Educating our children in their first language

R. M. Nolasco


Ricardo Ma. Nolasco, Ph.D.
Associate Professor in Linguistics
University of the Philippines, Diliman

Courtesy of Philippine Daily Inquirer
February 05, 2010 22:44:00

IN A RECENT FORUM, SOME PRESIDENTIAL aspirants in the 2010 election have taken the position that English should become the medium of instruction in Philippine schools.

As Patricia Licuanan [Filipino psychologist and educator and Chief Executive Officer of the Forum in English of Philippine Business for Education at the Asian Institute of Management] has said, a certain amount of fatigue surrounds this controversy on language. And this is not because of the lack of empirical research on this matter. The truth is, we have tons of it, coming from international studies and from our own studies as well, all showing children learning better and faster when educated in their first language or L1.

Many people may not know it but six months ago, on July 14, 2009, our education authorities finally junked the 35-year-old bilingual policy of using two second languages (English and Filipino) as media of instruction. The new policy, Department Order No. 74, ushers in mother tongue-based multilingual education, or simply MLE, for our nation’s children, in formal and non-formal settings.

The pedagogical basis for the change is simple and understandable. We start from where the learners are and from what they already know.

Under the new directive, the primary medium of instruction from pre-school to at least Grade 3 is the L1 in all subjects, including the English and Filipino subjects. Grades 4 to 6 are the transition period. When learners reach high school, they would have gained enough proficiency in their L2s (English and Filipino) for these to become the primary media of instruction. The L1 shall serve as auxiliary medium.

The strategy is to develop the cognitive and reasoning skills of learners in their L1 first and to transfer these skills in their L2s later. The new policy therefore is an additive one, where two or more L2s add to, rather than replace, the L1.

A few weeks ago, the Department of Education division in Valenzuela, headed by superintendent Flordeliza Mayari, conducted an experiment involving students from Grades 4, 5 and 6 of Serrano Elementary School. Two classes (the honors section and one non-honors section) for each grade level were given the same 10-item Math test. Each section was divided into two groups, with one group taking the test in English and the other in Filipino.

The outcomes are as follows:

Students (both honors and non-honors) who took the tests in Filipino scored significantly better than their counterparts who took the tests in English (4.33 vs. 2.42).

Grade 4 honors students who were tested in Filipino scored better than the Grade 5 honors students who were tested in English (3.86 vs. 3.25).

Grade 5 honors students who were tested in Filipino outperformed the Grade 6 honors students who were tested in English (5.70 vs. 4.84).

Grade 6 honors students who were tested in Filipino scored higher than their honors classmates who were tested in English (7.63 vs. 4.84).

The results are remarkable considering that the students were educated mostly in English. This strongly suggests that had the students been taught in their L1, they would have done even better in the tests.

In fact, that is what the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has been telling us in 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007. A key TIMSS finding was: across both subject areas and grade levels, students who reported speaking the language of the test at home had higher achievement.

Our country is paying a heavy price for adopting two L2s in teaching our children. Some 15 million Filipinos suffer from basic and functional illiteracy. The number is still rising.

Poor reading skills translate to low learning abilities and poor academic outcomes. For instance, the national career assessment examination (NCAE) given to high school students in 2008-2009 showed their average abilities to be at 43.2 in science, 41.7 in mathematics, 51.1 in reading and comprehension, and 45 in verbal skills.

Last year, our neighbor Malaysia changed its 2003 English policy in science and mathematics education for the very same reasons we are changing ours. It has reverted to the original policy of using the child’s L1 (Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese, Tamil and the indigenous language) as the teaching medium.

It took the Malaysians six years to change course; it took us 35 years to do so.

But make no mistake about it. Education stakeholders in the Philippines are dead serious in carrying out the new policy and catching up with our more advanced neighbors.

Last November, the DepEd, led by Education Undersecretary Vilma L. Labrador and director Yolanda S. Quijano, met with experts in Tagaytay City, to map out a strategic plan for implementing MLE. The focus of the plan is on the training of teachers on the new teaching methodologies and on the development of teaching materials in the local languages.

This Feb. 18-20, 2010, the 1st Philippine Conference-Workshop on Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education will be held at the Capitol University in Cagayan de Oro City. The conference theme is: “Reclaiming the right to learn in one’s own language.” The conference aims to bring together public and private education stakeholders from different areas of the country to discuss the philosophy, strategies, directions and plans under the country’s new MLE education policy.

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