Philippine languages

[OPINION] Mother tongues are not the cause of poor education results

Firth McEachern

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[OPINION] Mother tongues are not the cause of poor education results
'It is false to say that the mother tongue policy is the cause of the poor PISA results. If anything, the PISA results are a negative evaluation of the bilingual (English and Filipino) policy...'

Mother tongues are not the cause of the Philippines’ poor education results. Consider the evidence objectively. 

Shock spread through the Philippine education sector when the results of an important international assessment, PISA 2018, came out last year. The Philippines scored at or near the bottom of nearly 80 countries and territories in reading, math, and science. This prompted some politicians to blame DepEd’s mother tongue policy for this poor result, with corresponding draft bills to abandon this policy. 

While the PISA results are certainly disappointing, we must analyze the facts before making knee jerk reactions. The mother tongue-based multilingual education policy (“MTBMLE”) is not to blame, because the PISA test takers did not even undergo the mother tongue program. The mother tongue policy was rolled out nationwide in Grade 1 back in 2012, when the PISA 2018 students were in Grade 4. Throughout their basic education, the PISA students were subjected exclusively to a bilingual policy, with English and Filipino as their mediums of instruction; they never had any mother tongue classes. Hence, it is false to say that the mother tongue policy is the cause of the poor PISA results. If anything, the PISA results are a negative evaluation of the bilingual (English and Filipino) policy, which continues to dominate the basic education system from Grade 4 onwards. 

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Even before K-12 and MTBMLE, the Philippines’ performance in international assessments like TIMSS 1998 and 2003 was low. And in the early 2000s, below 20% of students passed high school readiness tests for English, Science, and Math. The latest PISA 2018 is a continuation of this trend. This points to a couple of possibilities: that the predominant bilingual policy continues to have a negative effect on English reading, math, and science, or that non-language-related factors are to blame. According to many studies (OECD, 2005), family and community background play a major role. For example, in wealthy OECD countries (for which PISA was created), parents read to their children before they go to school, which gives them a boost early on. This is not common practice in the Philippines. Policy makers should be questioning the appropriateness of PISA, and seek assessments that are more suitable for the socioeconomic and linguistic context of the Philippines. 

The government’s MTBMLE policy is a landmark reform that has put the Philippines on the world stage. Many multilingual countries have been struggling to figure out how to make their schools more inclusive to linguistic minorities, and the Philippine government had the courage to actually do something about it. Using multiple languages is not easy, but it is a critical step in making education more accessible and fair for a diverse population. We must concentrate our efforts on improving the MTBMLE program, rather than making drastic moves like scrapping it. After the hard work and progress in training, developing instructional materials, and curriculum alignment, we owe continuity to our teachers and learners. 

The MTBMLE program is still young — the first cohort to have experienced mother tongue-based instruction from Kinder to Grade 3 hasn’t even graduated yet. The future is actually bright, as our experience over the last few years have provided rich information on the challenges and successes of MTBMLE, and what needs to be done to improve teaching quality, the learning experience, and learner outcomes. One big area for improvement is in the upper elementary years. Currently, children are forced to shift from mother tongue in Grade 3 to English and Filipino in Grade 4. Empirical evidence from other countries and Philippine studies like Basa Pilipinas suggest that this transition is too soon and too abrupt. Cognitive, linguistic, and psychology research has found that developing literacy skills and acquiring knowledge is more efficient in one’s first language, not to mention the social-emotional benefits of using the child’s home language in the classroom. We miss a big opportunity to capitalize on these advantages if we limit the mother tongue to Grade 3. 

Furthermore, it takes many years of second language instruction for a typical child to gain enough proficiency to use the second language as an effective medium for academic subjects. Forcing children to shift to their second and third languages too soon will result in frustrated, struggling, and semilingual learners. We should not be surprised therefore, if the current MTBMLE model up to Grade 3 does not deliver excellent results — fast-track “early exit” programs rarely work. If we would like to achieve the full potential of mother tongue-based multilingual education, we must extend it further, not cut it short. A longer, additive MTBMLE program will be better aligned to children’s natural pace of cognitive and linguistic development. Scrapping the program entirely would be irresponsible, bringing us back to the ineffective bilingual policy that failed a large swathe of Filipino children for decades. Let’s fix the multlingual model with strategic adjustments to the timing and proportion of languages in the curriculum, guided by research like much-needed longitudinal studies, and make sure that our benchmarks reflect a more gradual approach. Let’s also fill the gaps in implementation vis-a-vis instructional materials, language competency and content expertise of teachers, teaching strategies, assessment, and other components of quality education.  

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. We must strengthen the use of first languages in elementary school, improve the quality (not necessarily the quantity) of second language instruction therein, and concentrate efforts in enhancing the role of English at the secondary level when students have the metacognitive maturity to succeed in such an academic setting. 

Finally, since socio-linguistic conditions and ideologies vary dramatically across the country, it is highly unlikely that a single language policy, whether in favor of English, Filipino, or mother tongues, will satisfy the needs and desires of the majority of people. A one-size-fits-all approach stifles innovation, perpetuates inappropriate learning delivery, and angers detracting ideological camps. A promising way forward would be for DepEd to formulate several possible language-in-education models, whose curricula differ in the number and sequence of languages. Regions, divisions, or schools could select and tweak the model that best suits their context. Such flexibility exists in other parts of the world, like the Basque Country, which offers 3 or 4 multilingual education models that schools can adopt. 

In conclusion, if we want an education system that starts from where the learners are (a basic principle of responsive education), values the intrinsic worth of Filipino people, culture, and their native languages, and provides enough variety to effectively meet the needs of our diverse population, then we must strengthen, lengthen, and diversify the MTBMLE program, with a realistic timeline and a gradual increase in second languages. 

If done right, we will see an improvement in education outcomes, provided that our tools of evaluation are holistic and reflect the multilingual character of our schools and communities. –

Ched E. Arzadon is a professor at the College of Education, University of the Philippines Diliman, with a main research interest in alternative and inclusive education.         

Elizabeth A. Calinawagan is a retired Professor of Filipino and Linguistics and former Dean of the College of Arts & Communication, University of the Philippines, Baguio.

Firth McEachern is a Harvard University and Ateneo de Manila graduate, and has worked as an education researcher, trainer, and consultant for local and international organizations.

The Multilingual Philippines is an informal network of advocates for flexible and inclusive policies related to language and education. It is composed of educators, students, attorneys and other members of the public from various regions, institutions, and language backgrounds. They raise awareness about the value of linguistic and cultural diversity, and the need for this diversity to be adequately represented in government policies for the benefit of all Filipinos.  

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