McEachern: Tagalog, English are for school

I HAD an argument with a young teacher from a private school last week. I noticed she spoke the local language (which is Iloco/Ilocano here in La Union) with her friends and fellow teachers, but whenever addressing students, even informally in the halls, she spoke in Tagalog. “Why do you resist using Ilocano with your students?” I asked her. “Even when you are just asking what they are eating for lunch, you speak to them in Tagalog!” I added.

“Because Tagalog and English are for the school. Ilocano is for the home,” she quipped snobbishly.

“That’s ridiculous.” I said. “First of all, I understand that in a Tagalog-based subject, such as Filipino or Makabayan, you would naturally use Tagalog. But outside the classroom, it doesn’t matter what language you speak! If it is just in the hallways, the playground, or lunch area, you should feel free to chat with students in the native language — Ilocano. Secondly, didn’t you know that DepEd is introducing mother tongue-based education in all Philippine primary schools by 2012? That means the national government is wisely declaring that school is not just for English and Tagalog, but also for the mother tongue. And anyway,” I continued, “if you keep speaking to them in Tagalog, what if they lose their Ilocano?”

“They won’t lose their Ilocano,” she replied. “As I said, before, they learn it in the home.”

“Actually Ma’am, let me explain…”

I then went on to describe why her assumption is simply incorrect. Many children are unfortunately NOT learning the local language/dialect in the home. I have collected informal data about language use in San Fernando during the 6 months I‘ve been here. About 40% of child-bearing Ilocano mothers are speaking exclusively in Tagalog to their children, while a further 40-50% are speaking a mix of Tagalog and Iloko. When I ask these mothers, “Aren’t you worried your children will lose their mother tongue?” they usually respond, “No no, they will learn Ilocano from their friends and relatives. But if most of the other mothers are also speaking Tagalog to their children, then it is likely that a child will not learn Ilocano from other children. Furthermore, if children are pushed to speak Tagalog and English in school, it is even more unreasonable to assume they will just “pick up” Ilokano elsewhere.

Let’s be scientific. I will analyze the assumption that children will automatically learn their mother tongue, and hope to prove to you that in the case of many cities, this assumption is false. There are 24 hours in a day. How long is a typical Filipino child at the age of 10 being exposed to Tagalog, English, and his mother tongue?

* The average school-age child spends 8 hours/day at school, almost all of which is in English and Tagalog.

* The average child spends 8 hours/day sleeping, during which there is no language transmission.

* The average Filipino spends 200 minutes/day watching television, the second highest rate in Asia. Television is almost all in Tagalog and English.

* Subtracting these three activities from 24 hours, the balance is 4.7 hours remaining, during which time the child is primarily eating, interacting with family, hanging out with friends, or doing errands. Since many mothers are choosing to speak Tagalog or English to their children, and many young friends speak Tagalog to each other, this means that only a fraction of the remaining 4.7 hours of a child’s day actually involves his native tongue. Adding to this the Tagalog and English he is exposed to in music, radio, newspapers, books, billboards, street signs, and commercial establishments, it would be a fair estimate that the average Filipino child is exposed to only 2 hours (8.3%) of his native tongue per day, and some even less so.

Thus, even if the vernacular seems to be widespread for parents, the same does not hold true for their children. As television ownership has skyrocketed in the last few decades (from about 0% when the country got independence to 71% today), and as Tagalog has been creeping into other domains, children simply do not have the same kind of exposure to their native tongue that their parents had. The assumption that they will automatically learn it is no longer valid.

Analyzing the exposure times to different languages, it is not surprising that many children are growing up speaking a mishmash of mostly Tagalog and their native tongue, and are incapable of speaking their mother tongue fluently. And it will just get worse in the next generation unless i) Mothers start passing their native language to their children; ii) The government passes some reforms, and iii) Schools start becoming allies in the preservation of heritage, rather than accomplices in its destruction.

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on September 15, 2010.

One thought on “McEachern: Tagalog, English are for school

  1. Pingback: From a non-Ilocano with PASSION to save the Ilocano language « Multilingual Education – Philippines

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