Why Expats In Cebu Should Learn Visayan

speak visayanFirst of all I want to say that this is only my opinion and you are welcome to make any comments you wish and form any opinion you wish also.

Being married 21 years to a Cebuana does not make me an expert but these are some of the things that I feel are worth sharing.  Most American men that I know who are married to a Filipina tell me one of the first things their Filipina wife will teach them are Visayan words that can be used in the bedroom.  This was certainly true for me and laugh as you will, seems to be true.  Well of course, this is one of the reasons you should learn Visayan, but not the only one.

I realize that not everyone has the ability to learn another language easily.  I consider myself fortunate that I grew up in California and learned Spanish at an early age.  My father fed “braceros” at the drive-in that he operated and I helped when I was about 9 years old and of course needed to know some Spanish by then.  Visayan (correctly pronounced “Bisayan” and spelling is often exchanged freely) is a true language and not just a dialect in the Philippines.  The “Indios” (as the Spanish called the local natives) were speaking Visayan when they arrived in Cebu and they had a written language called “Alibata” (a type of sanskrit) which has since been lost.  At any rate, Spanish has “invaded” Visayan so that if you are like me and are familiar with Spanish, you can understand about 30 – 40% of Visayan already (true, the pronunciation may be a little different, but you still should be able to recognize numbers, days of the week, months, etc.).  So on my first trip to Cebu, I could actually understand a little of what they were talking about and was able to respond with some of my own Spanish.  I farmed for 18 years and hired mostly Mexicans to pick grapes for raisins that I grew and I consider myself semi-fluent in Spanish.  I took Latin in high school (probably the last generation to do so) and that helped with my Spanish also.

Cebuano is actually a dialect of Visayan because some terms/words/pronunciation is unique to Cebu.  “Bis Dak” or Bisayan Dako means “deep (or big) Visayan and usually refers to someone who is very provincial and does not mix Tagalog or English in their speaking.  Many Visayan are proud and call themselves “Bis Dak”.  Visalyan modern rock music is referred to as “Bis Rock” or Visayan rock (and roll).

Pilipino (remember there is no “F” in the original languages of the Philippines), the national language of the Philippines is based on Tagalog and of course is different than Visayan tho some words are the same and have the same meaning, but also some words that are the same have different meanings.  All Visayans know Tagalog, but few Tagalogs know Visayan.  English of course is the one language that unifies the country.  The Philippines had an opportunity to make English their national visayan area philippineslanguage, but choose Tagalog instead.  The U.S. needs to make English as the national language but of course it is not.  Filipino English, if you haven’t found out already, is different than American English, British English, Australian English etc.  But that is a whole other subject.

Back to why you should learn Visayan and the MOST IMPORTANT reason…people will hesitate to talk about you “behind your back” in front of you if they think you might know what they are saying.  Did I explain that right?  If you know even a few words and use them regularly, most Visayan will appreciate that you are trying to learn their language (and therefore their customs/traditions).  I have a friend who only learned to say “I understand what you are saying” in Visayan and of course that has caused some embarrassing moments for him, but at least it kept people from saying bad things about him or talking about him.

Another reason you should learn Visayan is…why wouldn’t you?  Even if you are a permanent resident, you are still a guest in their country and it is simply a courtesy to greet them in their language, please, thank you and any other courtesies you would extend in English in dealing with someone or doing business with them.  Especially if you are married to a Visayan, I think it would make sense to learn at least some words so that you will not have to always depend on your wife to tell you what people are saying.

I realize most people speak English, but not all are comfortable with speaking English with a foreigner.  Almost all courses in college are taught in English and especially in Cebu City, you can go to any store in the malls and get by with only English.  But in the province…..that’s another story.  I am certainly not fluent in Visayan, but consider myself “semi-fluent”.  I’m a friendly person and enjoy meeting people and getting to know them and joking with them.  Visayan is certainly necessary for this.  I also can explain projects to my construction staff (most have minimal English) and can socialize with my neighbors.  Shopping at the public market is much easier with a little Visayan and you can barter much easier if you know Visayan.

Of course, I have the unique position with my staff (all relatives) at our resort and am proud to say that their use of English is much better than most staff of hotels/resorts in Cebu because of my influence.  Many of my nephews/nieces have gotten good jobs in the Philippines and abroad because of their English skills.  But I really believe that their English skills improved because of my Visayan skills.  I think you can understand that communication is more than just words and for me to communicate to my staff, I need to use both Visayan and English.  Well, that’s another topic I guess.

To me, Visayan is a colorful language and a fun language.  I’ve learned many Visayan songs and love to sing Videoke.  Makes people laugh to know I’m singing Visayan songs and they are singing English songs.  I’ve learned thru listening to what people are saying and then asking them what is that word in English.  My wife is not so patient with me, but she is helpful also.  But mostly I’ve learned thru Visayan/English and English/Visayan dictionaries that I bought at National Book Store.  More often now, I just use the computer.  There are many web sites that are helpful.  Just google “Visayan” and see what you get.  You can also google it this way  “Visayan word for _____” or visa versa.  Finally, I probably learned the most Visayan when our children were little (they were born in Cebu and spent the first formative years there)…and that’s probably why some people tell me I speak with a “baby” accent,  lol.  My parents were shocked when they came to the U.S. for the first time and knew no English…but of course, within a year, they were both fluent in English and had no problems at all in school.

Hope I’ve convinced you to learn at least a few words!


  1. Sure, learning Visayan could be helpful.


    Learning language is a feature of age, certainly somebody who is 55 and was skilled in language could learn many words, phrases, or even get the gist of many conversations. A talented guy might become moderately fluent even.

    The truth is that if you learn a language before your 18th birthday you will also learn an accent native to your learning place. If you learn it before your 40th birthday you will always have an accent native to your first language, after that you will be lucky to get just the basics, about 1000 words, virtually no grammar, you will respond to questions with memorized sentences.

    Of the foreigners I know, less than 5% who came to the Philippines after their 60th birthday ever could talk politics, find out the thinking of a native, or even understand casual conversations when just listening.

    After learning some Visayan, and using it when ever I could, I found that it was of little use to me. Sure, I can ask directions (but I can’t tell if he is giving me the correct directions), ask how much something is, know the local name of hundreds of products, but, the average Filipino has nothing to tell me. My life was just too different from his.

    In my 20 or so years in the Philippines I made CLOSE friends with only 3-5 Filipinos (guys). Yes I knew the names of thousands and their vocations, but I am talking about a guy to hang with. Foreigners in the Philippines, perhaps 100.

    Who cares if they insult you in a foreign language? How childish. What is 100% true is that they will only see you as a stereotype of some foreigner that somebody speculated the thinking of years ago. And when you counter his thinking he will become offended that you are lying to him.

    And last of all, it is almost certain that those who you talk with will have better English than you have Visayan. True many are not comfortable with English, but when push comes to shove, they can get their message across. Very possibly if you try to use a few Visayan words with the group you are with they will simply say “oh, you speak Visayan” and from then on out they will talk around you so fast it is impossible for you to enter into the conversation.

    I suggest you never speak visayan to a police officer at a traffic stop, but instead use very fast college English and look confused when he replies. Very likely he will just give up on his beef and wave you on.

    1. Thanks for your opinions Joe. In my situation I’m glad I have learned Visayan. Police? Forget the police, its the LTO you need to worry about. They are the ones with power.

    2. I love Filipino people and happy to say I have hundreds of close Filipino friends in the Philippines and here in the U.S.. Not so many close American friends in Philippines or U.S. tho.

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