The Language of Learning: Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education in the Philippines

By Celeste Ann Castillo Llaneta
Reprinted from The Forum – March-April 2010 – (Vol 11 Issue 2)

“Studies show that a language’s
efficiency is related to its direct

usage. For example, Cebuanos

prefer to use English instead

of Filipino, which negatively

affects proficiency in Filipino.”

–Dr. Yolanda S. Quijano
Director of the DepEd Bureau of Elementary Education

Over twelve years ago, Lubuagan was just another cultural community nestled in the northern end of the Cordilleras in Kalinga Province. Then, in 1998, the Lubuagan First Language Component (FLC) multilingual education (MLE) pilot project was initiated through a partnership of educators from the Lubuagan community, the local government, the Department of Education (DepEd), and the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc. (SIL) International Philippines. The FLC program promoted the use of the children’s first language in their basic education experience, complementing the ongoing education in Filipino and English, the two major languages of education as mandated by the country’s Bilingual Education Policy (BEP). Children in the first to third grades of Lubuagan public schools were taught the subject matter in their first language, Lilubuagan, and were then taught to handle the same subject matter using the two major languages.

The results were striking. Teachers observed high levels of participation among the students, and the teachers themselves began to use the first language orally to foster a more dynamic learning environment. In the 2006 National Achievement Tests for Third Grade Reading, Lubuagan students outperformed all other schools in the province by up to 30 percent for both Filipino and English. In 2007, first to third grade students from Lubuagan consistently outperformed the other schools in all subjects, including Math, Filipino, and English, by over 20 percent. 1

In a paper on the Lubuagan Mother Tongue-Based (MTB) MLE Program, Norma Duguiang of DepEd-Kalinga and SIL Literacy Specialist Diane Dekker confirm the effectiveness of the program. “Many parents were afraid their children would not learn English if the mother tongue was used in the classroom. However, we found that children learned faster and better from the very beginning when we taught in our mother tongue. A former Mayor said his young granddaughter learned to read quickly and fluently in the mother tongue in Grade 1 while her older siblings, who were taught to read only in English and Filipino, could not read as fluently or with comprehension,” they write.

“Because of the initial success of the program, more teachers wanted to be trained to use MLE. Parents who once were hesitant about the program were asking for their children to be enrolled in experimental classes and began talking about implementing the program in the whole district.”

The success of the program is also underscored in a video presentation during the 1st Philippine Conference-Workshop on Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education held on February 18 to 20, 2010, in Cagayan de Oro City, which notes the number and variety of bridges that allow the Lubuagan to cross the mountainous terrain to reach the world beyond.

“For the Lubuagan,” the narrator explains, “the ability to learn in their own language has also provided a bridge, a way across what for years has been an uncrossable barrier.”2

Word world

The Lubuagan Experience, as it has come to be called among educators and linguists, is not an isolated case. Numerous studies have been conducted on the efficacy of and educational advantages of the use of the learner’s first language or mother tongue (L1), defined by UNESCO as the language one has learnt first; identifies with or is identified as a native speaker of by others; knows best; and uses most.3 Large-scale research projects by scholars such as Jim Cummins (1981, 1991), J.D. Ramirez, et al. (1991) and Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia P. Collier (1997, 2002)4 have been undertaken in Mali, Papua New Guinea, Peru, and the US, while other, smaller-scale studies have been done in New Zealand, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, South Africa, and many other countries.

In the Philippines, there have been several case studies on mother tongue-based MLE over the years. Among these are the Iloilo Experiments (1948-54 and 1961-64), the Rizal Experiment (1960-66), the First Language Component-Bridging Program (1986-93) in Ifugao Province, the Lingua Franca Project (1999-2001), and the Culture-Responsive Curriculum for Indigenous People-Third Elementary Education Project (CCIP-TEEP) case study (2003-07). The results of these studies show that when teachers use the pupils’ mother tongue, the latter learn to read more quickly; learn better in Math and Science; and improve in cognitive skills. They also participate more actively in classes that use the mother tongue as medium of instruction. Furthermore, children who have learned to read and write in their first language learn to speak, read, and write in the second and third languages more quickly. Overall, those who begin school in their first language with careful bridging with the two second languages emerge as more competent in all areas of study than the children who do not.5

Return to the Mother Tongue

Reviews of the country’s educational system tend to lead to painful discussions of the downward slide of the Filipino students’ academic performance, particularly in English, Science, and Math. In his Primer on Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education and other Issues on Language and Learning in the Philippines (alternately titled 21 Reasons Why Children Learn Better While Using Their Mother Tongue), Dr. Ricardo Ma. Duran Nolasco, a linguistics professor from UP, cites the high functional illiteracy of Filipinos and the high drop-out and non-completion rates of students as the problems the mother tongue-based MLE seeks to address. The Lubuagan Experience only proves that the strategy is effective and may very well be a source of empowerment for the millions of schoolchildren whose first language is neither Filipino nor English but one of the 170 or so languages in the Philippines. On July 14, 2009, in what The Philippine Star columnist Isagani Cruz hailed as “one of the most significant and far-reaching contributions of [then DepEd] Secretary Jesli Lapus to the history of Philippine education,”6 the DepEd issued Order No. 74 series of 2009, entitled “Institutionalizing Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MLE).”

DepEd Order No. 74, which supplants the 35-year-old BEP, takes effect in preschool education on June 2010. Asserting that “the lessons and findings of various local initiatives and international studies in basic education have validated the superiority of the use of the learner’s mother tongue or first language in improving learning outcomes and promoting Education for All,” Order No. 74 institutionalizes Mother Tongue-Based MLE—that is, the use of more than two languages for literacy and instruction—as a fundamental policy and program in the whole stretch of formal education, including preschool.

Under this framework, the learner’s first language (L1) will be used as the primary medium of instruction from preschool to at least Grade 3, and as the main vehicle to teach understanding and mastery of all subject areas like Math, Science, Makabayan, and language subjects like Filipino and English. Moreover, the mother tongue as a subject and as a language of teaching and learning will be introduced in Grade 1 for conceptual understanding, while additional languages such as Filipino, English, and other local or foreign languages are to be introduced as separate subjects no earlier than Grade 2.

In high school, although classes will be taught in Filipino and English, the L1 will be used as an auxiliary medium of instruction; when explaining concepts, teachers will be able to utilize the L1 to make sure students understand.

The MLE “starts from where the learners are, and from what they already know,” Nolasco writes in Primer. “The strategy is to develop the cognitive skills of learners in their L1 first and transfer these skills in their L2s later.”

War of the Words

DepEd Order No.74 is the latest and potentially the most pivotal step on the long road that is the medium-of-instruction debate. This debate has been ongoing since the first Constitution named Tagalog as the language of instruction in 1897, only to have this overturned when the Americans installed English in its stead in 1902. This flip-flopping between languages of education went on for several decades, following the streams of popular political and social thought. The two languages were eventually enshrined in the Department of Education’s BEP of 1974, which made Filipino the language of instruction for all subjects except for English, Mathematics, and Science.

As has been shown in numerous surveys, proficiency tests, and the cries of alarm from corporate employers and the business community, the BEP has not proven quite as effective as hoped. English proficiency among Filipinos has been deteriorating, a serious problem for a people who doggedly regard English as the language of upward mobility and technology. The country, particularly the intelligentsia, takes pride in and relies heavily on its fluency in English for competitiveness in the global economy. Furthermore, judging from the comments of some language experts, the BEP has not improved language proficiency in Filipino either.7

“Studies show that a language’s efficiency is related to its direct usage,” says Dr. Yolanda S. Quijano, Director of the DepEd Bureau of Elementary Education. “For example, Cebuanos prefer to use English instead of Filipino, which negatively affects proficiency in Filipino.”

Children today, she adds, are generally fluent in oral Filipino, because of the influence of Filipino-dubbed telenovelas and shows on TV and the movies. However, reading and writing in Filipino is a different story altogether.

The situation is even worse when it comes to English. Quijano notes that English proficiency has been affected by the children’s lack of exposure to English, for instance, in the media. And since many of the educational materials available in schools and libraries are written in English, there is a decline in language aptitude, comprehension problems, discouragement, and demoralization.

Anguished English

Efforts have been made to rescue the Filipino’s command of the English language from the pits. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Executive Order No. 210 in 2003, and more recently, House Bill 4701, “Strengthening and Enhancing the Use of English as the Medium of Instruction in Philippine Schools,” authored by Cebu First District Representative Eduardo Gullas are examples of these efforts. However, as counter-intuitive as it seems, pressing for English as medium of instruction may not be the way to go in solving the problem. In fact, as language experts have said, it may simply be an extension of the myth that if something is good, then more of that something will be even better.

“It’s not English—it’s the whole educational system,” said Dr. Patricia B. Licuanan, psychologist, educator, and president of Miriam College, during a 2007 Forum on English for CEOs and business leaders organized by Philippine Business Education and the Asian Institute of Management. “The deterioration of English must be understood in the context of the general decline in Philippine education. The problem we are facing is not simply the deterioration of English but also the deterioration of Math and Science. And it is this general decline that undermines the competitiveness of the Filipino and the Philippines. Undue emphasis on English may distract us from the bigger problem. Upgrading education in general should improve the quality of English as well.”8

The same goes for Filipino, a language based on Tagalog, which may only be a second or third language for many children living in remote areas, almost as alien as English itself. Children and even teachers come to class each day and struggle to learn concepts and express their ideas in an unfamiliar tongue, an intense, individual struggle that underpins the greater problem of the deterioration in educational standards. “You’re going to have a very, very silent classroom if you use second languages such as Filipino or English [to teach these children],” Nolasco says.


The Philippine dilemma is a familiar one for many Asia and African countries. Even UNESCO in its paper on “Education in a Multilingual World” (2003) has cited the possible difficulties facing mother-tongue instruction: the mother tongue may be an unwritten language; the language may not be generally recognized as constituting a legitimate language; the appropriate terminology for education purposes may still have to be developed; there may be a shortage of educational materials in the language; the multiplicity of languages may exacerbate the difficulty of providing schooling in each mother tongue; there may be a lack of appropriately trained teachers; and there may be resistance to schooling in the mother tongue by students, parents, and teachers.

Stephen L. Walter, chair of the Department of Language Development of the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics based in Dallas, Texas, states that the numerous reasons to ignore the language factor in educational policies of linguistically diverse developing countries often have little to do with educational effectiveness. These reasons include ethnic competition (using one language will give certain people advantages over other people), the nation-building construct (the belief that building a nation based on a common language is better than a linguistically diverse country), parental misunderstanding (the belief that children don’t need to be schooled in a language they already know), professional and institutional biases (officials and functionaries have based their career on their mastery of a certain language), language development chances (before a language can be used as a medium of instruction, it has to be developed first), curricular limitations, teacher development and professional support systems, the size of the target communities (the belief that it is not worth the effort to teach in a language only a few children speak), and demand-side constraints (no jobs using particular language available).

“Significantly, perhaps, few of these factors reflect a concern for educational outcomes,” Walter points out. “Policy change will come only to the extent that the policy-making ‘bottom line’ is based on educational outcomes rather than ideology or up-front costs.”9

Word by word

With Order No. 74, the Philippines has set itself upon the path of mother tongue-based multilingual education. The MLE Primer lists the conditions for the DepEd’s implementation of MLE, including in-service MLE training of teachers; development, production, and distribution of graded L1 materials that are original, culturally relevant, reflective of local realities, and inexpensive; the establishment of a working orthography or spelling system in the concerned languages; the formation of a technical working group to oversee the program; the use of L1 for testing; and maximum participation from the local government units, parents, and communities under the concept of school-based management.

“According to some DepEd officials,” the Primer adds, “it would take at least two more years of meticulous teacher training, materials production, pilot testing, planning and advocacy among education stakeholders, or until 2012, before the new MLE program can be implemented nationwide.”

For now, the DepEd will start small, with 100 to 200 schools. “It’s a massive undertaking, but it’s something we need to do,” Quijano asserts.

With the help of partnerships with local and international NGOs as well as advocacy groups such as SIL, and the direct and active involvement of all sectors concerned—the mass media, the universities and teacher-training institutions, the local government units, the communities, and the parents—Quijano is optimistic that the work can be done.

“It won’t be easy, because we’re just starting out. But we are starting. And if we all help out, we will catch up.”

Email the author at


1 Multilingual Education-Philippines: Advocacy for Mother Tongue-Based Education. “Video on 06 Case-Philippines-Lubuagan” video in Multilingual Education-Philippines: Advocacy for Mother Tongue-Based Education.” 2010. (accessed April 14, 2010).

2 Norma Duguiang and Diane Dekker. “Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education–The Lubuagan Experience.” Multilingual Education-Philippines: Advocacy for Mother Tongue-Based Education. February 18-20, 2010. (accessed April 14, 2010).

3 UNESCO. “Education in a Multilingual World.” 2003. (accessed April 14, 2010).

4 Tove Skutnabb-Kangas. “The right to mother tongue medium education – the hot potato in human rights instruments.” 2004. (accessed April 15, 2010). See also Stephen L. Walter. 2003. “Does language of instruction matter?” Language and Life: Essays in Memory of Kenneth L. Pike. Mary Ruth Wise and T. Headland, and R. Brend, eds. Publications in Linguistics, No.139. Dallas: SIL International and the University of Texas, Arlington.

5 Yolanda S. Quijano. “MLE in the Philippines: History and Possibilities PowerPoint Presentation.” February 18-20, 2010. (accessed April 15, 2010).

6 Isagani Cruz. “Mother Tongue Education (parts 1 and 2).” The Philippine Star. July 23 & 30, 2009. and (accessed April 15, 2010)

7 Sawikaan: Filipinas Institute of Translation. “Primer on the Filipino Language as a Language of Instruction.” (accessed April 15, 2010).

8 Patricia B. Licuanan. “Language and Learning.” January 24, 2007. (accessed April 15, 2010).

9 Stephen L. Walter. 2003. “Does language of instruction matter?” In Language and Life: Essays in Memory of Kenneth L. Pike. Mary Ruth Wise and T. Headland, and R. Brend, eds. Publications in Linguistics, No.139. Dallas: SIL International and the University of Texas, Arlington.

One thought on “The Language of Learning: Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education in the Philippines

  1. ma i would like to ask a question. I am a teacher from the public school. I want to search cebuano stories from the LRMDS.. how come that i cannot open or log in in the LRMDS?I was already registered before….I was already downloaded some learning materials or stories from the LRMDS before…how come that today i can’t log in it..?

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