Trilingual problems

Like almost everyone in the Philippines, I can speak both Filipino/Tagalog (my native language) and English. But because I grew up in Manila, most people don’t know that I can also speak another Philippine language called Cebuano, which is spoken in Central Philippines. So, this makes me trilingual.

Many of my monolingual friends assume that knowing three languages means that I am equally proficient and comfortable in all of them. That’s not really the case since each language comes with its own challenges. These discussions with my friends made me ponder on which language I’m actually most comfortable with and my struggles in using them.


This is my first language and I grew up speaking it. We also have a Filipino subject in school, so that means I also learned it formally and studied the grammar rules, literature, and other fancy language stuff.  Because of my exposure to the language, I can say that I’m most comfortable speaking in Tagalog. But despite that, I still encounter a number of difficulties with this language.

First off, it’s difficult for me to speak in Tagalog without code-switching. Code-switching is very common in the Philippines because there are some English words that are shorter, less awkward, and easier to pronounce than their Tagalog counterparts. Since I grew up speaking this way, it’s very difficult for me to speak in pure Tagalog without code-switching.

Second, I can read Tagalog just fine most of the time. I can read normal texts, signs, lyrics, comics, and messages. But reading Filipino literature is very difficult for me. Sure, I understand [most of] the complex words and sentence structures in many Filipino novels or poems when presented bit by bit, but it takes me a long time to actually comprehend the whole body of a given verse or paragraph. This is why I never read any piece of literature translated into Filipino even if it’s readily available. If I want to read something, I always choose the English version.

And since I find it difficult to read Filipino literature, it’s even harder for me to comprehend academic material written in Tagalog. Heck, even class lectures conducted in Tagalog leave me clueless. Just imagine my happiness when I transferred to a new school in high school… and all the teachers were teaching in straight English! #relief XD

I think this next one has a connection with the previous points: I can write and compose pieces (such as this one!) in English just fine, but I cannot do this in Tagalog. If you asked me to write a blog entry in Tagalog, it would take me forever. I don’t know why, but my writing sounds more “natural” in English, whereas in Tagalog it seems like I’m trying too hard to make it look and sound good.

So, I’m most comfortable speaking in Tagalog, but don’t expect me to do other stuff such as writing compositions and reading complicated material.


Unlike Tagalog, which I acquired naturally, I learned English through many years of studying. In many Filipino schools, English is the medium of instruction, so you’re actually forced to learn it even if you start off in school knowing absolutely nothing. Since I spent such a long time learning English, I can say that I’m very comfortable in speaking, reading, and writing English! In fact, I prefer attending classes conducted in English and reading English materials. English newspapers, books, academic journals, magazines, you name it. I prefer them over Tagalog ones because I read faster in English and I find written English easier to understand than written Tagalog. I can also express myself better when writing in English. I think it’s because I’m more exposed to English writing and literature.

As for speaking, of course I’m going to have a weird accent since I’m not a native speaker, and sometimes I stutter, but overall I can express myself quite well in English. I can speak straight English without needing to code-switch.

But hey, noticed how I didn’t include listening in the list of stuff I’m comfortable with? Well…

It actually depends on the accent!

Filipino schools teach American English, so I’m most familiar with the [standard] American accent. But then again, it also depends on the region! When I travelled to the US, I found that I had a hard time understanding the accent at the Southern parts (hello, Georgia and Alabama!). Other accents I have trouble with are Australian and New Zealand accents.


My parents both speak Cebuano. While I was growing up though, my parents never really spoke to me in Cebuano because we lived in Manila, a Tagalog-speaking community. There was no need for me to learn it. But at home, we had maids from the province whose first language was Cebuano, so my parents talked to them in this language. So, I didn’t really acquire Cebuano through active use, but more through passive listening. As a child, I could understand Cebuano conversations perfectly, and I had no problem reading common signs, texts, messages, comics, and lyrics in this language as well.

Speaking it, though, is another thing!

If I were to evaluate myself, I would say that my Cebuano is conversational, but if a native speaker were to talk to me in Cebuano, they would know that I didn’t grow up speaking it. I’ve got the grammar down, but my accent is very soft, very Tagalog, for a language with such strong emphasis on its syllables. Sometimes, I also take a while to find the right words in Cebuano because there are times when I think in Tagalog and then translate my thoughts to Cebuano.

There are also some funny quirks that I’ve noticed with my Cebuano abilities:

First, I can read Bisaya but I can’t write and spell to save my life. Seriously. I don’t even know the spelling rules in Bisaya, such as when to put a dash in a word and all those things. Sometimes I wonder if my cousins think that I’m not interested in them because I don’t text them at all, but it’s not that! It’s just that I can’t spell! XD

This might be the weirdest of them all: I can understand Bisaya when it’s being spoken, but I don’t understand it AT ALL when it’s being sung. I don’t know why! Even if the singer is enunciating well and putting the accents in the right places when singing, I just couldn’t piece all the words together and figure out the meaning. But when I read the lyrics along with the song, that’s the only time it all makes sense XD

As you can see, I still have areas for improvement in all three languages, even if I already spent most of my life speaking and learning them! Now I wonder if my Chinese proficiency would even reach these levels… Haha!

Do you speak another language? Are you equally proficient in all the languages you know?


  1. I wish I did because my dad is from El Salvador which is in Central America and thus, he speaks Spanish but I don’t. I was never taught but my husband and his family do. His family is from Honduras but my husband code switches all the time.

    I am good in English and that’s all, which makes me sad most of all because I long to learn Spanish and I know while it isn’t too late but I know that it won’t be easy to pick up and besides, I can’t roll my r’s, but I have studied French and loved it. I know how to speak phrases and even can understand some articles by giving context clues based on the words I know.

    1. Wow, I envy you for being able to understand a little bit of French! French has a lot of speakers and is a very useful language, it would definitely be awesome if you further developed your French skills! I tried learning French when I was young but unfortunately, I’m not very good at European languages for some reason! Haha! 😅

  2. I think your English is just excellent! And how cool that you know some other languages!
    I love languages and learning languages, I’ve always learned new languages quite easily, call it talent or whatever, or I think it’s just because I have a fascination for languages and grammar. I know English almost fluently depending on the topic, Swedish is my mothertongue, and I know Italian quite well, at least at a conversational level.
    I used to know German quite well and French ok but not having used them for ages, I’ve forgotten a lot of it. I understand both quite ok when written, but not spoken, and I can’t speak but I probably would be able to write simple sentences.
    I’m a bit sad that I used to study German and French and didn’t work on them.. but after I studied Italian and was in Italy and all that I started doing my nursing training and never had time for languages. Sadly.

    1. Oh my gosh Susanne, it’s so amazing how you know so many languages! It sucks when you don’t use a language and forget what you’ve learned, but I think if you used and get exposed to German and French again, you would be able to remember everything in no time. At least you can still understand some stuff!

      I do agree that to some extent, learning languages is a talent! You remind me of my brother and dad – they both can pick up new languages very easily! Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit that talent so language learning for me is twice as difficult haha!

  3. That’s interesting that the language you’re most comfortable speaking in is different from the one you’re more comfortable reading and writing in! I can sort of relate because I can speak and understand casual Cantonese, but I get totally lost when I watch news programs. There’s a bunch of words I don’t know, and it sounds more formal.

    That’s awesome that you’ve learned so much English and have gotten so comfortable with it. It’s hard to be fluent in something that isn’t your native language! I have issues with some accents as well. I noticed that when I visited London, some of the accents I heard were harder for me to understand.

    I’m not familiar with Cebuano and Bisaya at all! That’s cool that you know some of it. It reminds me of my relationship with Taishanese. My grandparents and relatives spoke a bit of it, mixed with Cantonese, so I can understand a bit, but there was no real need for me to learn it either. I can’t speak it at all though.

    English is really the only language that I can call myself fluent in, so I think that’s great that you know other languages really well. I grew up with Cantonese, and I learned Mandarin in college, but because I don’t use them enough, I’ve lost a lot of that knowledge and practice.

    1. Haha, it’s weird right? People would usually assume that I would be good at reading and writing in Tagalog because it’s my mother tongue, but it’s very difficult for me! XD

      Filipino kids learn English starting from kindergarten, so that’s a huge factor. I must admit that it was very hard at first though, since we never speak English at home.

      I agree that languages can be lost or forgotten when not used – that’s what happened to many of my friends who moved overseas and stopped speaking Tagalog. But I think if you practiced your Mandarin and Cantonese again, you’ll remember it all in no time! 🙂

  4. My mother tongue is Japanese, having been born and raised there until I was 7. But from there, we moved to the US, and my mom homeschooled me in Japanese school subjects until I started high school here (before and after my local American school day). After high school, I moved out to go to college, so I started using and speaking Japanese less and less. After college, I moved to NYC, where there are a lot of Japanese people, and ended up working in a Japanese company for a year. That definitely fine tuned my deteriorating Japanese skills! I learned business Japanese there, too, which is almost like a different language. But after a year, I left the company to go on to American ones, and now I’m looking for places to practice and use my Japanese, since I can feel it slipping away from me. At least I can watch anime and jdrama! But I’d love to be able to read Japanese novels as effortlessly as I do English ones and write in Japanese like I used to without so much labor.
    I’ve always had difficulty picking up song lyrics in both English and Japanese, but not sure if I just have an auditory processing issue! Lol.

    1. Ahh, Japanese! I’ve always had a hard time learning Japanese, so I’m still in awe of people who can speak it. Haha! It’s cool that you got to practice Japanese in your job – it must have felt great to use Japanese again after a long time of not speaking it! 😀

      Good luck with your Japanese! I hope you get to use it more often and I hope you’ll be able to achieve those language goals! 😀


    I totally relate with you on the Filipino understanding. I’m OK with understanding, speaking (bits) but reading literature or even a simple Facebook post throws me off completely. 😂I wish I could even write in Tagalog but jeez, it’s so difficult.

    Good luck with learning more Chinese, you can so do it! Your trilingualness is super impressive <3


      Lol, I can’t write stuff like this in Tagalog too! I could challenge myself but it would be hard for me to even complete one blog entry! XD

  6. Interesting to learn about how you feel about the various languages and how you ended up learning them!

    Me I never learned a second language. Just english. (I didn’t have to when I was in school)

    1. Lol, I don’t think I would learn English too if I wasn’t required to learn it in school! I hated speaking in English when I was young because it was so hard for me, and read-aloud sessions were the worst! XD

  7. Biiihhhh!!! I can’t bisaya too but my mom is a Cebuano.
    Only english and tagalog for me XD

    I went to Cebu last year and my relatives talk to me in bisaya and for some reason I can understand them tho i reply to them in tagalog XD It’s weird but that was cool so i guess i can understand a little bit of bisaya XD Hehehehe~ 🙂

    1. Haha it’s awesome that you can still understand Bisaya! 😛 A lot of my friends with Bisaya-speaking parents no longer understand the language so the fact that you can still understand (even if you can’t speak well) is still impressive 😛

  8. I speak English and Chinese and I think I’m way better in writing for English as compared to Chinese. I can converse pretty comfortably in both languages though.

    1. Wow so jealous! I’m studying Chinese right now and it’s not easy at all, especially memorizing all the characters and stuff. It’s fun to learn though! 🙂

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