIP #4: Paraphrase.

Since you probably have more books in English than in Tagalog, use them to your advantage by “reading” them to your kids in your own Tagalog translation. They will figure out eventually how to read those books in English, but in the meantime, immerse them in Tagalog this way. There is no other time I’ve found a more captive audience – other than when in the car or watching videos.

TIP #5: Parrot.

If your children speak to you in English, repeat the words back to them in Tagalog.

Child: Look, Mommy! It’s a bird!

You: Tingin po, Mommy! May (mayroong or merong) ibon!

True, this might initially be met with blank stares, but repeat it often enough through the weeks, months or years and they will eventually learn to expect it, hopefully learning some words and possibly grammar rules as well.

Go one step further and ask your child to repeat back to you the Tagalog sentence you just said. He might oblige if he’s in a good mood – likely a rare occasion at best- but he will never do it if you don’t even try.

Children though are surprisingly willing to do almost anything if desperate for something. When they come to you asking for something, have them first repeat their requests to you in Tagalog. Help them say it if they really have no clue, but insist that they say it in Tagalog before you comply with their request. This may prove hard to do at first, but it is quite effective. Our kids no longer whine or roll their eyes when asked to do this, but it does take time and patience – on both sides!

TIP #5: Sing!

As I mentioned in a previous post, music is a powerful tool for teaching, but especially for teaching a language. Tagalog music CD’s are great for the car or at home, and using actions  with songs enhances their memory of the song and make it even more fun. Video CD’s have the bonus of showing kids from back home singing the tunes – hopefully in traditional attire and traditional settings (like the Awiting Pambata by Ivory Records).

If your child plays a musical instrument, try to find Filipino folk songs for them to play and/or sing. Christmas songs are also a wonderful way to learn Tagalog.

TIP #6: Use flashcards.

Kids LOVE flashcards! My mom bought some “kasalungat” (opposites) flashcards back home and the kids love them. You can make your own of everyday words, opposites, colors, animals, and play games to see who can correctly answer the most. They will learn spelling too, an added bonus.

TIP #7: Write.

For kids who can write, dictate words or sentences for them to write out. There is no better way for them to learn proper spelling, grammar, and sentence construction. Oftentimes, they can fudge verbal Tagalog, but there is no way around it when written.

Once they are able to spell words on their own, try dictating Filipino sayings or even parts of Filipino folk tales. This will make it more interesting and at the same time teach them more about Filipino culture.

TIP #8: Take lessons.

Daily conversation with just one person, unfortunately, does not a language make. You are likely to miss out on teaching your kids many words that you may never use on a daily basis. See if you can find Tagalog lessons for them online or on your library’s free online programs. There are plenty of books on Tagalog out there, but audio is best, especially if you yourself are not sure how to pronounce Tagalog words. And as previously mentioned, look for any Filipino classes nearby, such as the school founded by Venessa Manzano called The Filipino School of New York & New Jersey.

TIP #9: Use a dictionary.

Funny enough, some kids will enjoy browsing through a Tagalog-English / English-Tagalog dictionary. One of ours, after going through the A words, started going around saying “Aba!” (exclamation of surprise) after learning the word, every chance she got.

If you are nowhere near other Filipinos, this will be helpful for you as well. You might find yourself forgetting the easiest words from disuse. At different points in time, I have forgotten the words for frog (palaka) and electric fan (bentilador, which I once mistakenly called a labintador  = firecracker!)

This is by far the best dictionary I’ve seen- it has grammar rules, word lists, accent marks, and a large vocabulary. A bit pricey, but well worth it:

  Tagalog-English/English-Tagalog Standard Dictionary: Pilipino-Inggles, Inggles-Pilipino Talahuluganang (Hippocrene Standard Dictionaries)

Online dictionaries abound, but this one in particular caught my eye because of its excellent information on root words, different uses and derivatives of words, and the bonus of audio as well! – Tagalog Lang Online Dictionary

TIP #10: Play.

Kids love spelling words with ABC crackers before chowing down – and Tagalog is so easy to spell! This was done independently by a 6-yr old: “I love Mommy” 🙂

Have word guessing games during dinner or in the car  or whenever you find a captive audience. Ask the kids to translate a sentence, or challenge them to five minutes of no-English. Play Charades or Pictionary – in Tagalog. The list of games you can play are endless, and they will have fun learning.

I’ve included some answers below  to questions which some of you might be thinking:

What if my spouse doesn’t speak Tagalog? Wouldn’t it be rude to speak to the children in Tagalog in front of him?

True – it’s bad manners to say something in a language someone doesn’t understand in front of him. BUT – that only holds true if that someone “doesn’t understand” what you just said. To get around this, simply translate aloud to him what you’ve just said.

For example, if you ask your child to: “Anak, pakikuha ang payong ko,” simply follow it with “Please get my umbrella” for the sake of your spouse. Your child still gets his Tagalog immersion (albeit with accompanying translation), and your spouse is secure in knowing you didn’t just talk about him to your child in a secret language. Who knows – he might even pick up a word or two!

What if I don’t speak Tagalog myself?

There’s no better time to start learning than now. Find a class nearby or an audio or online program to jump start your own learning (some libraries have free Mango lessons with audio) and teach your kids the words that you’re learning – with correct pronunciation. As you start to name, read or label everything in Tagalog, you will both benefit from it and hopefully enjoy learning together!

Won’t my child get confused or his learning of English be delayed?

Keep in mind, if you live in the United States, your child is already immersed in English. He WILL learn it, by default. What’s more, he will WANT to learn English more than Tagalog because “everyone else does”. So the tide is very much against you, even before you begin teaching him. He will learn English much much faster than Tagalog, especially once he starts school.

As for getting confused, trust me – kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Just as an example, our children as young as age 2 already knew: “Si Mommy – tinapay. Si Daddy – bread.” Their little brains learn so much faster than our old ones.

Funny enough, it was us, the parents, who got more confused as soon as our kids started babbling — with monoglot (monolingual) babies, you just had to figure out what word they were saying. But with bilingual babies, you first had to decipher which language they were speaking before you could figure out the word!

But it’s so hard to speak Tagalog!

I know I mentioned how long Tagalog words are…however, there are some major upsides to Tagalog as well.

1) There are no long vowels — the short vowels are the same as in Spanish.

2) Spelling is easy – you spell it as you say it.

3) There are few or no exceptions to the rule when it comes to Tagalog spelling and grammar. English is RIDDLED with exceptions to almost every rule! This makes English quite a difficult language to master.

4) Precisely because Tagalog is multisyllabic AND has short vowels only AND is spelled the way you say it, it is MUCH easier to decipher when spoken by a child. Many English words can sound frustratingly alike, when spoken by a little child (or even by adults!) with poor pronunciation. Asking our kids to translate what they’re trying to say in Tagalog often helps save precious time — and needless frustration!

Our kids still prefer to speak English, but they too find Tagalog easier at times. On one occasion, when one of our kids was very young, she asked for her pajamas saying:

“Mommy, can I have my pa…my paj…my paj…. my pantulog!” 😉

Please do share your own comments, anecdotes or additional suggestions. We’d love to hear them!



Disclaimer: I, Emy Damian, am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

2 thoughts on “Growing up bilingual – Part 2 (or Ten tips for teaching your kids Tagalog)

  1. Emy, this is a fantastic post. I have long regretted not speaking Spanish to our daughters because I was afraid it would delay their acquisition of English even more. Now that they are six, I realize how wrong I was. You give great hints and I look forward to implementing them. Rosa PS Some of the Tagalog words are very similar to their Spanish counterparts!


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