Making multilingual education better | Inquirer Opinion

Making multilingual education better

Some legislators and administrators have questioned the efficacy of the mother tongue as medium of instruction, and want to return to the former bilingual policy of only using English and Filipino.

Going back to the pre-K-to-12 language policy would be a big mistake. Instead of abolishing Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE), whose theoretical underpinnings are sound, the Department of Education (DepEd) should focus on how to improve and contextualize it.

First, mother tongues are being wrongly blamed for the poor results of international assessments. Yes, the results of the recent Trends In International Mathematics and Science Study were disappointingly low. But the Philippines has been performing poorly in such assessments for several decades now, even before the mother tongue policy was introduced.

The recent dismal state of assessed literacy and numeracy skills is exacerbated as well by a number of factors, including: 1) two years of lower quality education due to pandemic challenges; 2) a mismatch in assessment language and instructional language (children not having the chance to take the international tests in their preferred language), and 3) the abrupt shift from mother tongue to English/Filipino after Grade 3, when most research supports a gradual shift until Grade 6.


It has been demonstrated over and over again by research across continents, that children learn better, faster, and deeper through their first language (i.e. mother tongue). It is incontrovertible that a child whose mother tongue is German would find it easier to learn subjects using German, than through a second language like French. Similarly, a Cebuano child whose mother tongue is Cebuano would understand subjects taught in Cebuano better than if they were taught in English or Filipino (which is de facto Tagalog).

This fact is based on the science of cognitive and linguistic development — that is, how our brains work when it comes to learning and using languages. We simply cannot deny that the vast majority of children are more adept at using their first language (mother tongue) than second languages. If we reverted to the old policy of using only English and Tagalog-based Filipino — which are NOT the first languages of most Filipinos — we would be ignoring this fundamental fact. And we’d be returning to the same problem we had before: children learning inefficiently through languages not their own.

The DepEd would be making a tragic mistake by abolishing mother tongues from schools. It is not the solution to our educational woes. Several studies have shown that it would be more resourceful and effective to improve the multilingual concept.

Lending weight to the benefit of mother tongues for literacy development, studies have consistently found a correlation between children’s first language and second language skills: that is, children who are strong readers in their mother tongue are more likely to become strong readers in English and Filipino too. However, there are certain factors that are keeping MTB-MLE from reaching its full potential: teacher quality, the quality and availability of learning materials, language mismatches, and the sequencing of language transitions. These are some of the challenges that the DepEd needs to address.


Two recurring problems in Philippine education are a lack of continuity and a lack of flexibility. When a new administration comes in, it often cancels whatever policies were in place before. Hence, the chance of improving upon incremental gains is lost. The second problem is a “one-size-fits-all” approach, when policies are imposed on the whole country without contextualization. An inflexible language policy, which demands all students to learn through the same language(s), like English and Filipino, is a disaster for a society that is naturally diverse and linguistically fluid. The way MTB-MLE has been implemented the last few years has been quite inflexible, with the number of languages, the languages by subject, and the number of grade levels set in stone. Compare this with countries like Spain, Canada, and Switzerland, where such language variables are decided not at the national level but at the provincial, local, or even school level.

In conclusion, the new administration should retain a multilingual education system. The principles of MTB-MLE are still completely valid — we only need to figure out how to improve it. Let’s start by making the language policy more flexible and adaptable to different contexts.


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Ched E. Arzadon is faculty member of the College of Education at the University of the Philippines Diliman ([email protected]). Napoleon B. Imperial, CESO III, was former deputy executive director IV at the Commission on Higher Education ([email protected]). Firth McEachern is consultant, educator, and Ph.D. candidate of Languages and Literacy Education ([email protected]).


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