Last June, Korean became a foreign language elective in a few Philippine high schools. In my reaction post (Link), I explained why I was so impressed . . . and asked what it would take for Tagalog to become equally popular overseas.
Two months ago, the answer seemed obvious: The Philippines should simply do what South Korea is doing. That is, we should export our romantic dramas and our pop music to as many countries as we can. But while I was doing research on the best TV series and musical artists to promote abroad, I learned something that I did not expect: We are already doing this.
In my first “So You Want to Learn Tagalog?” post (Link), I mentioned the successful teleserye Pangako Sa’Yo (international title: The Promise). I myself didn’t watch it when it first aired in 2000; but a few years later, when I went to university in New Zealand, I became friends with a Malaysian girl who had loved it. After it finally ended, she remained a fan of one of its leads, Jericho Rosales.
I remembered her whenever I found fan uploads from TV series that Rosales did after Pangako Sa’Yo. Whether they were short clips or complete episodes, they attracted international fans, who pleaded for English subtitles. Rosales and his Pangako Sa’Yo co-stars are not the only Filipino actors with this kind of popularity. I’ve seen similar comments for trailers of movies featuring a new generation of teen stars. I’ve also started seeing more English subtitles!
In short, my recommendation to promote Tagalog TV is almost two decades late. Our series already have a large international fanbase. Although the majority of international fans will always prefer English, I’m sure that a passionate minority would love to learn Tagalog.
Tagalog Pop Music
In comparison, Tagalog music does not seem equally successful. (Again, I am basing my impressions on YouTube comments.) In general, unless the singers are also popular actors or the song came from the soundtrack of a teen movie, the music isn’t very accessible to non-Filipinos. If you don’t understand the language, you need something else to attract you to a song. Sometimes a catchy melody is sufficient. (It worked for the Spanish-language hits Macarena, Aserejé, and Despacito — and the French song On ne s’amera plus jamais!) At the moment, however, a connection to a movie seems to be the best attractor.
But the game may change very soon! The European Broadcast Union wants to spread the Eurovision brand through “Eurovision Asia”. (Link) If it becomes a success, then the Filipino participants will reach a wider international audience much more easily.
Contrary to what I thought two months ago, Tagalog series, movies, and music already have many foreign fans. So today I have a new answer to my question: What would it take for Tagalog to become a popular elective in an international high school?
Students who are interested in Tagalog are only half of the equation. The other half is teachers who can explain it. And believe it or not, such teachers are hard to find. The average Tagalog speaker has no idea what the rules of the language are. He or she may even insist that there are “no rules.”
I recently asked the two best Tagalog speakers I know: “Could you teach Tagalog as a Foreign Language (TFL)?” Both of them admitted that they could not. And despite twelve years of Filipino classes in school, neither of them knew how many verb tenses their first language has. (Answer: Four) Their stories could be follow-up articles to Khatzumoto’s controversial blog post Grammar Does Not Exist. (Link)
While I swear by Khatz’s “media immersion” method, I also love learning grammar. And I am personally sad that we Filipinos cannot explain our own languages — Tagalog, Bisaya, Ibanag, Itawis, and many others. On the other hand, we easily explain foreign languages. Thousands of Filipinos teach English as a Second/Foreign Language online or in international schools. Based on my own experience, our English classes taught us more about English grammar than our Filipino classes taught us about Tagalog grammar.
In other words, before we can start dreaming of Tagalog as a Foreign Language, we’ll need to work on Tagalog as a First Language.