‘Including the Excluded’
Long before they begin school, children use their home language to listen to and learn from their parents and their elders and to ask questions about things they do not understand. They use this language to describe how they feel and to explain what they think, to count, play and even argue.
Through these interactions, children gain fluency and confidence in using their home language meaningfully for a variety of purposes. They bring this knowledge with them when they begin school.
But what if they can’t show and share what they already know, because the words they hear from their teacher sound alien to them?
This is the premise that drives Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education, an international advocacy with Unesco at the forefront. Notably, the Philippines has been cited as a lead player in this truly far-reaching and lasting education reform initiative.
The Department of Education issued DO 74 in 2009 specifically mandating the development of mother-tongue based teaching strategies and practices for the early years of schooling. The initial phases of the new K to 12 curriculum that rolls out this June specifically provide that the mother tongue (or L1) shall be used as the medium of instruction from kindergarten up to Grade 3.
However, the debate still rages with regard to our perceived deteriorating fluency in English. Many communities subscribe to the notion that being able to read, speak and write in English well in school has a direct impact on one’s success later in in life.
They are not wrong. English is indeed the language of wider usage, like French or German. Volumes and volumes of books containing various bodies of knowledge reside in libraries all over the world, all written in English. Our computer interfaces are in English.
That being the case, many parents argue quite passionately that children should start learning English as early as possible. I have seen quite a few private schools use this as their marketing hook to bring it more enrollment: In our school, your child will speak good English in so many days, or words to that effect.
In their advocacy kit titled “Including the Excluded,” Unesco points out that “when children continue to develop their abilities in two or more languages throughout their primary school years, they gain a deeper understanding of the language and how to use it effectively. They have more practice in processing language, especially when they develop literacy in both, and they are able to compare and contrast the ways in which their two languages organize reality.”
In a good mother-tongue based Multilingual Education (MLE) program, the children continue to use both languages—hearing and speaking and reading and writing—for communication and learning, ideally at least through primary school. (In our case, that means from kindergarten to 7th grade under the new K to 12 curriculum.)
Mother-tongue based Multilingual Education is a genuine piece of education reform with far-reaching and lasting consequences. The following are important to its success:
1. Build a supportive political environment. MLE must be elevated to the level of education policy. To build up to this, Unesco strongly suggests that language communities, NGOs and their support networks start their own small-scale programs outside of the education system, such as pre-primary and after-school classes. The success of these individual programs can make a powerful statement about the value of MLE.
2. Collect information for planning the program. Community ownership occurs when the proposed initiative responds to the community’s identified needs, goals and aspirations. Information gathering is an integral strategic planning component for any program, and more so for MLE.
3. Raise awareness and mobilize partners. Many parents still believe that to become fluent in English, the child must learn and use that language exclusively if possible. Research shows that the reverse is true: learning the first language well helps children learn and become more fluent in a second language more easily.
4. Establish a writing system for the language if the local language is not yet in written form. This is especially important for minority languages. Here, we have over 170 known languages and each one is important for the particular language group, not just for communication but also for the preservation of that language group’s cultural heritage.
5. Develop teaching and learning materials and create reading materials in the community language. Necessarily, the responsibility falls on the community. Writers, artists, cultural historians need to be at least part of the conversation. Better if they all contribute to the development process.
6. Recruit and train people to work in the program. Everybody needs to help, from teachers, supervisors, writers and artists to an advisory committee to orchestrate the effort.
7. Evaluate and document progress. Both at the DepEd level via standardized tests and at the community to gauge satisfaction with the program in meeting their own cultural and educational goals.
8. Generate support from outside agencies and organizations.
Remember the saying, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”? In the world that we have now, true vision comes from being able to communicate in a multitude of languages.
Butch Hernandez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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