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Mother Tongue Based Education in the Philippines









By Laura Garbes

The Philippines is an archipelago in the Pacific with rich linguistic and cultural diversity. According to the Ethnologue, there are 171 living languages spoken in the Philippines today. For the most part, this linguistic variety has not been accurately reflected in governmental and educational policies. The current constitution declares both English and Filipino (Tagalog) to be the official languages of the country, as both are spoken in metro Manila, the nation’s capital.

Making English and Tagalog the official languages of the Philippines is a practical move, seeing as there needs to be language that can be used to do business and trade as well as to communicate on both national and international levels. Still, the constitutional declaration of these two languages as official and the other languages as auxiliary takes a discriminatory tone when looking at how it resonates in other policies and in the public sphere.

The linguistic discrimination is present in the educational system in particular. For instance, as of 2011, the House government in the Philippines was still investigating instances when children in primary school were punished for not speaking English (To learn more about this phenomenon, click here). These occurrences are not uncommon, and they stem from the view of English as the “language of success.” It is undeniable, that children able to speak English will be better able to communicate in international contexts.

However, a singular wish to teach children English at all costs, when coupled with punishment for using one’s mother tongue, is both psychologically and culturally damaging. On the psychological level, a child’s sense of identity is grounded in his or her mother tongue. If children are conditioned to pair English with success, they will increasingly view their own native language as irrelevant. They may not see the need to pass it on to the next generation, causing eventual language endangerment for minority languages, a significant cultural loss.

Luckily, things change and the Philippine Department of Education is proving that. DepEd is the new name for the Philippine government’s education department. Until recent years, the department had been under the thumb of imperialist legacy, left behind by first Spanish then US rule. In speaking with my father about his education, he explained that, “all the textbooks were American, from U.S. companies, including history books. The Philippine history we learned was from the perspective of the [United] States.”

Given this legacy, the reformed DepEd has sought to address the criticism of not providing a good enough base for those wishing to pursue a university education. To achieve this, they pushed a bill through Congress that completely overhauls the current educational system. There are two major components of the bill that dramatically change the format of Philippine schools, starting in 2012.

The first is the extension of secondary school. Prior to 2012, there was a 10-year long education cycle. With this bill, the Philippines will adopt a K-12 cycle to ensure that students are prepared to go to university by the time of graduation from grade 12.

The second main component of the bill addresses the linguistic discrimination that occurs in emphasizing English education, by implementing Mother Tongue Based, Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE). This model promotes language of instruction in the mother tongue of the school district, rather than Filipino (Tagalog) or English. However, these other languages will be taught and incorporated into the curriculum gradually. Advocates of this approach point to pilot programs in the Philippines that have been successful in helping students gain full proficiency in the mother tongue, the national language Filipino, and English.

There is also support for this method from the United Nations (UN), in their “Education for All” program. The UN has come out in support of the move, because their own objective is to enhance education, with the belief that there needs to be national recognition of linguistic minorities. By starting with the language that one speaks at home, the gap in understanding can be bridged, and students can better learn the curriculum.

The legislation is being implemented during this coming school year. The main concern that many educators have with this bill is the swiftness with which the bill demands a change, leaving teachers feeling unprepared for the dramatic switch. The fact that there are now 13 years of schooling for children, rather than 10, calls for an expanded curriculum that teachers are not used to. It makes some teachers feel that they are inadequately trained for such a cycle. Rechelle Guzman, member of the chamber of commerce in Pampanga, Philippines, elaborated on the difficulty of the language training adjustment in particular. “There are no available modules and materials or books to support our Mother tongue (Kapampangan) curriculum.” Without the proper tools, the legislation’s implementation is in danger of losing its effectiveness.

Furthermore, the definition of “mother tongue” is a contentious subject, as many parents teach their children English at home. “Mother tongue” is interpreted by some as the cultural language, but others as the language taught from birth, regardless of whether it is part of traditional heritage. Without a clear agreement, resistance to the bill and confusion within communities will remain.

While questions and concerns remain regarding the implementation of this bill, proponents of cultural preservation do believe this MTB-MLE bill is a step in the right direction. The reluctance of educators and administrators does not necessarily mean resistance. Guzman went on to say, despite the challenges, “Hopefully we will be able to fully comply with the mother tongue intervention in the curriculum by the 2nd quarter.”

Those with reluctance can take comfort in the success of those who had implemented a MTB-MLE system prior to the legislation. Among these schools is the Tarik Soliman Elementary School, a public school located at Brgy Sagrada Familia, Masantol, Pampanga, in the Philippines, whose principal asserted that they felt as if teaching in Kapampangan, the language of their village, has been the best policy.

And crucially, this bill has opened up a national dialogue about the linguistic diversity in the country and how to deal with homogenous English-based education. The historic legislation brings the issue to the forefront of the country’s mind, as it affects the future of Filipino children greatly. In this way, the years of linguistic discrimination, both intentional and unintentional, are now being discussed on a national level. The bill’s passage also sends a clear message to those partaking in linguistic discrimination, that it is a practice that will no longer be accepted or ignored by the government.

The bill itself can serve as an example for other countries seeking education reform. As No Child Left Behind expires in the U.S., the U.S. would do well to consider this bill when developing new policies. The MLB-MTE initiative was passed in when a complete education overhaul was already underway. The time may be right for a U.S. attempt at education that accurately reflects the country’s own linguistic diversity, especially when it comes to Indigenous languages in Native communities.