MLE Implementation: Some Hard Choices Will Have To Be Made

The “Goldilocks” of MLE Implementation:
Possibilities in overcoming
demographic challenges

By Firth McEachern

Firth McEachern

The antithesis of mother tongue-based Multilingual Education (MLE) is an educational system wherein the majority of students learn in a non-native language. This is common in African countries that use colonial languages like French or English to teach their children, few of whom are native French or English speakers. This is also the case of the Philippines, which currently teaches in only two languages—English and Tagalog-based Filipino—despite there being between 120 and 171 indigenous Philippine languages. Since English is the mother tongue of only a few tens of thousands of Filipinos, and native Tagalog speakers account for some 30% of the population, this means that the majority of Filipino students are learning in languages not native to their family, geographic location, community, or cultural heritage.

Fortunately, the present bilingual system in the Philippines is being phased out. In July 2009, the Department of Education issued Department Order 74, declaring mother tongue-based Multilingual Education (MLE) a department-wide policy for all educational establishments under its aegis. In particular, the use of the mother tongue as a medium of instruction will be implemented across all subjects in primary school, starting in kindergarten and Grade One in 2012 and adding a new grade level each subsequent year.

A few logistical questions have yet to be worked out, however. If the antithesis of MLE is a system in which all students learn in a foreign tongue, then MLE in its strictest implementation would be that 100% of students learn in their mother tongue. This immediately presents some obstacles. Few places in the Philippines, never mind on Earth, have been untouched by migration. No region is ethnically or linguistically homogenous. No province is ethnically or linguistically homogenous. And while most municipalities may have a language group that is larger than its other language groups, there are bound to be a few students in every classroom that do not share the language of the dominant group.

100% MLE Implementation?

If one were to try to implement MLE in its strictest form, where every student learns in his or her native language, that would mean having one of the following scenarios:

Scenario One:

  • Schools have instructional resources of every language represented by a school’s student population.
  • Classes are taught with multiple teachers of different language backgrounds or individual teachers that can speak multiple languages so that they/he/she can cater to all the languages of the classroom.
  • Alternatively, classes can be streamed according to language such that an individual section can be taught in one mother tongue.

Problems with Scenario One:

  • Even in the scrapped bilingual system, in which only two languages were catered for, there was often a shortage of textbooks and other instructional materials. Having complete sets of instructional materials in multiple languages for each school will be expensive to obtain and confusing to use.
  • Finding adequate multilingual teachers or a teaching staff that collectively know all the native languages of a student body will be extremely difficult, if not unfeasible.
  • Catering to multiple languages in the same classroom may be time-consuming and potentially confounding for the children. Meanwhile, having separate streams, with exclusive classrooms for different language groups, might promote the development of ethnolinguistic ‘cliques,’ wherein the various language groups in a school have little incentive to interact and learn from each other’s differences. In addition, for those communities that have one dominant language, it would likely not be economical to set up multiple language streams when those students represent a small fraction of a school’s student population. Lastly, levels and origins of immigration change from year to year, so in a scheme whereby every child’s mother tongue were catered to in a single school, new books would have to be frequently ordered and teachers hired to accommodate the fluctuating linguistic demographics.
  • Immigrant students will not be encouraged to learn the local language or the regional lingua franca because in the purest form of MLE implementation, they will only be learning in their mother tongue, which is not the local language. This poses several problems:
  1. Without local language instruction, immigrant children may have a harder time integrating into the local community;
  2. The linguistic and cultural integrity of local communities will be gradually eroded. As more people gradually move into a new place, and they are not obliged to learn the local language, the proportion of people who speak the local language will clearly decrease, until at some point it is not convenient or practical to use it freely in the public domain. This phenomenon has already been witnessed in many areas around the country, particularly in Ilokano, Kapampangan, and Pangasinan areas near Tagalog-speaking provinces, and Kinaray-a areas near Ilonggo zones, for example. While it may seem counterintuitive, the strict (100%) form of MLE implementation may therefore cause the same kind of local language erosion that the outgoing bilingual system does, as neither guarantees local language instruction to immigrants. MLE should rather be implemented in a way that preserves the linguistic diversity of the Philippines.

Scenario Two:

  • Schools are associated with one language.
  • The languages of a municipality are catered to by schools that serve a dedicated language group.

While this scenario eliminates the problem of each school having to procure complete sets of instructional materials in multiple languages, as well as the logistical challenge of teaching a mixed student body, it also poses challenges.

Problems with Scenario Two:

  • Children of one language group may not live near the school designated for his language. Concerns of cost may dissuade parents from matriculating him.
  • School Divisions, while not having to deal with individual schools of multiple languages, will still have to cater to multiple languages within the division as a whole.
  • Some language groups may be too small to have a viable school dedicated for them.
  • Language groups will vary in size: how to allocate resources fairly? Which schools to select for which language groups?
  • Will limit the choice of schools that parents can send their kids. They may prefer another school for non-linguistic reasons but because of the language designation of the school, might not be available to them.
  • As in Scenario One, a segregated system may amplify divisions between different groups and may stymie the integration and appreciation of immigrants for the local culture.
  • If one school is seen to have better teachers, more resources, or a better location, claims that its language group is being privileged over others may be unavoidable.

The challenges posed by the sample scenarios of 100% MLE implementation are very significant. While most thorough in their commitment to MLE, these scenarios fall short in practicality. A monolingual system, on the other extreme, is simplest to implement but least helpful pedagogically. Therefore, a system that both avails of the benefits of MLE and is logistically feasible is desirable.

Finding the Right Balance

What characteristics might such a system include? What is the “goldilocks” of MLE implementation?

First, it is necessary to list a set of objectives/criteria that we would expect our MLE program to meet:

Criterion 1: Maximize the number of students receiving education in their mother tongue so as to avail of the proven benefits of MLE.

Criterion 2: Financially and logistically feasible.

Criterion 3: Ensure the sustainability of the program such that the languages employed for MLE remain living languages and continue to be useful to the communities that learn them. In other words, the program must not undermine itself by inadvertently undermining the languages it teaches. This goes hand-in-hand with supporting the integrity and geographical contiguity of local languages and their associated cultures.

To satisfy Criterion 1, the ideal program should cater to a large number of mother tongues. To satisfy Criterion 2, some standardized language choice will have to be made, encompassing a certain geographical area. As explored earlier in this document, the hypothetical scenarios of 100% MLE implementation on a pupil-by-pupil basis, or even on the scale of a school, are doubtfully feasible. No matter what system is employed, there will always be a few pupils that cannot be taught in their mother tongue due to demographics, low funds, and teacher availability/ability. To satisfy Criterion 3, immigrants of an area should learn the local language(s). This ties in soundly with Criterion 2, as having a standardized language of instruction over a certain geographical area is both logistically/financially manageable and best for ensuring that newcomers to an area don’t erode the local language.

If we were to transform the present educational system to three mother tongues (eg. Tagalog, Cebuano, and Ilocano) as proposed by Brother Andrew Gonzales in the late 1990s under the lingua franca project, then approximately 50%-60% of the country would be learning in their mother tongue, an improvement on the 30% today. However, about half the population would still be learning in languages not native to them, so it still falls significantly short of satisfying Criterion 1. Criterion 2 is satisfied, as creating instructional materials and finding teachers for the three largest languages of the Philippines would be relatively simple. The exclusion of the other 100+ languages may put them at risk and thus Criterion 3 is not met.

If we were to approach multilingual education to a regional level, in which each region decided on a single language to use for primary school based on the largest language group, then 3 Ilokano regions, 3 Tagalog, 1 Bikol, 1-2 Hilgaynon, 4-6 Cebuano/Visayan, 1 Waray, and possibly 1 Maranao/Maguindinao region catering to a total of 7 languages, and about 70-80% would be learning in their mother-tongue. The other 20-30% would constitute the significant  minority language groups in each region, many of whom are proficient in the regional lingua franca and would not all experience the problems of learning in an unknown tongue. This is the scenario envisioned by Isagani Cruz, former Undersecretary of Education, who planned to expand Brother Gonzales’ 3 language lingua franca program to 8 lingua francas.

If we were to approach multilingual education at the provincial scale, where each province was to choose a language that was to constitute the maximum number of mother-tongue learners, then there would be approximately 20 languages employed nationwide, and over 90% would be learning in their mother tongue. Problems remain with this set-up too, however. Some provinces, such as Pangasinan, Tarlac, Leyte, and the Cotabatos, are linguistically split into two or more large language communities. If one language were chosen for such provinces, a large percentage of the population might be learning in a tongue that is not their first language or even one they have any familiarity with, especially when the language that commands a plurality is not the lingua franca of the greater region.

Perhaps the most effective choice for the medium of instruction, therefore, would be at the municipal level. The vast majority of municipalities have a language group that constitute a substantial majority of the municipality. If school divisions were to choose the language of instruction for each school according to municipality, over 95% of the country would be learning in their mother tongue. In many provinces, and even some regions, the dominant language is also the dominant language in every municipality, so in such cases implementing MLE at the municipal level would be identical to implementing it at the provincial or regional level; DepEd would not have to invest major resources into more than one language and the MOI would be relatively straightforward to introduce. Municipal-level choice of MOI becomes more important for heterogeneous provinces, especially those with geographical linguistic divisions. It would ensure that areas that differ from a province’s dominant language group (such as the 2 Cebuano municipalities of Western Samar, which is generally Waray), were catered for.

The number of languages that would be directly used in municipal-scale MLE would be the number of languages that constitute a majority in at least one municipality in the country, which is likely to be over 100 languages (the exact number can be attained from national census data). This represents over 50% of all native Philippine languages—a higher percentage served than even Papua New Guinea.

The Exceptions

What about municipalities/cities that do not have a clear language majority (no language accounts for more than 50% of the population) and are just as or more diverse than the provinces they find themselves in? These would normally be areas along the borders of several language zones or large urban centers that draw immigrants from all over the country. The implementation of MLE in these special municipalities/cities should be treated on a case by case basis, with flexibility and locally-driven, contextual solutions emphasized. Possible options include: 1) Choosing the language of the majority/plurality, however slight; 2) Choosing the lingua franca of the greater area, province, or region of the municipality/city; 3) Setting up a system of multilingual schools (as in “Scenario One” near the beginning of this concept paper); or 4) Setting up schools with different media of instruction (as in “Scenario Two”). The latter two options are impractical to implement on a national level, but they could serve a purpose in appropriate contexts.

Regardless of which strategy an unusually heterogeneous area pursues, it should fall within the bounds of the three criteria listed for a sound MLE program, especially Criterion 3. It is admirable, and advisable, for school divisions to attempt to cater to their minority languages, but minority languages that have a historical and geographically-identifiable locus in the area should take precedence over dispersed, recent, immigrant languages. Why so? From a practical perspective providing education in immigrant languages, especially if they constitute a small percentage of the place in question, would rarely be feasible due to a lack of local teachers proficient in the migrant language (the Republic Act regarding localization of teacher hiring requires local hiring) and the resources it would require (which may divert resources from the priority native languages of the area). Secondly, the immersion of migrants in their original language makes it more difficult for them to integrate into new communities. Finally, as populations become ever more mixed, the failure of growing migrant populations in learning the local language undermines the usefulness and endurance of the local language. This can discourage local parents from passing on their mother tongue to their children, thereby complicating efforts to teach the mother tongue in school to the point where parents perceive it as counterproductive. These dangers are some of the reasons why legislation for linguistic equality, rights, and pluralism, such as the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages, frequently do not extend to immigrant languages.

It may be seen as controversial or unjust to not automatically extend the same privileges of MLE to migrant populations. But this precept may in fact have advantages to migrants themselves. To illustrate with an example: although not learning in her own language, a Kapampangan child living and going to school in Ilocos would benefit from the fact that, in her province of origin (e.g., Pampanga), her native language continued to thrive, thanks the successful inclusion of immigrants in Kapampangan-medium education, thus ensuring a community of speakers she can always return to and learn from. By contrast, in strict 100% MLE implementation wherein a Kapampangan child living in Ilocos would actually learn in Kapampangan, it would almost be a moot exercise because a) she would be learning in a language not used in her immediate surroundings, except perhaps in her home (and even that is not likely as many migrants adopt the regional language or Tagalog); and b) her native language would simultaneously be eroding in her original province (due to the lack of integration of immigrants), rendering mother tongue education even less useful to her!

Unlike the case of immigrants, indigenous language groups that do not constitute a majority in a municipality, despite being their traditional area of habitation, should still be able to receive education in their native language if there is enough interest from the community to set up their own school or program. The Department of Education should be flexible in accommodating such initiatives. Accounting for these special, community-led initiatives, the number of languages being used as direct media of instruction could be well over 100.


In conclusion, the happy middle-ground between feasibility and educational enhancement, i.e. the “Goldilocks” of MLE, may lie in its implementation at the scale of a municipality. By default, school divisions should actively pursue trainings and the creation of instructional materials for all languages in their division which comprise a majority of at least one municipality in the division.  School divisions are encouraged to cooperate with other school divisions that overlap in language representation in order to pool efforts (the DepEd Division Office of Ilocos Sur, for example, could coordinate with Benguet in helping to implement MLE in their few Kankana-ey­–majority municipalities).

The primary medium of instruction used in a municipality should be in the language that represents a substantial majority of that municipality (such as >60-70%). The incarnation of MLE for those municipalities or cities that do not have a clear language majority should be planned case-by-case, with various options open to consideration such as schools with several language streams, language-specific schools according to barangay language profiles, or the adoption of the regional lingua franca.

Those few students such as migrants and students of languages with very small representation, whose mother tongue differ from the primary medium (or media, in the case of accentuated heterogeneity) of instruction chosen for a municipality’s schools, may be assisted with a variety of measures without having to create a whole new school program for them, such as: remedial classes to accelerate their knowledge of the primary medium of instruction, hiring policies that favor multilingual teachers, informing teachers to give extra attention to certain students with different language needs, efforts to match students with sections taught by teachers who have some ability in the students’ other language, and improved dialogue between schools and the parents of such children.

Key to any and all forms of MLE implementation is a thorough understanding of the language profile of each school division. The Department of Education and its partners should obtain volumes of the latest census available for purchase from the National Statistics Office. These volumes contain the population of each language group in each municipality of each province in the country, which will help guide school divisions in determining what languages they must prioritize in each municipality/city, and what municipalities/cities might require additional planning or customized implementation.

2 thoughts on “MLE Implementation: Some Hard Choices Will Have To Be Made

  1. In order for this precious cultural heritage to live on, the schools’ duty as well as the home’s responsibility must work together and I bet you no other language can jeopadize and intrude into it’s existence.

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