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Commentary
Why children learn better while using mother tongue

By Ricardo Ma. Duran Nolasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:02:00 09/10/2010

Filed Under: Family, Social Issues

MOTHER TONGUE Based Multilingual Education (MTBMLE) is the use of more than two languages for literacy and instruction. It starts from where the learners are and from what they already know. This means learning to speak, read, write and think in their first language or L1 (Cebuano, Tagalog, Ilocano, Waray, etc.) and also teaching mathematics, science, health and social studies in the L1.

As they develop a strong foundation in their L1, children are gradually introduced to their second language(s) or L2s (Filipino and English), first orally, then in the written form. With adequate L2 instruction, cognitive skills and subject content acquired in the L1 can now transfer to the L2.

Apart from programming the use of several languages, MTBMLE also involves: (a) the development of cognitively demanding curricula; (b) the training of good teachers in the required languages for content and methodology; (c) the production of error-free and culturally relevant teaching materials; (d) the empowerment of the community (i.e., school-based management).

According to a 2003 functional literacy survey, 1 out of 3 Filipinos, between 10 and 64 years old, could not understand what they were reading. As one educator, Prof. Josefina Cortes, has observed, we have become ?a nation of fifth graders.?

Their own language enables young learners to immediately construct and explain their world without fear of making mistakes, articulate their thoughts and add new concepts to what they already know. In turn, their teachers can more accurately assess what has been learned and identify the areas where they need help.

To clarify, what our children use now is the conversational language or the everyday variety used for daily interaction. Success in school depends on the academic and intellectualized language needed to discuss more abstract concepts. This takes four to seven years to master.

Last July 14, 2009, the Department of Education changed its fundamental education policy from the old ?bilingual? set-up (of using two L2s) to an MTBMLE one. President Aquino has wisely included the rationalization of the medium of instruction in his 10-point agenda for education. According to him, we should learn English to connect ourselves to the world, Filipino to connect ourselves to our country, and our mother tongue to connect ourselves to our heritage.

Languages of wider communication like English should be part of the multilingual curriculum of a country. The graduates of this system should find relevance within and beyond their ethnic and national boundaries. Most world knowledge is accessible in English, and so, knowledge of English is certainly useful. It is not true, however, that students will not learn science and mathematics if they do not know English. The ideas of science are not bound by one language and one culture.

On the other hand, many studies indicate that students first taught to read in their L1, and then later in an L2, outperform those taught to read exclusively in an L2. In the Philippines, the Lubuagan Kalinga First experiment showed the L1 experimental classes scoring nearly 80 percent in the Grade 1, 2 and 3 tests compared to just over 50 percent scores by the L2 control classes.

Furthermore, the popular belief that increasing the time for English or making it the exclusive medium of instruction to improve our English is increasingly being proven untrue. Large-scale research during the last 30 years has provided compelling evidence that the critical variable in L2 development in children is not the amount of exposure, but the timing and the manner of exposure. The 11-year Thomas and Collier?s US study showed that non-native English learners who were schooled under an all-English curriculum scored lowest (between the 11th and 22nd percentile rank) in the national tests. English learners who were given L1 support for six years scored the highest (between the 53rd and 70th percentile ranks), well above the national norm for their native English-speaking peers.

For non-native speakers of English, like most of us, the best way is to teach it as an L2 and to teach it well. This depends on the proficiency of teachers, the availability of adequate models of the language in the learner?s social environment, and sufficient materials. Local languages can definitely be used as languages of instruction.

In 1957, the local languages became the medium of instruction in Grades 1 and 2. This vernacular education policy was abruptly abolished in 1974, when the bilingual education policy was imposed by the Marcos government. In 1999, the Department of Education started the Lingua Franca program.

MTBMLE will not work by simply increasing the time for English or by translating existing materials.

The late Rolando Tinio once spoke of a basic fear among us that our languages are undeveloped for use by ?various? thinkers. He reminded us that the advanced state of the English language was reached through the efforts of its users. We can only intellectualize our languages by using them.

Ricardo Ma. Duran Nolasco, Ph.D. (rnolasco_upmin@yahoo.com) is
an associate professor, Department of Linguistics, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City.



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