31 May 2007

The ruckus about our languages

YESTERDAY, I spoke twice before a 13-person group of visiting Afghan local officials, who will be here in Naga until tomorrow. Their trip is being coordinated by the Gerry Roxas Foundation, in partnership with the Ateneo de Naga University Center for Local Governance.

From their faces and reactions, our visitors were quite excited about our little urban democracy project. From time to time, they will cut my explanations short while discussing the most suitable of our canned powerpoint slides, and through their very efficient interpreters inquire as to how innovative schemes like the Naga City People's Council actually work.

But the exchanges would have been more effective, satisying and fulfilling if the language barrier did not exist; there was just too much to share and discuss, at half of the little time available. In occasions like this, one can really feel blessed that Filipinos in general are able to speak and write in English.

But for the most part, I agree with the position taken by the plaintiffs who have haled President Arroyo and his subalterns to court in regard to the controversial Executive Order No. 210; among the complainants is Abdon Balde, Jr., one of the more prominent Bikol writers who is currently Manila-based. My take on this issue is borne out of my limited experience.

1. The use of vernacular in the early grades. My eldest daughter Sofie, who will be Grade IV when schools open on Monday, only learned to read -- after failing to do so in two years of preschooling -- when her mother took matter into her own hands.

Before enrolling in Grade I, Lynn patiently taught her how to read the syllables of our Bikol Bible during the summer. When Sofie finally saw through the underlying logic, the transition to the mostly Tagalog-based Filipino language later in the year was quite painless. It was a little difficult with English, but in no time she started reading the English part of the bilingual Lola Basyang tales I bought her from National Bookstore. By the time she reached Grade III, she already reads and writes in all three languages quite well.

My wife largely used the same approach with Pep, our pusong mamon of a daughter, who is entering Grade I this school year. While she is more into singing, dancing and the latest fashion trends, Pep can now read a little of Bikol and Filipino, again using the traditional ba-be-bi-bo-bu approach that served her parents well. This also makes her a better speller, handling monosyllabic English words with ease.

Our experience therefore dovetails with this paragraph from the SC petition:

In 1998, the results of a World Bank/ADB education research demonstrate that the use of the vernacular in the first years of school provides the necessary bridge for a child to learn a second language (in this case Filipino or English), and that children are less likely to drop out of school during the first years of school when instruction is in the language spoken at home.
2. How national policy is implemented on the ground. This is where I will differ with DJB when he said "they (public school teachers) have known all that all along and OF COURSE use whatever language is required to communicate with first grade pupils."

My firsthand experience with the DepEd does not support that assertion. The department has a paradoxical culture that is (1) on one hand rigidly centralized, where all major decisions and/or activities must be backed by an order or a memo, which explains the "department-of-order-and-memo" label that outsiders append to it, and (2) on the other hand very much prone to filtering, where local interpretation of orders downloaded from the top can be so twisted it will produce results different from the center's original intentions.

Applied to DepEd Order No. 36, series of 2006, I was not surprised when I saw Kara David's TV report in the GMA primetime newscast 24 Oras: a public school teacher she interviewed interpreted the new order as a mandate to use English as the medium of instruction starting from Grade I. And I will not fault her: EO 210 is GMA's response to the worsening quality of English proficiency in the country; it is very easy for that teacher to overconnect the dots and produce the unintended consequence in the process.

That thinking, unfortunately and I am afraid, will not serve our first-graders well, including my daughter Pep.

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