‘Pied-piping’ our learners to failure

In 2017, I proposed two things to improve teacher quality: first, professional standards for teachers and school leaders, which we now have; second, an independent authority completely devoted to ensuring teacher and school leader quality, which we still don’t. After the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) fiasco where we ranked last among 79 countries, I have another proposal for our education leaders: the strategic recognition of the first language (L1) not only in basic but also in higher education.

International studies have pointed out that flawed language policies may have contributed greatly to our underperformance in science and math. We figured among the worst five countries in the achievement tests in the 1995, 1999 and 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. During those years, we were ranked best in using a non-native language of instruction (LOI).


In the 2018 Pisa, only 6 percent of Filipino 15-year-olds were found to speak English at home, casting doubt again on our language policy. The linguistic practices of top Pisa performers disprove the assumption that Filipinos will learn reading, science and mathematics only through English.

Teaching the curriculum solely in English may actually be counterproductive. In “The Role of the First Language in English Medium Instruction,” a panel of leading US education researchers and practitioners said that “students who are educated in both their L1 and English tend to learn English more effectively and do better academically than their peers who are educated in English-only.”


Longitudinal studies in other parts of the world likewise indicate that six to eight years of strong second-language (L2) teaching is needed before the L2 can successfully be used as primary LOI for non-speakers. Moreover, older children (10-12 years old) have been validated to be better L2 learners than younger children.

Our many languages and their purported lack of intellectualization are not valid excuses for making English our primary LOI. The late National Artist Rolando Tinio had always admonished us for forgetting that the advanced state of the English language was reached through the efforts of its users. Tinio meant here that our languages will grow and develop if we allow our scientists, mathematicians, artists and academicians to use those languages in their professions.

In 2013, lawmakers enacted Republic Act No. 10533 or the Enhanced Basic Education Act of 2013, and integrated therein mother tongue-based multilingual education or MTB-MLE. MTB-MLE looks at the learners’ L1 as their most valuable learning tool. It decrees L1, including Filipino Sign Language, as the primary language of learning, of materials and of assessment throughout elementary school. It also provides for the gradual phasing in of English and Filipino until they become the primary (but not exclusive) LOIs in high school. The law clearly envisions an additive L1 + L2 system, where L1 is never exited from the learner’s repertoire and where English is an additional language.

For unexplained reasons, the Department of Education (DepEd) skirted (around) the law and opted instead for a discredited, subtractive, “short exit” scheme. Under this system, L1 is subtracted after Grade 3, and English and Filipino abruptly become exclusive LOIs. Worse, DepEd is silent about educating disabled persons. These glaring shortcomings are contained in DepEd Order No. 21, series of 2019, and will “pied-pipe” or consign most learners to inevitable failure.

Believing and investing in a nation’s language(s) and in the knowledge embedded in them is the norm for the world’s successful education systems. Our basic and higher education stakeholders must embrace this principle with conviction. DepEd Order No. 21 is an albatross around DepEd’s neck and should be removed before it talks about other strategies in improving educational quality. Our teachers need reskilling and retooling, our education leaders much more so.

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Magtanggol T. Gunigundo I ([email protected]) is a former congressman from the second district of Valenzuela City and one of the principal authors of RA 10533.


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TAGS: Commentary, language policies, Magtanggol T. Gunigundo I, Pisa, teacher quality
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