Thoughts on Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education in the Philippines

Earlier this year the Department of Education released a Department order providing for the implementation of Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) on kindergarten and grades 1 to 3 in all public schools as part of the new Administration’s education reforms. The said order provides for the use of the students’ mother tongues both as a subject matter and as a medium of instruction.

The positive effect of using the first language as a medium of instruction has been consistently backed by linguistic studies, so there is little dispute with regards to this reform’s benefit. Using the first language will invariably make access to the body of knowledge in a particular science much easier for an individual. But it must be pointed out that the Philippines has a rather complicated linguistic situation. While the Tagalog language serves as backbone to a national language in the making (called Filipino), there is a multitude of languages being spoken as mother tongues in the Archipelago. There are areas with a dominant L1 (mainly homelands of the language, the Tagalog area for Tagalog, Cebu and Negros Oriental for Cebuano, Iloilo and Bacolod for Hiligaynon, etc.), but there are areas with a great degree of linguistic diversity (Davao, Iligan, etc.), and application of the program on the latter will prove to be difficult. While the Mode 2  of the DepEd order provides for the use of the Lingua Franca of the area (which is among eight major languages identified by the order),  the Mode is only in the event that the L1s being used do not have an orthography (or simply when the L1s used are not among the eight identified major languages). There will be a theoretical complication when the situation is to be applied on an area with such linguistic diversity that there are more than one of the eight major languages being used (i.e. in Davao, Cebuano only outnumbers Tagalog by a small margin; in M’lang, North Cotabato, Hiligaynon barely outnumbers Cebuano).

In practice of course, this doesn’t cause much of a problem. The emphasis on “multilingual education” will entail that the teacher will end up using a combination of the languages. In Davao for instance, the teacher will end up using both Tagalog and Cebuano. But this, however, opens up another complication. Though this is still in the early stages of education, we would be prudent to assume that the model will be applied to all levels of education in the future. As such, we must express concern over the development of the languages being used. Take note that in linguistically diverse areas, a combination of the languages will inevitably be used. And this, of course, is code switching. Code switching, any student of language knows, will end up diluting the languages, reducing them to only a fraction of their original form. In the worst case scenario, the students will be proficient in only the code switched form of the language, and they will be barely capable of uttering a sentence purely in one language.

the above scenario is a double edged sword, and we must do justice by pointing out the pros and cons thereto. Perhaps the best thing about the situation would be a contribution to the development of the National language in the making. If we are to conceive the Filipino language as a creole of the different languages in the country, then the MTB-MLE will add the colloquial arena of the development of the National Language to the academe. But conversely, the program will end up incorporating English, and any attempt to keep our would be National language pure of western influence impossible. Similarly, the same program will end up limiting the intellectual pool of each language, as ideas will still remain represented by specific words. To maximize the benefits of the program without suffering its drawbacks, it is suggested that efforts for the intellectualization of the local languages be continued. In line with the order’s mode 2, the same efforts for intellectual development of the languages should also be applied to other mother tongues, so that the small group of languages identified as linguae franca will be expanded. I will write a post on the possible development of a National Language later on.

There is also a big problem with the register of the language to be used. While it is easy to say that “using the mother tongue will make comprehension of the subject matter easier,” we must consider the fact that the mother tongue with which the student is comfortable is in its colloquial form, and the colloquial form will invariably be inadequate as an instructional medium. The terminological precision inherent in an academic form of language remains foreign even to the native speaker of the same language who only comprehends it in its colloquial form. That, of course, is the case in the Philippines, and we thus get jokes about the apparent difficulty of comprehending math lessons if they are to be taught in Tagalog. Even if we are successful in trying to intellectualize our local languages in order to exorcise the colonial demons that compel us to borrow lexically, we still end up forming a language difficult for the student to comprehend. This matter, of course, is not unsolvable, but the solution will be difficult. There must be, once and for all, an institutionalized mass effort to increase the competence of our people in academic register. To put it simply, we must begin undoing our natural aversion to smart talk. This will involve a great amount of effort on the mass media to make their language more terminologically precise, and on the meta-level, they must contribute to the positive portrayal of such terminologically precise language. If we can somehow bridge the gap between colloquial language and academic language, comprehension in class, no matter how difficult the subject is, will definitely be higher than otherwise.

The government is taking small steps to what could be a reform with tremendous impact, and to rush would merely be detrimental. It is nevertheless hoped that all implications, no matter how small they may seem will be taken into consideration. MTB-MLE in the Philippines could work wonders, or it could destroy our linguistic identities irreversibly.


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