Monday, January 12, 2009

Exposing the Half Truths Peddled About Mother Tongue Instruction

Blackshama's post on multilingualism started this topic off at FV, so my article today at Filipino Voices is on UNESCO and the "scientific research" it has conducted over the years on "mother tongue instruction" which is at the heart of a re-ignited controversy over "medium of instruction" in the public schools. In it I expose how ideologues posing as nationalists have presented a remarkably one-sided version of the Unesco findings, which are distinctively politicized to begin with, but which are still far more balanced about the use of mother tongues as media of instruction, noting huge practical, logistical and intellectual resource problems with mother tongue instruction on a large scale in a poor country. By ignoring or even covering up these well-documented problems and tall hurdles in establishing a givenmother tongue as fully functional medium of instruction, local advocates have thus manufactured a fake 'scientific controvery' against the use of English as a medium of instruction by citing "across the board studies" and "scientific evidence" for the singular benefits of using mother tongue instruction. They are careful never to cite the Unesco sources of their familiarity with these studies, because these studies also explicitly lay out the difficulties and pitfalls of using mother tongue instruction in public schools.

TOWER OF BABEL They are insisting on a multi-lingual education policy, similar to Senator Nene Pimentel's proposals for up to ten languages to be used as official media of instruction, thus requiring textbooks, teacher's guides and instruction materials in Reading, Writing and 'Rithmetic --to be rendered in Iloko, Pangalatok, Kapampangan, Tagalog, Bicolano, Waray, Binisaya, Tausug, Maranon, as well as English and the mythical Pfilipino national language. One might think, naively, that it would be just a matter of translating say an existing English textbook into these dialects. Even if it were, and publishers and authors will tell you that it ain't, there are further difficulties involving qualified instructors, linguistic experts and reviewers in obscure or little used dialects, which however cannot be treated as second class baggage and be ignored or neglected.

What has emerged is this: fifty years of research shows that mother tongue instruction has its pluses and minuses, that children do learn faster, at least initially, in a language used at home, compared to some strange foreign tongue. But there is huge conceptual and logical leap from this commonsensical and plausible notion to the insinuation that ANY mother tongue is a suitable and wise choice for use as medium of instruction for 25 million public school students studying 5 different subjects (Math, Science, Makabayan, English and Pilipino) at ten different levels (Grades 1-6 and High School I-IV) spread out over 40,000 barangays in an archipelago with 170 ethnologically recognized living languages spoken by what will soon be 100 million human beings.

The House is about to pass overwhelmingly HB 5619 -- An Act Strengthening and Enhancing the Use of English as Medium of Instruction -- authored by Cebu Rep. Ed Gullas. But the bill is being opposed by ideological heavyweights in media and academe. Lately it has become the mantra of a certain genre of propaganda that using English is a form of colonial mentality and that we ought to use our various "mother tongues" instead as medium of instruction. For example, in its editorial, King's English, PDI says

To be sure, the state should be in the business of looking for the best way to effectively transmit knowledge in its education system. But studies across the board show that the mother tongue is the best conveyor of instruction.

To some extent, the Gullas bill recognizes the above. It gives schools the option to use English, Filipino or the regional language as the teaching language from pre-school up to Grade 3. But from the intermediate grades up to high school, English will be the teaching language, except in Filipino as a course.

Just the same, the bill’s “English myopia” is hegemonic, and overlooks scientific evidence showing the mother tongue to be the best medium of instruction."
Now, it has always puzzled me that those who have been making these claims never cite the original sources of this "scientific evidence" or the "across the board studies" that established the Mother Tongue Hypothesis. Now I know why--because I believe I have discovered the Mother Lode of that "evidence" for the benefits of Mother Tongue instruction in this position paper (PDF) by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco). Published in 2003, it reprises fifty years of Unesco research into mother tongue instruction and related language issues in education worldwide.

And indeed, we find in the Unesco documents substantial confirmation of the claims being made by PDI and the supporters of mother tongue instruction here in the Philippines. And more...much more! Because in this very same paper, in the very same section that praises the benefits of mother tongue instruction we also find,-- lo and behold! -- substantial objections and caveats to mother tongue instruction that are not mentioned by the PDI editorial. Here is an extended excerpt from the Unesco PDF which gives a far more balanced view of the use of first language or mother tongue instruction:

Mother tongue instruction generally refers to the use of the learners’ mother tongue as the medium of instruction. Additionally, it can refer to the mother tongue as a subject of instruction. It is considered to be an important component of quality education, particularly in the early years. The expert view is that mother tongue instruction should cover both the teaching of and the teaching through this language.

The term ‘mother tongue’, though widely used, may refer to several different situations. Definitions often include the following elements: the language(s)that one has learnt first; the language(s) one identifies with or is identified as a native speaker of by others; the language(s) one knows best and the language(s) one uses most. ‘Mother tongue’ may also be referred to as ‘primary’ or ‘first language’. The term ‘mother tongue’ is commonly used in policy statements and in the general discourse on educational issues. It is retained in this document for that reason, although it is to be noted that the use of the term ‘mother tongue’ often fails to discriminate between all the variants of a language used by a native speaker, ranging from hinterland varieties to urban-based standard languages used as school mother tongue. A child’s earliest first-hand experiences in native speech do not necessarily correspond to the formal school version of the so-called mother tongue.

It is an obvious yet not generally recognized truism that learning in a language which is not one’s own provides a double set of challenges, not only is there the challenge of learning a new language but also that of learning new knowledge contained in that language. These challenges may be further exacerbated in the case of certain groups are already in situations of educational risk or stress such as illiterates, minorities and refugees. Gender considerations cross cut these situations of educational risk, for girls and women may be ina particularly disadvantaged position. In most traditional societies, it is the girls and women who tend to be monolingual, being less exposed either through schooling, salaried labour, or migration to the national language, than their sons, brothers or husbands. Studies have shown that, in many cases, instruction in the mother tongue is beneficial to language competencies in the first language, achievement in other subject areas, and second language learning.


The application of the principle of mother tongue instruction nevertheless is far from being the rule. Some of the difficulties encountered by the use of mother tongues as languages of instruction may include the following:
_sometimes the mother tongue may be an unwritten language;
_sometimes the language may not even be generally recognized
as constituting a legitimate language;
_the appropriate terminology for education purposes may still have
to be developed;
_there may be a shortage of educational materials in the language;
_the multiplicity of languages may exacerbate the difficulty
of providing schooling in each mother tongue;
_there may be a lack of appropriately trained teachers;
_there may be resistance to schooling in the mother tongue by the students, parents and teachers.
ETHNOLOGUE claims that there are 1 71 living and 4 extinct languages in the Philippine Archipelago, and lists each one along with the estimated number of active speakers. These are the MOTHER TONGUES of the various tribes of the Filipinos, some with millions like Cebuano and Tagalog, others with just a few hundred, like Agta-Aeta, or a few hundred thousand like the Spanish-based pidgin, Chavacano. Please peruse the's fascinating!

In the Comment Thread to our colleague Blackshama's post on this topic, I already mentioned my own independently conceived objections to the Mother Tongue Hypothesis, including that the medium of instruction ought to be a written language and that the Philippines lacks the resources, both material and human, to support a plethora of mother tongues being used as media of instruction.

So I am gratified to now be able to say, just like PDI, that there is scientific evidence to support my objections to their position. In fact that scientific evidence is the same source of their scientific evidence in support of the mother tongue instruction.

Except I am presenting ALL of Unesco's scientific evidence!


Anonymous said...

You do know that by calling the regional languages as dialects, you're indirectly subscribing to the Mother Tongue Hypothesis.

Just a thought.

DJB Rizalist said...

How does calling them dialects subscribe to the Mother Tongue Hypothesis, which says simply that we learn best in our mother tongue and therefore mother tongues should be used as media of instruction?

Anonymous said...

I mean, by lumping all our languages together as dialects, you acknowledge the existence of one dialect continuum over the country. Your generalization seems to support the use and dominance of Tagalog-based Filipino.

DJB Rizalist said...

oic, well then I am forced to withdraw my use of "dialect" in favor of "language" to emphasize that I consider Tagalog but one of many in the archipelago. I leave to you however the task of defending this new usage against those Tagalogs, Cebuanos, Ilokos and Pampangos who might be insulted at having their tongue categorized the same as Agta Aeta or Babuyan. But I have no such hangups.

Anonymous said...

djb, i've noticed that from time immemorial, you’ve been appropriating the term “mother tongue hypothesis” to mean the relative effectiveness of mother tongue over a foreign language as a medium of instruction, and here springs your objection. in strict linguistic parlance, however, the mother tongue hypothesis actually refers to the role of the mother tongue as the main source of interference in acquiring and/or honing skills in learning a foreign language . your meaning and the formal academic usage as applied in linguistics are poles (or is it false? hehe) apart.

and if you insist that someone provides you with scientific evidence as regards the effectiveness of what you call “mother tongue hypothesis”, go google instead jim cummins’ notion of “linguistic interdependence hypothesis”, which i think is more relevant in the argument for pushing and maintaining the bilingual language policy. and yes, you can always email him at university of alberta where scientific studies (i.e., research based on experimental grounds) regarding his hypothesis are abundantly conducted.

who says there is necessarily a need to translate english written textbooks in the local dialect in the promotion of a multi-lingual education policy? studies suggest metalinguistic awareness is even stronger among bilinguals, meaning the individual is greatly advantaged by thinking and figuring out linguistic nuances in two or more sets of learned and imbibed languages, and therefore contribute to their cognitive processing. sure there are linguistic interferences that come along [and here appropriately enters the concept of "mother tongue hypothesis], but with proper instruction [which does not necessarily require english as the mode of language instruction--i am averse to using the term "medium", as there are other tools and means apart from language that can provide instruction], learning can nonetheless be advanced by providing the verbal instruction through codeswitching and using english written textbooks as reference.

p.s. tell me what your first language is? if am not mistaken it is english, right? you were lucky to have learned your lessons in your mother tongue [in the strict linguistic parlance, "ang tongue ng ina mo"] which already gives you the advantage. there goes the effectiveness your "mother tongue hypothesis" argument.

p.p.s. how goes your reading of steven pinker’s “language instinct”?

p.p.s. i am to understand that you are now based in australia? where?

cheers, mate.

--inodoro ni emilie

Anonymous said...

I was a beneficiary of the mother tongue medium of instruction in the 60's. It was excellent. In just a few months, I started to read "bisaya magazine." I had hard time reading english books, but at least I can read materials written in my own dialect. I was amazed to realize that I can read! Since then I started to look for materials written in cebuano or tagalog, so that I can show to my friends that I can already read and of course can fully comprehend. That was fascinating. English was introduced to us in Grade 2 but only as a subject. Other subjects are still taught in bisaya, and it was only when we reached grade four that english as a medium of instruction was fully implemented. I did not find it hard to shift to english. The most important is that, my early years in school is not frustrating. I achieved something that most children these days cannot - they read but they cannot comprehend. I can write my thoughts easily, while the new generation can hardly compose a simple paragraph about the people in their community. I believe it is time we should look back.

alex r.