English ‘pa more,’ the ‘betterer’?
Two things stand out about language in all three international learning assessments in which the Philippines took part. First, our country is exceptional in having English as language of instruction (LOI) that is not our home language. We are doing the opposite of what successful educational systems are doing. Second, our country has the distinction of placing last or close to last in subject outcomes.
Data from the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study show that speaking English at home may actually be disadvantageous to Filipino learners. Filipino Grade 4 students who do not speak English at home scored significantly higher than English speakers in TIMSS. The figures speak for themselves: 337 vs. 253 in math, 294 vs. 196 in science, all favoring non-English speakers.
This puzzling phenomenon also surfaced in the 2008 TIMSS in advanced mathematics. Our science high schools participated in this test where we landed last. Again, those who did not speak English at home performed significantly better than those who did. Among Philippine Science High School students, those who “never” spoke English at home scored 567 compared to 514 scored by English speakers. In city science high schools, non-English speakers got a score of 484 compared to 390 of their English-speaking peers.
Of course, there are other factors that impact learning, but the issue of language can never be underestimated.
Lawmakers changed our policy in 2013 to mother tongue-based multilingual education or L1-based MLE. The law mandates the learners’ first language (L1) or strongest language as primary LOI across all elementary subjects. In high school, the second languages (L2s), namely English and additionally Filipino for non-Tagalogs, become primary LOI. Meanwhile, the L1 becomes an auxiliary medium.
Immense benefits accrue from an L1 plus L2 no-exit program. It ensures that learners will have sufficient time to develop their cognitive academic language proficiency in the L1 across all subjects. Elementary learners are also primed in English and Filipino to prepare them for the shift to L2 in secondary school. When this happens, acquired skills and knowledge in the L1 can be transferred to the L2. Research shows that typically L2 learning requires a minimum of 5-7 years before proficiency is high enough for learners to engage with new content in L2.
Unfortunately, the current Department of Education (DepEd) leaders inherited a weak, subtractive, short exit program from their predecessors. Here, L1 use in class is banned after Grade 3. International and local studies have cautioned us that an abrupt shift to L2 will hurt learning. This short-exit scheme is under review and will take a lot of undoing.
The current language program is one where teachers can hardly cover 50 percent of the mish-mash curriculum. This pales in comparison to a strong, integrated, multilingual plan in which specific learning goals for the L1, Filipino, and English subjects cohere at every grade level all the way up to high school. Its focus is on L1 and L2 literacy, not grammar. Once implemented, it will help solve the perennial problem of curriculum congestion.
Teachers can only teach what they know. An overdue program of relearning for in-service teachers and a rethinking of pre-service teacher education are underway. The DepEd cannot accomplish these tasks without the assistance of higher education partners like Philippine Normal University and other agents of change in government, in the private sector, and in local communities. It will require time for the L1-based MLE’s revolutionary philosophy and methodology to be embraced by education stakeholders.
A shaping paper is essential to remove the present confusion about our language-in-education policy. It should provide guidance to educators and school leaders on major aspects of the delivery of language education, from planning, to materials production, to instruction, to teacher preparation, and to assessment. A shaping paper based on something else simply will not do.
Dr. Ricardo Ma. Duran Nolasco ([email protected]) is a retired linguistics professor from UP Diliman.
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