“The Importance of Mother Tongue-Based Schooling for Educational Quality”

Commissioned study for EFA Global Monitoring Report 2005 Carol Benson, Ph. D. Centre for Research on Bilingualism Stockholm University 14 April 2004 Part A: Overview While there are many factors involved in delivering quality basic education, language is clearly the key to communication and understanding in the classroom. Many developing countries are characterized by individual as well as societal multilingualism, yet continue to allow a single foreign language to dominate the education sector.
Instruction through a language that learners do not speak has been called “submersion” (Skutnabb-Kangas 2000) because it is analogous to holding learners under water without teaching them how to swim. Compounded by chronic difficulties such as low levels of teacher education, poorly designed, inappropriate curricula and lack of adequate school facilities, submersion makes both learning and teaching extremely difficult, particularly when the language of instruction is also foreign to the teacher.
Mother tongue-based bilingual programs use the learner’s first language, known as the L1, to teach beginning reading and writing skills along with academic content. The second or foreign language, known as the L2, should be taught systematically so that learners can gradually transfer skills from the familiar language to the unfamiliar one. Bilingual models and practices vary as do their results, but what they have in common is their use of the mother tongue at least in the early years so that students can acquire and develop literacy skills in addition to understanding and participating in the classroom.

Bilingual as opposed to monolingual schooling offers significant pedagogical advantages which have been reported consistently in the academic literature (see reviews in Baker 2001; Cummins 2000; CAL 2001): Use of a familiar language to teach beginning literacy facilitates an understanding of sound-symbol or meaning-symbol correspondence. Learning to read is most efficient when students know the language and can employ psycholinguistic guessing strategies; likewise, students can communicate through writing as soon as they understand the rules of the orthographic (or other written) system of their language.
In contrast, submersion programs may succeed in teaching students to decode words in the L2, but it can take years before they discover meaning in what they are “reading. ” ¦ Since content area instruction is provided in the L1, the learning of new concepts is not postponed until children become competent in the L2. Unlike submersion teaching, which is often characterised by lecture and rote response, bilingual instruction allows teachers and students to interact naturally and negotiate meanings together, creating participatory learning environments that are conducive to cognitive as well as linguistic development. Explicit teaching of the L2 beginning with oral skills allows students to learn the new language through communication rather than memorization. In submersion schooling teachers are often forced to translate or code-switch to convey meaning, making concept learning inefficient and even impeding language learning, while bilingual programs allow for systematic teaching of the L2. ¦ Transfer of linguistic and cognitive skills is facilitated in bilingual programs.
Once students have basic literacy skills in the L1 and communicative skills in the L2, they can begin reading and writing in the L2, efficiently transferring the literacy skills they have acquired in the familiar language. The pedagogical principles behind this positive transfer of skills are Cummins’ (1991, 1999) interdependence theory and the concept of common underlying proficiency, whereby the knowledge of language, literacy and concepts learned in the L1 can be accessed and used in the second language once oral L2 skills are developed, and no re-learning is required.
Consistent with these principles, it is possible for children schooled only in the L2 to transfer their knowledge and skills to the L1, but the process is highly inefficient as well as being unnecessarily difficult. Code-switching and code-mixing involve alternation between languages, and are common communication strategies in bi- and multilingual contexts. Code alternation functions best when all parties are competent speakers of the languages involved, but in submersion classrooms it is more of a coping strategy for dealing with a foreign instructional medium and does not necessarily contribute to second language learning.
As specialists Lanauze & Snow explain, transfer means that “language skills acquired in a first language can, at least if developed beyond a certain point in L1, be recruited at relatively early stages of L2 acquisition for relatively skilled performance in L2, thus shortcutting the normal developmental progression in L2” (1989: 337). ¦ Student learning can be accurately assessed in bilingual classrooms. When students can express themselves, teachers can diagnose what has been learned, what remains to be taught and which students need further assistance.
In submersion schooling cognitive learning and language learning are confounded, making it difficult for teachers to determine whether students have difficulty understanding the concept itself, the language of instruction, or the language of the test. ¦ The affective domain, involving confidence, self-esteem and identity, is strengthened by use of the L1, increasing motivation and initiative as well as creativity.
L1 classrooms allow children to be themselves and develop their personalities as well as their intellects, unlike submersion classrooms where they are forced to sit silently or repeat mechanically, leading to frustration and ultimately repetition, failure and dropout. ¦ Students become bilingual and biliterate. Bilingual programs encourage learners to understand, speak, read and write in more than one language. In contrast, submersion programs attempt to promote skills in a new language by eliminating them from a known language, which may actually limit learner competence in both.
All of these advantages are based on two assumptions: one, that basic human needs are being met so that schooling can take place; and two, that mother tongue-based bilingual schooling can be properly implemented. Simply changing the language of instruction without resolving other pressing social and political issues is not likely to result in significant improvement in educational services. However, because language cross-cuts race, ethnicity, gender, and poverty, even minimally implemented bilingual programs have the potential to reach those who have traditionally been left behind by L2 submersion schooling.
This paper will discuss how choosing an appropriate language of instruction has positive implications for education in terms of both increasing access and improving quality. Education for All: Building Strong Learning Foundations thru the Mother Tongue * Philippine basic education is now at a critical crossroad. It now calls for the revisiting of our commitment to Education for All (EFA) 2015. All stakeholders have to be vigilant and involved. Otherwise, education will just be a weak transformative power in our society.
Instead of education for all, it will be education for the few; instead of seeing Filipino youth become critical thinkers, coherent communicators, and productive citizens; we will see a generation of unreflective and mediocre mouthpieces of languages not their own. We affirm the need to improve learning competencies in all subject areas, including English. Our educational system has to move forward following a roadmap drawn by experts in language and education based on empirical proofs. Experiences of other multilingual countries all point to the mother tongue as the best language of learning, especially in the early grades.
The mother tongue is the most effective bridge to and foundation for the learning of other languages like English. At this stage, however, many of our lawmakers and national leaders still hold on to the unfounded but long-held belief that an English-dominated initial basic education will produce superior learners. We submit that such educational strategy will only benefit a very small number of Filipinos—those who belong to families where English is the home language. But the truth is that the majority of our school children come from homes where the mother tongue is the predominant language.
This explains their marginalization in the classroom. Such marginalized learners, as pointed out by scientific evidences face the double burden of learning. They are struggling to learn the 3Rs on top of the big burden of learning an alien language in which they are taught. This predicament is one of the major culprits of poor performance and high drop-out rates. All of these imply the needed approach– teach the yet unknown 3Rs through the already familiar local language and culture, build the learner’s capacity to learn and introduce a second language with the correct phasing.
With such mother tongue-based multi-lingual education (MLE) framework, the mastery of all the learning areas including English is effectively attained. It is a basic truth that language embodies a person’s cultural identity and heritage. To uphold this truth, even international law guarantees and directs states’ educational system to develop respect for the child’s own cultural identity and language (Article 29-c Convention on the Rights of the Child). Thus, we reject any assertion that a local language may be inferior, inadequate and poses an obstacle to learning.
We also reject the usual argument that MLE is costly and, therefore, very hard to implement in the face of limited financial resources. Papua New Guinea, a poor Asian country of more than 800 languages, has demonstrated that reliance on local initiatives and resources for MLE is highly feasible and substantially saves on much costs of developing and producing learning materials. Recently, our own DepEd’s Agusan Pilot MLE Study corroborated the practicality and merits of local self-reliance and initiatives.
Thus, we submit that ultimately, to insist on teaching with an alien language is more costly and inefficient when children do not become functionally literate and hardly develop higher order thinking skills and whose English competencies are mediocre. Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education Many Filipino learners face barriers in education. One of these barriers is that our learners often begin their education in a language they do not understand. Because they do not understand the language of education, many learners become discouraged and tend to drop-out from school.
Content of material is often culturally distant or unfamiliar to the learners. The limited education that learners receive does not prepare them for lifelong learning. Mother tongue-based multilingual education (MLE) is a formal or nonformal education, in which the children’s mother tongue is used in the classroom as a bridge in learning Filipino and English. Children begin their education in a language they understand, their mother tongue, and develop a strong foundation in their mother language.
The purpose of a multilingual education program is to develop appropriate cognitive and reasoning skills enabling children to operate equally in different languages – starting in the mother tongue with transition to Filipino and then English. It is a structured program of language learning and cognitive development which provides learners with a strong educational foundation in the first language. If the mother tongue is not used, we create people who are illiterate in two languages.
Children do not become sufficiently fluent in their mother tongue (L1) in both oracy and literacy if their vocabulary in L1 is limited, thus restricting their ability to learn a second language (L2). A strong foundation in L1 is required for learning L2. Children’s understanding of concepts is limited or confused if leaning is only L2. The benefits of MLE include the following: • Reduced drop-out • Reduced repetition • Children are attending school. • Children are learning. • Parents and community are involved. • It is more cost – effective to implement mother tongue programs.
A region wide training was conducted last summer in preparation for this school year’s pilot implementation. A Regional association of supervisors, school heads and teachers was organized during that training. Feedback gathered from the pilot implementers revealed that teachers find the use of the MTB-MLE very useful. Pupils are very participative and most of them have learned to read by this time. Although some teachers find it tiresome, especially in the preparation of materials, but they feel rewarded by seeing the enjoyment among the pupils in their learning experiences.

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