Philippine languages

[OPINION] Mother Tongue policy wreaks havoc on English proficiency

Estanislao Albano Jr

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[OPINION] Mother Tongue policy wreaks havoc on  English proficiency
'With private schools sans the Mother Tongue policy arriving at the goal of English proficiency very much earlier than public schools, what then is the legitimate point of this policy?'

In their article “Mother tongues are not the cause of poor education results,” Firth McEachern, Elizabeth Calinawagan, and Ched Arzadon wrote: “Improving English proficiency is an important goal, but getting rid of the mother tongues in the critical primary years is not the solution. Getting young children who have not mastered English nor Filipino will fail. It will alienate most, benefit a small elite, and end up being a huge waste of resources.” But they did not offer any details as to how these effects took place and who were affected. 

Strangely, too, one of the references for their article “10 reasons why mother tongues in schools should be saved” contradicts their assertion. The authors presented the findings in the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) study “Starting Where the Children Are’: A Process Evaluation of the Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education Implementation” by saying that “in mother tongue-based classrooms, children are more active and participatory,” which fosters “critical thinking and means they are more in control of their learning.”  

However, they did not comment on the most compelling finding of the PIDS study, relative to the question of retention or abolition of the Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE): that private schools spurned the Mother Tongue as medium of instruction, and produced pupils who run circles around public school pupils in contests conducted in English because of their superior knowledge of the language.  

Jennifer Monje, lead researcher, was quoted in the Mindanao Daily News on March 19, 2020, as saying: “They [private schools] feel that by not using the mother tongue of the community, they have an edge over public schools because they still maintain English as the mother tongue of the students.”

With private schools sans the Mother Tongue policy arriving at the goal of English proficiency very much earlier than public schools, what then is the legitimate point of this policy? 

The unusually low English scores in the 2018 Grade 6 National Achievement Test (NAT), which was taken by the pioneer MTB-MLE batch, confirms the  above-cited findings of the PIDS that we have never had public school children weaker in English than during the implementation of the MTB-MLE. It also shattered the claim that the policy facilitates the learning of new languages. The overall national English mean percentage score (MPS) incurred a 5.71 or 14.14% loss, which is unprecedented, the previous record being the 5.26 setback experienced in 2006. 

Remarkably,  Region 7 and CAR – second and third in Reading Literacy among local regions in the Programme for International Assessment (PISA), third and first in English in the Grade 6 NAT in 2017, and third and second in English in the Grade 10 NAT 2017 – registered massive losses of 8.38 or 19.41% and 9.91 or 20.4% of their respective previous English MPS. These were likewise unprecedented because the highest setback for Region 7 previously was the 5.51 in 2006 and for CAR, the 2.99 in 2011. (We only have the results of the two regions as DepEd Central refused to release the nationwide data, despite acknowledging our request under the Freedom of Information Act on June 18, 2019.) 

It is very telling that in 2017, when elementary products of the 2002 Basic Education Curriculum (BEC) took the test for the last time, the English MPS gained 0.57.

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The glaring disparity in how the K-12 Curriculum and the BEC value the learning of English, summed up in the table below, rules out coincidence as an explanation to the unusually low English scores in the 2018 Grade 6 NAT. Clearly, the decline in English performance in 2018 was the result of the marginalization of English in the curriculum occasioned by the adoption of the MTB-MLE. There is no imaginable way short of a miracle that the products of the K-12 Curriculum could be at par with the products of the BEC in English, given the crippling handicaps in learning English they have had to face.

Again, citing local and international studies which show that the current transition to second and third languages is too soon, the authors recommended an MTB-MLE model where the Mother Tongue and Filipino are established in the elementary years, with English to follow in high school when the students are already prepared for the lessons. 

This is ridiculous.

First, why claim that the timetable is too short only now? The DepEd and other exponents have been touting for more than a decade that the policy will lead to quicker learning of reading and speaking in the second and third languages, and likewise to quicker acquisition of competencies in other academic areas, and now all of a sudden, they tell the country the program is defective? For what were those 8 years for – an experiment?  Second, of what good then is the Mother Tongue policy when, under the  Bilingual Education Policy (BEF), Grade 3 pupils were already writing informal themes and orally communicating in English?

For more than a century, Filipino children started their love affair with  English in Grade 1, which keyed into our becoming among the best non-native speakers of the language. So why are we delaying this immersion to Grade 4, and, if the authors are to be heeded, to Grade 6? 

Between the 3 authors and other exponents of the Mother Tongue policy, including the DepEd, and the private school authorities who stick to the bilingual policy, it is safer and vastly more beneficial for our schoolchildren that our policy makers take a cue from the latter, because they attain the important goal of English proficiency very much quicker than the DepEd. Furthermore, private schools cannot afford errors because their survival depends on the quality of education they provide to their clients. The question therefore is: if the BEP were benefitting only a small percentage of their students, would private schools be sticking to it?

The loss of competitiveness of public schools in contests conducted in English, and the unusually low English MPS of the pioneer MTB-MLE batch,  do not only manifest the effects of the diminution of English in the curriculum, but likewise bare the miserable failure of the Mother Tongue to deliver on its claim that it leads to the quicker learning of new languages. –

Estanislao Albano, Jr is a journalist based in Tabuk City, Kalinga, and is connected with The Manila Times and the Zigzag Weekly of the Cordillera.

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