Use of first language or mother tongue does not work in the Philippines | Inquirer Opinion

Use of first language or mother tongue does not work in the Philippines

/ 04:05 AM September 05, 2023

In her letter “Using first language (L1) is crucial for quality education” (Letters, 8/11/23), Maria Mercedes Arzadon declared that the usage of L1 or mother tongue in schools leads to quality education. Understandably, she did not mention that in the last 11 years when L1 was used as medium of instruction in Grades 1 to 3 via the Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) program of the Department of Education (DepEd), the reverse happened: the quality of our education worsened.

Let’s check the claims of the L1 contained in DepEd Order No. 74, series of 2009, against reality on the ground:

Quicker learning of reading

According to the World Bank, the country’s learning poverty rate or the portion of 10-year-olds who cannot read and understand simple texts stands at 90.9 percent. This cannot be blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic because, in 2019, the figure was already 69.5 percent.


The literacy problem predated the MTB-MLE but it got worse during the implementation of the language policy. It was only in November 2019 that the DepEd acted on the problem with DepEd Memorandum No. 173, series of 2019, (Hamon: Bawat Bata Bumabasa) indicating when the problem reached crisis proportions.

While the reading crisis involves other factors, it is conspicuous that the pupils who comprise our learning poverty incidence went through the MTB-MLE for three years and still could not ably read despite the policy’s promise of quicker learning of reading.

Quicker learning of new languages

The English mean percentage score (MPS) in the Grade 6 National Achievement Test (NAT) went down by 5.71 percentage points or 14.14 percent when the first batch of MTB-MLE products took the test in 2018 (2022 Philippine Statistical Yearbook; Bureau of Education Assessment).


Public school pupils have lost their competitiveness in regional contests conducted in English because private school contestants understand the questions better as their schools have not adopted the MTB-MLE and continue to use English as medium of instruction (“Starting Where the Children Are: A Process Evaluation of the Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education Implementation,” Philippine Institute for Development Studies).

Leads to better overall academic performance


The overall MPS in Grade 6 NAT when the first batch of MTB-MLE products took the exams went down from 39.95 to 37.44 or by 2.51 percentage points or 6.28 percent. If the L1 redounds to quality education more than English does, then there should have been a significant increase in the MPS instead of a decrease.

Better scores in student assessments (implied)

Decrease in the English and overall MPS of the Grade 6 NAT in 2018 as cited above.

Our Grade 4 pupils in the 2019 TIMSS ate the dust of their counterparts in 2003 scoring 61 points or 17.03 percent lower in mathematics and 83 points or 25 percent lower in science. The country was last in both subjects in 2019 while it was third to the last in both subjects in 2003.

Regarding the Paul Monroe Commission finding in 1925 that the usage of English as medium of instruction “was the primary reason for students’ underperformance in schools” which Arzadon cited to support her claim, of more relevance are the following current findings:

Filipino private school students outscored their public school counterparts in mathematics in the 2019 TIMSS by 410 to 290 or by 29.20 percent and 405 to 203 or by 49.87 percent in Science. (“Learning crisis and complementarity,” Business Matters, 6/5/21). As already stated, private schools still use English as medium of instruction as they did not adopt the MTB-MLE.

Cordillera schoolchildren learn better with English and Filipino than with L1 as medium of instruction.

The foregoing finding was revealed by DepEd-Cordillera regional director Estela Cariño during the Senate committee on basic education, arts and culture public hearing on the MTB-MLE on July 3.

The Cordillera finding applies to the whole country as the decline in the quality of our education during the implementation of the MTB-MLE detailed in the letter was nationwide.

In other words, Arzadon is promoting L1 as though it is a new and untested idea in this country when in reality, it has already been found to be unworkable by public schools across the land in the last 11 years.

Estanislao C. Albano Jr.,

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TAGS: Filipino language, Letters to the Editor, medium of instruction

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