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! 🙂

  9. I’m super late, because I gave up blogging for Lent. 😅

    I’m in the same boat as you. I was supposed to be born and raised trilingual (my parents both speak Ilocano), but like you, I grew up in Manila (well, Quezon City but close enough), and the only thing I learned from Ilocano is yes/no, counting 1-10, and “manganen! (it’s time to eat)” LOL.

    In high school, I studied Spanish. I wanted to take French, but parents forced me to learn Spanish instead. It’s not because Tagalog/Filipino has Spanish elements in them, it’s because we live in California (Spanish is the second largest language spoken here) and it’s impractical to learn French in a Spanish- speaking U.S. state. Point taken. 😄 I took Spanish for all four years, my final year being on the AP (advanced placement) level of Spanish so that I can write essays and reports completely in Spanish.

    In college, I took Japanese. My mom suggested that if I wanted to pursue to learn another foreign language outside Tagalog/Filipino or Spanish, to learn another East/Southeast Asian language. Chinese was too intimidating, Korean looked easy but the pronunciation scared me, there weren’t any other language classes available for Southeast Asian languages like Indonesian or Malaysian, so I picked the one in between – Japanese. 😅 From those Japanese classes, I learned and discovered a lot of things from the classmates (besides the language) – anime/manga (because non-Asians in that class then were all anime/manga fans), early J-Pop and early K-Pop (a quarter of my classmates were Korean, and they were fans of both), and I also rediscovered my old childhood hobby of origami and a new one, kirigami (paper cutting). I ended up focusing on Japanese more than Spanish that it almost became my “natural” third language. I used it to watch anime without the subtitles (failed on that one), used it to read original, non-English translated manga (the Furigana writing helped, but the dialogue was overwhelming for me), even used to translate J-Pop music lyrics and magazine articles on my past fandoms. After I left the fandoms of anything Japanese-related, my Japanese started to deteriorate a bit. I wrote my latest blog entry since the end of Lent (earlier today) and rediscovered my love for J-Pop again 😅

    Hope you had a wonderful Easter with your family. I know it’s late commenting but I’m back now haha!

    1. It’s impressive that you know Spanish and Japanese, because I tried learning them when I was young but failed miserably. Hahaha! Lack of practice really makes you forget a language no matter how long you’ve been studying, but I hope your rediscovery of JPop will help you practice your Japanese again 😛

  10. I found this post interesting because I’m bilingual (trying to be trilingual with Japanese, haha), so I really liked reading about your experience. I’ve never heard of Cebuano, so thanks for introducing that to me.

    I think it makes sense that we’re better at some of the languages we know rather than knowing everything proficiently. I speak, read, write, and use English the most, so that’s my native language. I can speak, read, and write Korean, but I prefer speaking over reading and writing. And while I can read and write Korean, don’t expect me to write anything longer than two sentences, haha!

  11. Same on the Filipino/English problems! I’m most comfortable speaking in Filipino but I’m much more comfortable reading and writing in English. I remember all the Filipino novels we had to read in high school (El Fili, etc.) and I have to re-read pages a lot of times to understand it fully, compared to English novels that I usually get on the first go. There was also a time that I can understand conversational Nihongo from all the anime I was watching, but I can’t speak the language lol.

  12. I really find this interesting, reading your blog I find your English perfect. I have always been curious when you speak and are fluent in multiple languages which language do you think in, which language you do you prefer to speak and write in, etc and this kind of make sense to me that sometimes you might not be as comfortable in your native language as in another language that you tend to use more. I guess I always thought that you would still be more comfortable in and prefer to use your native language. My father for the first 6 years of his life only spoke French, neither of his parents spoke English only French, he went to a French residential school, his siblings and friends only spoke French, then at 7 he was taken away from his family and put into an English boarding school in Manitoba and forced to only speak English which he could not speak at all. He learned fairly fast and he said it became the norm for him to think in, speak and write in English. He all but forgot French. Now he struggles to understand someone when they speak French to him, he can not hold a conversation and gets frustrated and speaks English (with a slight accent). However when my brother and I were growing up if he got frustrated or angry he would slip into French and yell at us without even realizing, Sometimes whole sentences! It got to a point that we would just answer back in English as we both knew what he was saying and half the time I’m not sure he even realized he wasn’t speaking to us in English and he would deny it.

    1. Hahaha that story about your dad is so funny! XD I guess that even though you forget a language due to lack of practice, you will still be able to retain some of your knowledge and it will show when you least expect it! XD That definitely happens to my Bisaya haha!

  13. My parents came from different provinces (Dad is from Ilocos and Mom is from Bicol). I’m really comfortable in Tagalog conversing but when reading the deep Tagalog words I still need to find the word on the internet. But having born in Germany, it was German that I learned first then came Tagalog (we used it when communicating inside our house). English was next, in which Im more comfortable reading and speaking it. But I cant help to stutter sometimes especially I speak four languages. I learned Cebuano when we moved in Cebu; actually i can understand only conversational but not the deeper words especially those used in mass or songs. I have a small grasp of Bicolano and Ilocano–just like you, I can only understand very well but when spoken, I’m done. Haha!

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