Tagalog Super Learner

A Lifetime of Tagalog

Hello, I go by “jkos” online and I run the website along with a number of talented Filipino contributors.

What has Refolding changed about your outlook on language learning or your TL?

For a long time, I’ve been thinking about how learning a new language requires a heck of a lot more work and immersion than your typical high school classes and “Fluent in a Week!” books would have you believe. Finding Refold was great because it crystallized and expanded on those ideas in a way that makes a lot of sense.

Out of all the languages in the world, why did you choose yours?

I collaborated with a number of Filipino contractors at work, and one of them introduced me to someone online, and we hit it off. Nine years later, we got married! I am a lucky guy to have met my spouse and to have things work out as they did. Life can be so random at times. We’ll be celebrating our 7th wedding anniversary (and 16 years of being friends) later this month. 

We like to visit the Philippines every year or two (although that has been disrupted by Covid lately), and so it only makes sense to spend time learning the language well.

How many hours were you able to immerse per day?

1.5 – 2 hours a day on average when I’m taking my studies seriously. My motivation comes and goes in waves, but I know I’m not as hardcore as a lot of Refolders. I think consistency is key, even if you only have time for 30-45 minutes, that’s a lot better than nothing. 

I know a lot of other people try to go quickly when learning a new language, but my history has been much more of a slow burn. I think it can be discouraging to people to see all these stories of others learning so quickly, immersing 4-8 hours a day, when that’s just not a possibility for many. In my experience, you can still reach a fairly high level with reasonable, consistent studying spread out over time. It doesn’t have to be a race.

How do you balance Refold/Immersion learning with a full-time job or school?

Establishing a routine is helpful. A lot of my growth has come through consistency rather than volume. Ideally, I spend a half hour or forty-five minutes studying with my coffee in the morning before work, and then another forty-five minutes to an hour after work, and then I’m often reading myself to sleep or watching YouTube videos in my target language before bed. If I have time, I’ll spend extra time on my studies on the weekends. I think that’s an attainable strategy for many people who are genuinely serious about learning a new language.

What are the hardest parts of the language for you so far?

Since I run I hear a lot about the difficulties other people have with the Tagalog/Filipino language: word order rules, certain grammatical constructs, tricky verb conjugations that involve infix transformations and syllable duplication (For example, to conjugate “to walk”: take the root “lakad” and insert “-um-” in the middle of the word, and then duplicate the first syllable of the root and add that to the middle, to make “l-um-a-la-kad” = “lumalakad,” the uncompleted aspect of “to walk”). 


As an intermediate/advanced student, the biggest stumbling block by far is that you need to know when to choose the right verb focus/trigger and mood before conjugating the verb itself.  This process is just not very intuitive to a native English speaker and that extra layer of processing required to pick the right verb form and conjugate it, slows everything down…and before you learn these things well, it’s hard to construct even the simplest of new sentences and be confident they’re correct.


I still have difficulty with this at times. I also have difficulty with speaking, since my immersion has been heavily weighted toward reading. Lastly, I sometimes still struggle to find content that grabs my attention over long periods of time to further my immersion goals.

What do you think about the media and content available? Are there any types of media or genres that your TL does poorly?

Personally, it is a challenge to find a consistent stream of compelling content that I want to watch or read. As an English speaker, I know I can be spoiled for choice when it comes to content options, and maybe I’m a little picky about what I want to spend immersion time on. In the end, I tend to cycle between: a couple of podcasts, YouTube, Reddit comments, Netflix movies, sitcoms, and reading novels.


My family used to own a bookstore when I was younger, and so I’ve always been big into reading. Wattpad is a good source for free fiction written in Tagalog, and the level of writing is usually not too difficult to understand for beginners (for example, I routinely know 99.5%+ of all words in a Wattpad story according to my vocabulary tracker). But you also have to keep in mind the stories on Wattpad are written by amateur writers, and their stories can often have spelling or grammar errors.   Literary fiction is a great way to expand your vocabulary since those kinds of books tend to be written at a much higher level than casual speech — they are especially good when it comes to more intimate, personal, and emotional vocabulary words. But literary fiction novels for my TL are very hard to find in the US. I had to go so far as to have a friend in the Philippines buy a bunch of books for me, send them to a company to be scanned, and email back the text files.


One thing I didn’t expect from reading, is that I had a strong sense of déjà vu when I really started immersing in  Filipino novels. It reminded me of a couple of summers when I was a kid in the ’80s and had just started reading a lot of novels written for grown-ups, rather than those made for teens. I had that same sense of slowly acquiring a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the intricacies of language. Very similar feeling.

How quickly were you able to begin enjoying immersion?

I can be a glutton for punishment at times, so even in the early days, I didn’t mind sitting down with a difficult novel and a dictionary and laboriously looking up every 7th word.  But I don’t recommend that…working through a good frequency list first and trying to read more level-appropriate / comprehensible content will leave you a lot better off.


Listening to fast, informal spoken Tagalog was a real challenge for a while. If you can find a transcript for audio like this, I’ve found it helpful to spend some time doing transcription exercises: listen to 5-10 seconds, attempt to transcribe, and then check your work against the transcript. I found that doing ~10-20 hours of this practice with informal/casual/fast audio was a pretty efficient way to get a solid base for how casual speakers are typically slurring, eliding, mumbling, or transforming their words (as all people in all languages do), in ways that the textbooks never discuss. This helped a lot to make audio immersion more enjoyable. I found the cost-effectiveness of these transcription exercises dropped significantly after the 20-hour mark, though.

What are your friends’ and families’ feelings on Refold/Immersion learning, the time put in?

I don’t talk about it, my wife knows and that’s about it. I think people look at you like you’re crazy for spending so much time on something that doesn’t make money and doesn’t seem like “fun.” On the other hand, when I meet someone who is serious about learning a language, Refold and immersion are some of my first recommendations.

What does the role of time tracking play for you?

I don’t focus a lot on time tracking. I’ve found I get caught up in being super meticulous in recording everything, which makes me spend more time on that task than is reasonable…time better spent studying. So I quit doing it. I do try to stick to a roughly timed daily routine, and I do like to track the number of pages I’ve read.

Why did you decide to build a site just for Tagalog?

I studied Spanish years ago, and I was surprised and frustrated at how limited the tools and resources for learning Tagalog/Filipino were. There were several online dictionaries of varying quality, but they didn’t offer much in the way of pronunciation guidance (which I think is super important in the early stages to avoid having to relearn how to pronounce things later). I could also see that the existing tools were using the same software search techniques used for English dictionary word searches, and this works particularly poorly with Tagalog for reasons related to the language structure…making the Tagalog dictionaries really unpleasant to use.


Having a computer science background, I started by trying to create a better dictionary, naively thinking I could bang it out in a year or so on the side…that was about 5 years ago, and the project is still ongoing! It’s been a fulfilling endeavor, though, and I am deeply thankful for the many talented Filipinos who have helped develop this project and offer their insights over the years: Miguel Sarne, Marou Sarne, Christian Bueno, Melody Marical, “Tagamanila,” Mar Anthony Dela Cruz, Jenefer Reyes, Roma Jamon, and many more.

Tell us about

This is a labor of love — I’ve spent a lot of time building free tools and resources that I wished I had had when I first started learning this language. 


The dictionary is custom coded specifically to accommodate the quirks of the Tagalog/Filipino language to make it easier to use, with advanced features like built-in word frequency indicators, word affix analysis, 50k+ audio recordings by native speakers of the language, and 20k+ manually created and annotated example sentences – all free.


The Top 2k flash cards were built from hundreds of hours of manually transcribed audio used to create a painstakingly collated frequency list. Since this list is based on audio transcripts from sources like YouTube, I feel the vocab leans heavily toward the practical side, and how the language is naturally spoken: “on the streets.”


There are also tools and drills on for intermediate and advanced students to play around with, including a free LingQ-style text reader that was custom-built to handle Tagalog’s language quirks. The Reader also includes native-speaker audio to avoid ingraining pronunciation errors. Perfect for serious text immersion. 


Advanced users may also find our “Corpus Tool” useful, which includes a  searchable corpus of 24 million words of Tagalog text, useful for doing personal frequency and usage research on words that don’t have a lot of documentation elsewhere. Good stuff!


We also have 100% free online group video meetups on Zoom held five times a week for beginners, with a qualified teacher hosting.

What are your future dreams and goals with your TL?

To become more fluent and proficient with the language. Isn’t that everyone’s goal, though?  I do have a list of 50 Filipino novels that I’m currently working through as my latest project. I also need to improve my speaking skills, which is hard.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

We need a bigger and more cohesive Tagalog/Filipino language learning community out there. Relatively few people who didn’t grow up in the Philippines ever become close to fluent, and that’s a shame. If you’ve ever thought about learning Tagalog/Filipino – give it a shot! Especially if you:

1.) Live in the Philippines or are planning on moving there.
2.) You have a significant other from there.
3.) You have family or relatives from there. 


A basic grammar book, Refold, immersion, and are all you need, and lots of persistence.