02 June 2007

Bungling it in the formative first years

My column for this week's issue of Vox Bikol

WHILE attending the seminar on New Public Management in Germany, I had the chance to work with two other participants: Daniel Welwel, a young lawyer from Tanzania, and Jelena Milic, a high-ranking Croatian liberal party member. When we were done arguing and finally arrived at a common group output, both Jelena and I agreed that Daniel should present it in the plenary.

The choice was grounded on the recognition that among us three, Daniel speaks the best English, as if he were a native speaker. During the break, Jelena had to ask: how come Tanzanians are so good in English? We were colonized by the British, Daniel said. I quickly threw him a related question: When do you start teaching English in school? His answer, which definitely surprised me, was: In high school.

I had to bring this up in the context of a pending petition before the Supreme Court asking for a restraining order on Executive Order No. 210 issued by President Arroyo to strengthen English as a second language, mandating among others, that it be used as the medium of instruction starting from Grade III and as the primary medium of instruction in high school. In response, Education Secretary Jesli Lapus promptly issued DepEd Order No. 36 August 2006; it will be implemented fully when schools open on Monday.

I mostly agree with the petition, especially on the ground that education research has established that “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.” Our personal experience in teaching our two older daughters to read proves this point.

But my bone of contention with the petition, and the whole language policy in particular as provided for under the 1987 Constitution and all other issuances arising from it, lies in the excessive emphasis on developing Filipino as a national language at the expense of regional languages like Bikol. All these efforts of forcing the issue by invoking state power, instead of allowing a national language to develop naturally, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

If we go by the premise that use of the vernacular in the first years of school is the best way to go in developing reading skills that, to my mind, is the critical first step in learning a language, why is there no clear-cut education policy to this effect?

Why is the use of Bikol, for instance, being looked down – even discouraged -- as a medium of instruction, the most logical at that for a young Nagueño child, instead of being fostered?

And if the Constitution views regional languages as auxiliary media of instruction, why is there no policy promoting the development of basic reading materials in the vernacular – like children’s books or even translations of popular fairy tales – that will facilitate the development of these skills?

As with most Jehovah’s Witnesses, I first learned to read in Bikol well before I entered Grade I -- and like my daughters -- using a translation of the Bible in the vernacular. Every week, one of the segments that comprise our Theocratic Ministry School is public reading of 15 or so verses from the Bikol bible. That was more than three decades ago, and it has definitely served us well.

Looking at the instructional materials available today, we have barely moved forward, notwithstanding the researches and plain common sense of it all, if one really comes to think of it. While President Arroyo’s EO got it right in emphasizing the use of English in high school, consistent with the Tanzanian experience and a healthy dose of pragmatism, our education policy has bungled it all along at the formative first years in school.

That’s precisely the problem with one-size-fits-all policymaking that is decided at and imposed from the center. The result is a half-baked citizen who can probably understand at least three languages in his lifetime but lacks good command of any, which requires speaking, reading, writing and most importantly, critical thinking.