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Mother tongue is home: Reflections on MTB-MLE

The Philippines has a language problem. Among its more than 7,000 islands, nearly 200 languages have sprung up—each with speakers numbering from a few hundred to millions across the world. With so many disparate languages, which one ought to serve as the common denominator? Spanish, English, and Filipino have each been proposed as solutions, but questions of inclusivity, representation, and effectiveness have hounded their statuses as official national languages.

This gap is what mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) intends to address. Signed into law as part of Republic Act 10533 or the Enhanced Basic Education Act of 2013, MTB-MLE is implemented as part of the Department of Education’s (DepEd) K-12 Basic Education Program. DepEd describes it as early education in which lessons are taught in the learner’s mother tongue or first language. The program currently translates material and lesson plans into eight languages for different regions in the country.

Less than a decade after MTB-MLE’s inception, educators continue to anticipate its results, weighing in on its educational benefits, costs, and inclusivity issues.

Education made familiar

Advocates for MTB-MLE believe that learning foundational lessons in a first language encourages more classroom engagement and develops stronger literacy abilities. Genevieve Asenjo, Chair of De La Salle University’s Department of Literature, believes mother tongue-based learning can make education more accessible, especially for those in the margins of society.

She notes that some students may find it difficult to engage in the classroom, especially with an unfamiliar medium of instruction, like English or Filipino. “Hindi sila nagre-recite. Hindi dahil bobo sila, kundi, dahil wala silang capacity, for instance, sa language,” Asenjo says.

(They don’t recite. It’s not because they’re stupid but because they don’t have a capacity, for instance, for language.)

Asenjo explains that using the mother tongue works because it makes learning familiar. With domestic images and metaphors, children learn concepts by referring to things in their surroundings. She illustrates the power of domestic intimacy with an example: “Can you imagine ‘yung mga bata sa mga bundok na hindi naman nakakakita ng apple? Pwede ‘yung A is for ‘atis’.”

(Can you imagine children in the mountains that haven’t even seen an apple? For them, A can stand for ‘atis’.)

Aside from familiarity, first languages also carry a different emotional and intuitive feeling for students. Writing in the mother tongue allows for them to express greater emotional depth. Asenjo shares her own experience writing poetry and fiction in Hiligaynon and Kinaray-a, saying, “I still write, I still think, I still pray in my mother tongue. ‘Yung mga emotions na parang feeling mo napaka-intimate, I still have that in Kinaray-a.”

(Those emotions that one feels are very intimate, I still have those in Kinaray-a.)

Unity in diversity

MTB-MLE’s implementation has also been seen as a way to promote inclusivity in the education system. To understand this, one can view MTB-MLE as part of what Asenjo calls an “indigenization and decolonization project”. By bringing attention to the variety of languages in the Philippines, MTB-MLE challenges the idea that English and Filipino are the country’s most important languages. Kervin Calabias, a Kankana-ey Ilocano scholar whose research publications explore Cordillera indigenous studies, emphasizes this, commenting, “That’s a basic decolonial lens to looking at the world, that English is not the center of everything…All languages are equal.”

In line with promoting inclusivity, MTB-MLE also imparts a sense of pride in the cultural identity of these native speakers. Asenjo shares, “With mother tongue, na-realize na, of course, when we speak language, language is power. And kapag hindi tinuturo ‘yung mother tongue, mamamatay ‘yung Philippine languages natin.” In this way, MTB-MLE is important because it recognizes the unique worldview of each Philippine language. “Mother tongue is home. Mother tongue is emotional truth. Mother tongue is identity. Mother tongue is culture,” Asenjo emphasizes.

(If we don’t teach the mother tongue, our Philippine languages will die out.)

Root problems

However, for MTB-MLE critics, the program is not as inclusive as it presents itself to be. DepEd’s current implementation of the program only offers eight local lingua franca as learning areas and languages of instruction—brushing aside over a hundred other existing languages in the country. Calabias questions this majority-based approach, as he believes it is counterproductive and exhibits a complete disregard for indigenous peoples that speak more obscure languages. “This is not a numbers game. [We must] widen the representation and think of a strategy to have all languages grow together,” he asserts.

Representation is already lacking with regard to discourses being conducted on MTB-MLE. The nature of the policy is determined by certain people in power, and as a result, others that are expected to partake in the conversation are overlooked. Calabias proposes that government institutions reach out to communities and update their linguistic profiles as such insights from the natives themselves may help determine what mother tongue language to implement in a given area. 

However, he is quick to point out the said solution’s flaw, one that still favors the majority. “You’ll encounter a second problem there because you have to at least decide what mother tongue to use. For example in Baguio, the mother tongue there right now would be Ilocano. So how about the Iboloi speakers?” he posits.

Another hindrance to MTB-MLE is the infrastructure needed to execute the program. While communities are more than ready to adapt to it, widespread implementation is hampered by the lack of manpower. There are not enough people to build schools, teach students or translate educational materials into several mother tongue languages. For Calabias, the program is more likely to succeed if the infrastructure is present, especially among public schools. “Mas marami pa ring estudyante kaysa eskuwelahan, at mas marami pa rin ang hindi kaya mag-private school. Ang kaya lang nilang type of education is public schooling.” 

(There are still more students than schools, and there are more that cannot afford to go to private schools. The only type of education that is accessible to them is public schooling.)

According to a report by the Global Campaign for Education, during the program’s test run, the lack of educational materials was compensated by the teachers themselves, who took matters into their own hands by writing stories of their own. While this resulted in noticeable academic improvement among students, Calabias criticizes its anti-labor implications. “It came to the ingenuity of the educators and teachers to come up with materials. Teacher ka na nga na ang hirap-hirap magturo ng ganitong subject, and you’re also forced to make the materials because wala ka ngang material.”

(As a teacher, you are already having a hard time teaching such a subject in a mother tongue language, and they still force you to make the materials because there are no materials.)

Hope on the horizon

Due to the lack of attention toward developing mother tongue languages, lesson plans, modules, and other materials cannot be translated directly, let alone critically. Mother tongue languages, according to Calabias, “must be elevated to an academic register,” where concepts can be thoroughly discussed without English being involved. As to how this can be addressed, much reevaluation should be made with regard to what encompasses the Philippine identity, and this starts by paying attention to the indigenous peoples who have been denied in the development of the nation. Recognizing the value and importance of the many mother-tongue languages will come easier that way. 

In MTB-MLE lies an opportunity for several Filipino cultures to thrive, but given its many shortcomings, it is too early to pinpoint when it will reach its full potential. In the meantime, Calabias encourages other educators to foster appreciation for mother tongues among the youth. His way of doing so is to introduce different kinds of national literature texts that try to discern what it is to be Filipino. “The Filipino identity is not a monolithic identity, it’s not a mononational identity. It’s a pastiche of all identities here.”

With appreciation comes the dissemination and public support of indigenous literature and other art forms, and, Asenjo hopes, the effective implementation of a program that celebrates the Philippines’ cultural and linguistic diversity.

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