This is the most academically ambitious of all the Pilipino/Tagalog learning manuals currently available. (The title calls the language Pilipino, but that's as much a political as a linguistic term, and as a linguist I prefer the name used in international scholarship.) Anyone who manages to work conscientiously through the material, supplementing it by reference to a good dictionary and exposure to the spoken language, now easily accessible via Internet radio and TV stations, should emerge competent in most forms of Tagalog used in metropolitan areas, apart from street slang. The big problem, though, is that a solo learner may well never actually get that far. And even one who did might well subsequently be mystified by the terminology used in other manuals about the language, because many key grammatical terms used here are seldom found anywhere else.
There are four volumes, and you do need all of them (though in the age of Internet audio resources, you can do without the very expensive tapes). Despite being listed on Amazon as separate items rather than a set, none of the four books is self-contained, and the division seems to have been determined as much by the practicalities of binding rather than any "natural breaks" in the content. The thorough and indispensible index is in Volume 4 alone, along with keys to all the preceding exercises.
Designing a language learning course of this scope is a highly-skilled undertaking, and many of the key elements have been done very well indeed. Most people, if asked to state a strategy for teaching a language, would probably say something like "start with simple sentences, then move gradually on to more complex constructions". That might be easy enough to do with a language that is basically similar in grammar and syntax to English, but Tagalog is a different matter. Many everyday utterances in Tagalog, including those made by small children with as yet only limited knowledge of their native tongue, employ grammatical structures markedly different from anything found in mainstream European languages. So devising teaching material accessible to newcomers from the earliest stages without distorting the realities of how natives actually speak and write is a considerable challenge, but one to which the authors have risen splendidly.
The material, divided into twenty-six learning units interspersed with review sections, consists of invented dialogues, accompanied in due course by largely unedited indigenous narratives, both written and oral, all followed by the usual mixture of drills and exercises, with grammar notes of varying levels of detail and abstraction. It progresses in a carefully managed spiral ascent, partially looping back on itself in a way that sustains a sense of secure understanding, while always rising a little higher and offering a broader view with each loop. In particular, the repeated visiting of common particles like "pa", "na", "lang" and so on, each time round gently introducing more complexity in the light of additional grammar and syntax learned in the interim, is a model of how to build up understanding and confidence, and the sections of "word study" which occur in the last two volumes, where a single root is explored and exemplified from a wide range of angles, are a treasure-house of idiomatic and grammatical insights, expressing, and one hopes also kindling, delight in the nuanced richness of the language.
But for all these core qualities, there are problems which mean I can't honestly claim that this course is likely to do "what it says on the can", namely serve as the sole or principal means of self-instruction for a serious would-be learner of the language. The problems fall into two groups. Some are systematic, the product of what I think are mistaken authorial decisions. Others are more superficial or accidental, but troublesome nonetheless, suggesting shortcomings in quality control during the final stages of production.
The main difficulty has to do with the choice of grammatical terminology. I share the authors' obvious belief that it is impossible to convey an advanced understanding of a language which is as different from European patterns as Tagalog without giving the learner an explicit grammatical frame of reference. The question is: how should the necessary grammatical knowledge be expressed?
Unlike the general linguist, who wants to grasp principles common to groups of languages or even to "language itself" (supposing there is some such thing) the language learner is more interested in a grammar that bridges the knowledge gap between the new language and whatever language(s) the learner knows already. So a grammar for learning purposes needs to describe and build on similarities between the known and unknown languages wherever possible, while clarifying differences wherever they matter. And in Tagalog, seen from a European perspective, there are a lot of differences, which all matter a great deal. The problem then is how to describe these differences in a way that conveys the specific uniqueness of the new language, while keeping some sort of contact with grammar of a kind the learner already explicitly or implicitly knows. I do not think this text solves that problem in a satisfactory way.
Everybody agrees that the key to mastery of Tagalog is grasping the way verbs work. Even revisionists who deny that Tagalog has any verbs in the usual sense still accept that understanding the functioning of those things-they-prefer-not-to-call-verbs is a learner's essential task. There are two generally-accepted ways of describing the distinctive features of verbs in Tagalog and other Philippine languages. One way builds on the (more or less) familiar notion of active versus passive "voice" in English, and explains that in Tagalog there are five (or maybe more) "voices". The other way abandons the terminology of "voice" altogether and speaks instead of different types of "focus". The "focus" terminology came to prominence in the mid 1960's. It was used in the influential (and still indispensible, though long out of print) Tagalog Reference Grammar by Schachter and Otanes (1972) and was been adopted in J Donald Bowen's Beginning Tagalog (1965, revised 1978), which I have reviewed elsewhere on this site, and in the various widely-used textbooks by Teresita V Ramos. It also predominates on the excellent Tagalog learning site at Northern Illinois University [...] to which many solo learners turn for assistance.
I believe personally that for purposes of teaching the language, the "focus" terminology makes the distinctive nature of Tagalog verbs and their relationship with other components of the sentence much easier for an English-speaking learner to understand. On the other hand, I accept that from the standpoint of comparative or general linguistics, the "voice" terminology gives a better account and a clearer picture than the focus-based description of how Tagalog stands in relation to other languages and to translinguistic principles of grammar . So pragmatically, if I was asked to talk to fellow linguists about the main features of Tagalog, I would want to describe it as having a multi-voice verb system. But if my task was actually to teach the language to people who knew only mainstream European languages, I would opt for the "focus" terminology when introducing them to the grammar and its application in those initially bewildering verb forms.
It is plain that John Wolff, the principal designer of this course, will have no truck with the "focus" terminology, to the extent that it is nowhere mentioned even in passing, despite its dominance in most of the other textbooks for intermediate and advanced Tagalog learners published in the past forty years. That might not have mattered so much, if only Wolff and his associates had been more consistent and forthright in their presentation of voice in Tagalog. But instead of following through on their convictions and presenting the multiple voices in undisguised and appropriately categorised plurality, they make a halfhearted attempt to align the multiple voices of Tagalog verbs with the significantly different dual voice categories of English. Tagalog agent voice ("actor focus" in the alternative terminology) is treated as the equivalent of English active, while all the other voices are shoehorned into an attempted semi-parallel with the English passive, being referred to as "direct passive", "conveyance passive", "location passive" etc.
In particular, using the label "direct passive" (= undergoer voice or object focus) is of dubious pedagogical value. A learner who already knows what a direct object is, and that the grammatical subject is the undergoer of the action in an English passive expression, is likely to be bemused by statements like "the subject is the direct object", whereas a learner who is hazy about English subjects, direct objects and passives will not benefit from the supposed analogy with English passives which is the only real justification for the use of labels like "direct passive".
I should explain that what this text calls the "direct passive" provides the Tagalog equivalent of what are in English common active-voice utterances like "he cooked the fish", which in Tagalog would be expressed using undergoer voice (object focus): niluto niya ang isda. It is of no help to the learner whatsoever to call this usage "passive" and thus invite the interpretation that somehow it "really" means "the fish was cooked by him". It doesn't, and a learner who gets the idea, even subliminally, that that example is "passive" in anything remotely like the English sense will be burdened with a major obstacle to grasping the essential workings of the language. When we move on to other voices, the bafflement grows stronger, and a reader who lacks a substantial grounding in general linguistics and academic debates about West Austronesian grammars will not be able to turn for elsewhere for clarification, since other authorities, no matter whether they prefer to speak of voices or of focus, use a very different terminology to describe and explain the same things.
There are other methodological-terminological problems as well. The persistent use of the terminology of tense, for instance. The currently predominant view among experts is that Tagalog operates not with tense but with aspect: i.e. its verbs indicate not whether an action is in the past, present or future from a particular temporal perspective, but whether the action (no matter what its position on a timescale) is thought of as completed, started but unfinished, or not yet started at all. Referring to these aspects as though they were tenses (while truthfully but unhelpfully pointing out that all what is mis-called the "present tense" can refer to actions in the past present or future, etc etc) sows unnecessary confusion.
A further problem area lies in the marking of stress/vowel length (the two are complexly related in Tagalog) and the presence or absence of a glottal stop after a final vowel. These features are extremely important in Tagalog, but they are not marked in the way the language is written in everyday use, so that the standard printed version of a given form does not in itself indicate how the form sounds, and therefore which word it actually represents. Dictionaries and other reference works of modern Tagalog/Pilipino do, however, indicate stress/vowel-length and terminating glottal stops, using a standardised set of accents. This text, however, chooses to use to indicate the same things using a different set of accents of its own devising. Or rather, it uses some of the same accent markers as the official version, but assigns a different significance to them. This is doubly unfortunate: in addition to employing accents in a way that differs from the norm elsewhere, it fails to warn the learner that this accent usage in non-standard, and so the solo learner who tries to supplement solo learning from, say, a dictionary or grammar that uses the generally-accepted official accent notation might easily be led not just to confusion, but to serious and unwitting error.
Turning finally to what I have referred to as "quality control" issues, it is very important that the editing and proof-reading of language primers should extremely painstaking, especially where a text is to be used by lone learners. Otherwise, the learner can be led astray by undetected errors, or become anxious over things in the text that are plainly amiss. Sadly, editing standards in academic presses have fallen in recent years. Whereas I have yet to discover a single mistake, editorial or typographical, in the much older Bowen textbook from UCLA, this mid-to-late 90's Cornell offering has rather too many errors that have survived into the revised edition. The English glosses are sometimes of dubious idiomatic quality (where the oddity of the English seems to stem from unedited drafting by a non-native speaker rather than a desire to illustrate a point of idiom by literal translation) and on occasion just plain wrong. Tables of word-forms are sometimes laid out incorrectly, so that items are in the wrong column, or an item in one column is missing altogether, throwing the rest of the table out of kilter and pairing up Tagalog items with the wrong English partners. And sometimes those accent markings, as well as being intrinsically misleading, are wrong even in terms of the book's own idiosyncratic scheme. The apparent lack of close scrutiny in the final production stages of this book is a real pity in view of all the outstanding work, careful research, and fine scholarship that plainly went into its conceptual and developmental phases.
Finally, there is the matter of the title and the expectations it raises about "self-instruction". I suspect that a UK purchaser of this book would have good grounds to return it for a refund under the Trades Descriptions Act. On this score, the authors themselves can be absolved of any blame. Their preface could not be clearer. "The materials are meant for self-study combined with classroom study", says the first page, along with a suggestion that there should be a "minimum" of two hours "work with a tutor" for every ten hours of private study. Add to that the fact that there follow nine whole pages in Tagalog only, addressed to a tutor and headed "Patnubay sa Paggamit nitong Aklat" ("Guide to Using this Book", though a true beginning self-instructor could hardly be expected to know that) and it is obvious that the claim that this work is expressly designed for the self-teaching reader/learner probably originated somewhere in the publisher's marketing department some time after the authors' work was done.
So: do I personally regret buying these four volumes? No, not for one moment. Because I already knew enough of the language to ignore the grammatical terminology, or rather, to translate it for myself into more sensible categories, I was and still am able to benefit from the wealth of insights on offer. But I am glad I didn't try to choose this course as my prime means of teaching myself Tagalog/Pilipino in the first place. I honestly don't think I would have progressed anywhere like as far as I have done in exploring this beautiful and wonderfully expressive language, if this substantial but regrettably flawed textbook had been my main or only guide.