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The mother of all Mother Tongues: Language as part of the Bicolano Identity, Part 1

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” - Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela’s quote is very powerful and has inspired me because it shows the power of story and the endless possibilities it evokes when the head aligns with the heart. The quote was simplified down to the precept of a bilingual speaker emphasizing its power over man’s ability to communicate effectively. The actual quote from Mandela, however, is contextually different.

In Mandela’s bestselling autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom” – a taped conversation with Richard Stengel, Mandela actually said this: “Because when you speak a language, English, well many people understand you, including Afrikaners, but when you speak Afrikaans, you know you go straight to their hearts.” The spirit, the power of mother tongues, is there but the context is wrong.

Mandela was talking about Afrikaans, the language of the (white) oppressors. During the era of apartheid, oppressors forced the black people of South Africa to speak the foreign language over their mother tongues. Afrikaans is not indigenous to South Africa. It is a creole, a Dutch dialect. Rather than treating it as a dialect, the powers that be made Afrikaans the national language.

According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the principle of linguistic relativity, that “the particular language one speaks influences the way one thinks about reality.” Meaning that some aspects of language (i.e., mother tongue) influence some aspects of cognition. Thus, one’s worldview can be limited to the words available in a spoken language. When related to learning by a particular culture, verbalization of concepts is often culturally conditioned.

Mandela’s quote reminds me of what happened in the Philippines and the subsequent generational impact the colonialists’ language has had over its citizens. Spanish supplanted the Filipinos’ prevalent pre-colonial language Baybayin. Spanish was the de facto official language in the Philippines for more than 300 years until the Americans replaced it with English. Simon (Crisostomo Ibarra in Rizal’s Noli) was prophetic when he predicted that Spanish will never become the common language in the Philippines.

The Americans clearly read Rizal’s novel and did better – they made English the language of instruction in the public school system that they introduced in the country. In 1973, the new Philippine constitution designated English and Pilipino as official languages, in that order. The order was reversed in the 1935 constitution (Tagalog, English) and subsequently replaced it with Filipino as the primary with English as secondary official language in the 1987 constitution.

Corollary to the constitutional revisions where changes in approaches to the Philippine education programs. During the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the concept of “Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) was institutionalized, but it was during the presidency of Benigno Aquino III that it was fully implemented as part of the K to 12 curriculum. Bro. Armin Luistro led the Department of Education (DepEd) who oversaw its implementation as part of the department’s Basic Enhanced Education Program.

Today, Filipinos grapple with the use of mother tongues in the curriculum and the impact of its removal and eventual disappearance. The genesis of the current brouhaha was the Philippines’ poor showing in the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) challenge. The 2018 PISA assessment scores for 15-year-old Filipino students showed that the Philippines ranked the lowest out of 79 countries in reading comprehension and scored second to the lowest (#78) in mathematics and in science.

The dismal scores happened during President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. His Secretary of Education, Leonor Briones, Department of Education (DepEd) Secretary Leonor Briones reacted to this outcome with a realistic mind, but her approaches lacked realism. “We have to shift DepEd focus from access to giving basic quality education,” she said during the launching of DepEd’s “Sulong Edukalidad.”

“Edukalidad” was an education reform campaign aimed at four key areas: K-to-12 review and updating, improvement of learning facilities, teachers and school heads’ upskilling and reskilling through a transformed professional development program, and engagement of all stakeholders for support and collaboration. The scores were alarming but there was also a silver lining given that this was the first year that the Philippines joined this United Nation’s initiative. What would have been surprising was if the Filipino students did well. It was a good baseline.

But first, a little clarification might be in order. The Philippines was given a choice whether to take the assessment in Filipino or in English. Education officials picked English because they feared that those non-Tagalog speakers such as those in the Ilocos, Bicol, Visayas and Mindanao might not do well because Tagalog to some of these regions are secondary dialects. Imagine faceing math worded problems in Filipino or trying grasping a scientific theory in the dialect.

So, students took the English version. To have some context on this poor showing, I visited the PISA website and took the assessments myself in English comprehension, math and science. They are not hard but very challenging that even some Filipino college graduates now might have difficulty scoring high. Remember these were the students who started high school during the Aquino administration. These results therefore reflected a direct assessment of the MTB-MLE – it failed dismally.

DepEd’s focus over the years has been finding a chair for every child even if it means packing the classroom or holding classes under the Acacia tree. It also meant that they were just passing everyone and hoping that there will be self-correction later when a child reaches senior high school or college. This approach was precipitated by the fact that the Philippine population has been growing in asymmetric proportion and thus overcrowding public schools.

It also meant that the bar for hiring public school teachers got lower, and institutions ignored teachers’ needs for continuing education. Briones admitted that teachers did not do well either and having poorly trained teachers equals poorly trained students. More than that, full implementation nationwide required resources that were lacking.

When President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. became president, he appointed Vice President Sara Duterte to be his education secretary. Duterte’s appointment was met with derision (mostly from supporters of the defeated presidential candidate, Leni Robredo) given the political nature of the appointment. She recently resigned her cabinet post.

The MATATAG curriculum that was unveiled by VP Duterte last August will see action during the 2024-2025 school year. The new curriculum revises the current one that was developed between 2011-2017 and implemented in 2012. The old curriculum was introduced to “bring the Philippines in line with global standards and other countries,” it failed.

MATATAG stands for “Make the curriculum relevant to produce job-ready, Active and responsible citizens; TAke steps to accelerate the delivery of basic education services and provision facilities; TAke good care of learners by promoting learner well-being, inclusiveness learning, and positive learning environment; and, Give support for teachers to teach better.” (To be continued)


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