Geographic extent of Visayan languages based on Ethnologue and the National Statistics Office 2000 Census of Population and Housing
So which language am I learning? Visayan? Bisayan or Cebuano? Is it a language or a dialect? The answer depends on where you are, for the most part. Firstly though, let us agree we are talking about languages and not dialects. The word ‘dialect’ demotes the language to a variation of a true language made up of jargon, idiomatic phrases and so forth. Rest assured Visayan is a language, in fact it is the parent of a language family that includes over thirty languages.
Things get confusing when you consider that of the Visayan languages (also referred to as ‘Bisaya’ or ‘Bisayan’ as the ‘v’ is interchangeable with ‘b’ in pronunciation), the one most people think of is Cebuan, also called Cebuano. A variant of this is Boholano, spoken on the neighbouring island of Bohol, but unlike Waray Waray (eastern Leyte and Samar) or Hiligaynon (Negros Occidental and eastern Panay), it is understood by Cebuano speakers on Cebu, Negros Oriental, Bohol, southern Masbate and the non-Muslim parts of Mindanao.
Other members of the Visayan language family are spoken as far north as Bicol and west to Sabah in Malaysia but you probably couldn’t understand what they are saying.
If your asawa comes from Romblon, for instance, her native tongue is Romblomanon. If she is from Aklan, then it would be Malaynon. There are a total of 36 identified Visayan languages and given most of them are limited to relatively small geographic areas, not to mention there being few if any textbooks available, I would suggest you ignore the ‘peripherals’ and focus on Cebuano. If you live on Cebu, then call it Cebuano. If you live anywhere else in the Visayan region or Mindanao, just call it Visayan, or Bisayan. Problem solved.
Many expats ask me whether they should learn Tagalog, Filipino, Pilipino, Visayan, Bisayan or Cebuano or whatever the local lingo is. My answer is that first of all, Filipino and Pilipino are the same language. It is, officially, a polyglot of Tagalog and other languages spoken in the Philippines. In reality it is more than 95% Tagalog so the choice comes down to Tagalog/Filipino/Pilipino or Visayan/Bisayan/Cebuano. As we now know they use different names for the same language, it is a toss up between Tagalog or Visayan. Just to make things a little more confusing, all the Cebuanas I know, asawa included, consider Cebuano as ‘Filipino’, but I digress.
Bottom line; if you live in Luzon, learn Tagalog.
If you want to understand what is said on TV everywhere in the country, learn Tagalog. But if you plan to live in the Visayas or Mindanao, I think Visayan is the one to go for as there may be some irritation if you try to practise your ‘foreign language’ Tagalog on locals. You’ll get more brownie points murdering the local lingo! The main thing is, try to learn the language so as to better understand the people you have chosen to live amongst. You will find life so much more enjoyable, trust me.