Pinoy Kasi: First Language

By Michael Tan, Columnist, Philippine Daily Inquirer
Posted date:  July 31, 2009

For more than a century now, Filipinos have had to suffer the michaeltan_100x100consequences of ideologically tainted policies concerning the language of instruction for schools.

The Americans imposed English as part of its attempts at “benevolent assimilation” and English was the only language used in schools up until 1954, several years after we regained independence. Local languages were even banned in schools during the American colonial period and again well into independence.

Because of high drop-out rates and the poor quality of teaching English, proficiency in the language was never really achieved. The upper classes, exposed to more years of English in schools, could end up quoting Shakespeare while the poor acquired basic English mainly to follow orders from their employers.

In 1974, the Department of Education instituted a bilingual policy, using English and a heavily Tagalog-based Filipino. Local languages were considered “auxiliary” or “transitional,” allowed in schools in the early grades.

Calls to return to English, to improve the export potentials of Filipinos, have become more frequent in the last few years, and there is a bill pending in Congress to make English compulsory in schools. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself, in 2004, issued an order for English to be used in schools. Several schools, including state universities and colleges, have already started to implement this policy, with signs on campuses, “We are an English-only campus.”

For some Freudian reason, such signs always get me thinking of those wonderful Tagalog English road signs: “Caution: Accident Prone Area.” To be blunt, the “English-only campus” has been tried so many times and as a victim of such a policy—my grade school days were spent in a school with predominantly ethnic Chinese students where we were fined for not speaking English, and rewarded for snitching on classmates who broke the rule—I can tell you this English-only campaign did little to enhance proficiency. Not only that, it handicapped our graduates, myself included, by reducing our proficiency in the forbidden languages, Filipino and Chinese, and limiting our ability to communicate with fellow Filipinos and with the Chinese.

I see hope now for getting out of the linguistic quagmire we got ourselves into. Education Secretary Jesli A. Lapus has issued an administrative order requiring the use of the mother language (or first language, for which I’ll be using the abbreviation L1) in schools.


L1 is the main language used in the area. (The DepEd order doesn’t state though what geographical definitions will be used—the town, province or region—and this will be an important issue to consider.) Specifically, the order requires that the mother tongue be used as the primary language of instruction from pre-school to at least grade 3. This mother tongue is to be used to teach other languages, including English and Filipino, as well as science and math.

The order comes after long and sometimes emotional debates over language policy, including several columns in the Inquirer’s op-ed pages. The DepEd order says the new policy comes after research have proven the following:

1. Students learn to read more quickly in L1. (Does that help you to understand why your child may be having difficulties in pre-school, even with the basic task of learning the alphabet?)

2. Students learn to speak, read and write in a second and third language more quickly if they are taught these languages in L1, rather than in the second and third language itself.

3. Students acquire competencies more quickly in other academic areas, including science and math if these are taught in L1. The DepEd order notes that the top performing countries in the international Trends in International Math and Science Studies (TIMSS) teach these subjects in their own language.

It’s all quite commonsensical when you think about it, yet this proposed policy has met fierce resistance, mainly from those who advocate English as the primary language for instruction. I’ve heard arguments like “math and science are Eastern and should therefore be taught in English” or “math and science are universal, so it doesn’t matter what language they’re taught in.” All these arguments fail to recognize that the success of learning depends on a total environment: where it’s been taught, who’s teaching, and how it’s taught and that language is primary, whether we’re talking about “where”, “who” or “how.”


I should mention here that one of the studies that convinced our education officials to adopt the L1 policy was that of Diane Dekker and Catherine Young of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) conducted in Lubuagan, Kalinga, showing that the use of the mother tongue improved student competencies.

For several decades now, SIL has been documenting languages worldwide, mainly to be able to translate the Bible. Through the years though, they’ve also produced other publications in the local languages to promote literacy, using agriculture and health. They have also produced dictionaries and folklore anthologies.

All these SIL materials will be indispensable for the DepEd’s new program but more instructional guides and modules will still need to be produced. The DepEd is planning orientation and training workshops and I’m glad to see they have included as goals the development of cultural sensitivity and an appreciation of linguistic diversity. While we are so multicultural, with some 170 languages used in the country, we can be quite intolerant of other cultures and languages. We crack jokes about Visayan languages, describe other languages as “bird-like,” imitate the sing-song tones of Chinese, and even end up lumping languages based on our biases. I have often heard Christians referring to “Muslim language” when in fact there are more than a dozen languages spoken by different Muslim groups.

Finally, there’s this point about “dialects.” Since the American occupation, we have come to refer to local languages, for example, Cebuano, Ilokano, Maranao, Kapampangan, as “dialects.” Dialects are actually variations of a language, for example there’s Metro Manila Tagalog, Cavite Tagalog, Batangas Tagalog. Referring to our languages as “dialects” also has a certain demeaning tone, almost like saying English is a language, and therefore worth learning in schools while the “dialects” (“You know, the vernacular. . .”), ah, that’s for the streets and for the masses.

A mother tongue program should aim to correct these notions. To implement the new policy, DepEd will support very basic work like developing orthographies (spelling system) for local languages to use for educational materials. Community involvement will be vital for this new program to succeed. Expect to see, in the years ahead, a renewed pride in local languages because of this new policy, even as the Filipino becomes more adept at acquiring proficiency in a second, a third, even a fourth language.

2 thoughts on “Pinoy Kasi: First Language

  1. I would like to disabuse the minds of those who believe in the following misinformation:

    “…the top performing countries in the international Trends in International Math and Science Studies (TIMSS) teach these subjects in their own language.”

    This language was in the original draft of the MLE order. When the draft was rewritten, that language was completely left out because of something learned from the article, “The Bilingual Education Policy in Singapore: Implications for Second Language Acquisition” written by L. Quentin Dixon from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. Dixon wrote: “All students study their subject-matter curriculum through the medium of English, but they are also required to reach a “second-language” level of proficiency in their official mother tongue – Mandarin for Chinese, Malay for Malays and Tamil for Dravidian-speaking Indians.”

    In other words, English is the medium of instruction in all subjects, except in the study of each of three mother tongues (Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil) as individual subjects. In fact, English is acquired early at home; English is spoken at home more than 20% of the time–a good many consider English as their “mother tongue” or L1. And yeah, Singapore students take the TIMSS in English, NOT in Mandarin, Malay or Tamil, and perform so well.

    Somehow, the above language found its way back into the DO MLE draft resubmitted to DepEd and which was ultimately signed.

  2. Hi, Joe! Thank you for posting the news articles that come out. Please do that because I am losing track with so many that are coming out. Thanks for that piece of info from Dixon. We would appreciate to know more related studies on MLE. We have limited materials here. I heard that neuroscience published some studies about the value of mother tongue in learning. Thanks for all the efforts.

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