Tagalog tips for beginners

Pronunciation Pitfalls

If you see a “y” preceded by an “i” in Tagalog, it means the surrounding area is going to have a non-standard pronunciation nine times out of ten, but there are other letter combinations to be aware of.

*niy*a = nya, like Spanish enye followed by “a”.
*siy*a = sha as in *sh*oot
*diy*an = e.g. Diyan ka lang! (Stay there!) pronounced like Jyan, J as in John
*tiy*ak = chak (meaning doubtless)
ko*ts*e = like Spanish coche, same meaning. “Car” is more commonly said as sasakyan (root sakay)
ka*ly*e = derived from Spanish “calle”, but pronounced “call yay”.

Verb Conjugation

The most important takeaway about Tagalog conjugation is that verbs conjugate for grammatical aspect (like tense, but not exactly) and grammatical focus (like case, but also not exactly). Verbs do not conjugate for person or number. Linguists (and Wikipedia) call conjugations in Austronesian languages like Tagalog “triggers”.

Many English sources get this wrong (especially those written by natives, surprisingly – but native speaker Dr. Teresita V. Ramos is the best at explaining this) and will lead you astray.

Also, you absolutely have to know this if you’re ever going to speak Tagalog beyond an elementary level.


Western verb tenses answer the question of “When did X happen?”, while Tagalog verb tenses answer the question of “Is X finished?”

Tagalog can also answer the Western question if pressed, it just does it with the words ngayon (now), kanina (earlier) and mamaya (later) instead. Teleserye will often use the words “NAKARAAN” (Na- karaan[root]) (“Last time”) and “SUSUNOD” (su- sunod[root]) (“Coming up next”) for this purpose – but this is not the default way of speaking.

There are four aspects, the infinitive, completed, incompleted and contemplated aspect.

For the root takbo (running):

The infinitive tumakbo is approximately “to run”;
The completed tumakbo is approximately “ran” or “did run”;
The incompleted tumatakbo is approximately “is running” or “runs”;
and the contemplated tatakbo is approximately “will run” or “would run” depending on context.

For the root takbo, the infinitive and completed conjugate the same – this is normal, I’m not aware of any verb that this does not happen with. In practice this rarely leads to ambiguity, but it can.


Focus is most like case in Western languages, but to be honest a lot more fun. Verbs can have at most one focus at a time – the most common ones are actor and object.


Compared to some other languages I’ve studied, Tagalog is really free of edge cases and outside rules, but there is one major one – not every root can use every trigger.

There is a major split along the lines of um/mag. Verbs that take one can rarely take the other. Fortunately, this is *mostly* based around transitivity – there are exceptions, and verb types are very sensitive to your dialect of tagalog. In Manila Tagalog (“Standard Tagalog”, “Filipino”), kain takes -um-: kumain. However, mere kilometers away in Cavite, “magkain” is the preferred form.

If a verb does not take mag-, it also won’t normally take nag, na, or ma.

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