Language proficiency

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

A caregiver I know is making her one-year-old daughter watch movies on TV, cartoon segments on the internet and clips on TikTok, all in English.

The caregiver, a single mother at 21, wants her daughter to absorb English early and learn it as a second language, in preparation for what she believes will be the wider use of English as a medium of instruction from kindergarten up under the administration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

English is the caregiver’s third language, after her mother tongue, a Visayan dialect, and Filipino. English was not spoken at her home; her own mother, who dropped out of high school upon getting pregnant at 17, can manage only rudimentary English.

The young mother has a much greater English proficiency than her parents. She told me that in her public school in the Visayas, English was introduced at first grade, and then Taglish was the medium of instruction until her high school graduation.

Still, she wants her daughter to be more proficient than her in English. She believes in language as a critical tool for personal advancement. And she is glad to learn that Bongbong Marcos wants to restore Filipinos’ facility in the “global language.”

On one point about his father’s “golden age” whether real or imagined, Marcos Junior is correct: Filipinos’ English proficiency was better at the time.

But this can’t be attributed wholly to “Macoy” Senior. What he did was preserve the system that had been in place for decades, when the Americans introduced their language as they rolled out public education across the Philippines that was accessible to the masses.

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Filipinos, frustrated that the Spanish colonizers made their language accessible only to the local elite and middle class ilustrados, embraced the language of the new foreign occupiers.

Under US tutelage, native English speakers trained a pool of Filipino educators, who in turn disseminated their skills down the line and to the next generations. To this day, many of the best written mail in English that I get are from Filipinos of the older generation.

Their Filipino (conversational, not formal) is also impeccable. Today, many of our people have lost proficiency in both English and Filipino. Communicating in short message bursts on social media, in pidgin English and pidgin Tagalog or local dialect punctuated with emojis, has contributed to the deterioration of our proficiency in whatever language.

Surely this weakness in communicating intelligibly has contributed to our students’ poor reading comprehension.

Critics must concede that BBM is right in noting that the country’s ever-growing army of migrant workers can use upskilling, starting with a better grasp of English.

It’s not just for migrant workers. We can’t even fill thousands of well-paying jobs in business process outsourcing because applicants lack the required English language skills.

The Oxford-educated BBM’s speeches and media interviews are delivered mostly in English; it looks like the language of his household.

Reviving the Filipino’s English proficiency is one of his marching orders to his education secretary, Vice President Sara Duterte. Let’s hope it doesn’t prove to be a tall order for the VP, who seems fixated on the revival of mandatory Reserve Officers Training Corps.

What the new head of the Department of Education (DepEd) can do within her power is to review the use of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction.

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BBM’s instruction to restore Filipinos’ English proficiency has reignited the debate on which language is best used as the medium of instruction particularly in public schools.

The Alliance of Concerned Teachers and certain education advocacy groups, reacting to BBM’s pronouncement, said the emphasis should be on Filipino rather than English, since it is easier particularly for young learners to absorb lessons in their first language. It’s a valid position.

The country has pursued a bilingual education policy since 1974. Filipino is used for teaching social studies, music, arts, physical education, home economics, practical arts and character education. English is used for science, math and technology subjects.

As even education officials have noted from years of implementing the program, however, the Tagalog used in schools is the formal version – grammatically correct, but with variations from conversational Tagalog that many children cannot understand.

In my childhood, we had local illustrated comics that made us familiar with this formal version of our national language, even if it was different from what we spoke at home. Many movies at the time also used this formal Filipino, with words like datapwat, subalit, ngunit.

We still struggled though with our language lessons in Filipino, which included proper intonations and pronunciation; it was almost like learning another foreign language.

And so it is today for those who don’t even have illustrated comics and movies to help them along.

Also, let’s face it: the national language we call Filipino is mainly Tagalog, and there are still regionalistic enclaves in our country where people prefer to converse in English rather than Tagalog with those who don’t speak their dialect.

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In 2012, DepEd introduced the mother tongue-based multilingual education for Grades 1 to 3 using 12 major dialects: Tagalog, Kapampangan, Pangasinense, Iloko, Bicol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Waray, Tausug, Maguindanaoan, Maranao and Chabacano. Seven more were added in 2013: Ybanag, Ivatan, Sambal, Aklanon, Kinaray-a, Yakan and Surigaonon.

The mother tongue program has run into some problems. For one, education officials point to the lack of teachers with sufficient proficiency in the mother tongue in particular areas.

Also, the officials have noted that even within a small barangay, different households don’t always have the same mother tongue. Obviously, the early learner who can’t understand the lessons given in other people’s mother tongue is a loser.

The new education chief will be facing this contentious debate on the development of a national language, and what should be the medium of instruction.

She can promote partnerships with private education institutions and organizations for help in this effort.

Educators might also consider reviving illustrated comics as education tools. They encourage reading, in contrast to the passive knowledge absorption from watching movies and TV.

Any tool for improving learning is worth considering. The objective must be language proficiency – in both English and Filipino.


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