Fixing education through language

[Following is a reprint from the Philippine Daily Inquirer, first posted on 07/23/2010.]

By Ricardo Ma. Duran Nolasco

Dr. R. Nolasco

IN SCHOOL, speaking one’s native tongue (e.g., Cebuano, Ilocano, Bicol or Waray) is still considered by many an obstacle to learning, instead of an educational resource. Monetary, academic and even corporal penalties have been imposed in the false belief that, these will dissuade students from speaking the “dialect” in school.

The times, they are a-changing, as the song goes.

President Aquino has committed to fix 10 things in basic education and one of these would be done by rationalizing the medium of instruction. Four others—extending basic education from 10 to 12 years, universal pre-schooling for all, a strong Science and Math curriculum starting at Grade 1, and “every child a reader” by Grade 1—all depend on the use of the right language(s) for their success.

The idea is, from pre-school to Grade 3, the child’s first language (L1) will be used as the medium of instruction; Filipino and English will be taught as second language (L2) subjects. From Grades 4-6 (7), L1 will still be used, but English will increasingly become the medium of instruction for Science and Math. For Social Studies, it will be Filipino. In high school, English and Filipino will become the primary mediums of instruction in those subjects, with L1 being used as an auxiliary language.

President Aquino expressed the view that we have to learn all these languages well: English to connect ourselves to the world, Filipino to connect ourselves to our country, and our mother tongue to connect ourselves to our heritage.

Legislating L1 use in the classroom may be necessary in the long term. Among the education bills already filed at the House of Representatives, House Bill 162, introduced by Rep. Magtanggol T. Gunigundo I of Valenzuela City, comes closest to what President Aquino wants in the language of instruction issue.

Earlier on, in 2002, Congress approved the Early Childhood Care and Development Act in which the child’s L1 was legislated as the primary medium of instruction and communication for early childhood curricula and activities.

All the international and national studies on language use in education, including those made by Unesco, are one in saying that children learn better and faster when their mother tongue is used as a medium of instruction for their education. There are no empirical studies showing that L2, as the lone medium of instruction, produces higher learning outcomes among children.

In 2007, the Trends in Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS) reiterated earlier findings that:

Students who spoke the language of test at home had higher mathematics and science achievement.

Achievement was highest among schools where the language of test was 90 percent or more in the students’ home language.

These findings squarely apply to Filipino learners who took the TIMSS tests in 1998 and 2003 in English. During those years, we were in the bottom five among the participating countries in terms of achievement.

Steve Walter from the Summer Institute of Linguistics wanted to find out if there was a correlation between a population’s access to L1 education and a country’s development status. He was able to confirm that countries whose population had access to L1 education were indeed the most developed, while those who did not were the least developed.

Walter also modeled the career and workforce implications of L1/L2 education versus pure L2 education to a country’s population. According to his model, when education is received in an L1/L2 setup, out of 10,000 students, 699 can be expected to perform at academic levels associated with researchers, scientists, doctors and other highly trained professionals. Among those with pure L2 education, only six will most likely reach this level; the rest turn to blue-collar jobs (e.g., manual laborers and domestics).

The task of deploying our native languages as learning resources looks formidable considering that the country has around 170 different languages. The enormity of the problem is lessened somewhat by the fact that 15 of those languages are already the language of 95 percent of our population. The intellectualization of these languages will come through constant use.

It is gratifying to note that in July of last year, the Department of Education junked the old bilingual policy and, through Department Order No. 74, institutionalized the mother tongue-based multi-lingual education (MTBMLE) despite the pro-English bias of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. A strategic plan for implementing mother tongue-based multilingual education was also put in place. Now, we have a 10-day short course and a longer 4-week MTBMLE training and materials development course for teachers in the pilot programs. A curriculum guide for language, arts and reading is currently being tested. By 2012 MTBMLE is expected to be implemented at pre-school and Grade 1 levels throughout the country. By then, teachers shall have been trained and the pertinent materials shall have been made available. In 2013, and every year thereafter, a grade level under the new MLE curriculum will be added until the program covers the entire elementary cycle.

We agree with President Aquino that by fixing basic education, we fix the long-term problems of the country.

Dr. Ricardo Ma. Duran Nolasco (rnolasco_upmin@yahoo.com) is an associate professor at the Department of Linguistics in UP Diliman. He is the president of the 170+ Talaytayan MLE Inc., and the Foundation for Worldwide People Power’s adviser for mother-tongue education initiatives.

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