The return of the mother tongue

Something is about to happen in Philippine education that may have a deep and enduring impact not only on the intellectual development of Filipino children but on their relationship with their communities as well. The Department of Education announced recently that from June this year, when the new school year opens, any of 12 major local languages spoken in different regions of the country will be taught as a subject and used as a medium of instruction from kindergarten to Grade 3. This crucial shift, known as “Mother Tongue-Based Multi-Lingual Education” (MTB-MLE), is part of the K+12 basic education reform program. The new scheme has yielded positive results in 921 schools across the country where it has been piloted.

The DepEd says: “Local and international studies have shown that using the language used at home (mother tongue) inside the classroom during the learners’ early years of schooling produces better and faster learners who can easily adapt to learn a second (Filipino) and third (English) language.” This is an insight that has long been documented by teachers at the University of the Philippines Integrated School. But it has taken a while for it to gain traction in an educational system that remains bonded to the English language.

The 12 mother tongues that will soon be harnessed for classroom use are Tagalog, Kapampangan, Pangasinense, Iloko, Bikol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Waray, Tausug, Maguindanaoan, Maranao, and Chabacano. The mother tongue of a given region will be employed in all learning areas, except in the teaching of Filipino and English subjects. Filipino will be introduced during the first semester of Grade 1 to develop oral fluency, while English will be offered as a subject in the second semester of Grade 1. I am not familiar with the specifics of the program, but I expect that provisions have been made for those schools in which most of the students come from migrant families whose mother tongue is different from that spoken in the region.

This fundamental change will require the production of new teaching materials and modules using local languages that have long been marginalized as formal tools of communication and education. Those who were in grade school and high school in the 1950s will remember how local languages, except Tagalog, were explicitly banned from school precincts. It was a crazy era when pupils who made the mistake of shifting to the local “dialect” in a moment of panic during classroom recitation were routinely fined for the “offense.” I don’t think that experience necessarily made us better speakers of English. But it certainly developed in us a wrong-headed skepticism about the value of our own languages and the ways of life in which they were embedded.

I have always believed that to speak a language is to be a member of a community; by speaking its language, we participate in the community’s evolving consciousness. The need to speak a language is proportional to our need to communicate with that community. Looking back at those years, I now believe that, instead of strengthening the ties between school and community, English-based basic education had the effect of restricting our connection to our communities. This is the exact opposite of how John Dewey imagined the ideal relationship between the school and society. By imposing English as a medium of instruction, our schools were, in a sense, producing a nation of immigrants—individuals with little or no attachment to the places in which they were born and raised. The self-estrangement that many young Filipinos feel today may have stemmed largely from the institutional purging of mother tongues from the circuits of our national life.

Fortunately, one never really loses one’s mother tongue. All it takes to reactivate it as a faculty is to listen to others speak it. These days, because of the Internet, physical distance is no longer a barrier to real-time communication. We can, without much effort, become instantly reconnected to e-groups around the world that are devoted to promoting the use of our mother tongues. It is a wonderful irony that globalization is reviving local languages.

But, the scars of neglect are typically borne by the language itself. Mother tongues get stunted when they are not used, particularly when they are no longer written. When people complain that some languages are not complex enough to communicate an intellectual culture, they forget that languages do not grow by themselves.  “Every language,” says Steven Pinker, “… is constantly under renovation. Despite the lamentation of language lovers and the coercion of tongue troopers, languages change unstoppably as people need to talk about new things or convey new attitudes.”

As a native speaker of Kapampangan, I look forward to the literary resurgence that the return of the mother tongue to our schools may trigger. The writing of teaching materials using our indigenous languages will definitely spawn a renewed interest in local history and culture. It will instill pride in our beginnings, and hopefully lift our nation from the morass of demoralization in which it has long been stuck.

All this may or may not have been contemplated by the DepEd. Indeed, it is enough that the program has for its principal goal the liberation of our children from the double burden of acquiring basic concepts using a language they are learning for the first time. Still, there is no doubt in my mind that the shift to a mother tongue in the early years of formal schooling will have revolutionary consequences not only for Philippine education, but also for the way we think of ourselves as a nation.