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Learning many languages does your brain good.

I REMEMBER my first day in Kindergarten when we learned Mandarin. The first lessons went: rensilang; shousichiu; tian sitsan

We were learning the first three vocabulary words: ren (man), shou (hand), tian (rice field). Each character was first spoken in Mandarin followed immediately by Hokkien, which was familiar to us at home.

Even today I can still recite these words and continue on until the 20th word. I could even hear the sound of us children reciting together in tempo. And that was our book in Kindergarten I-the first time we were in school at age 5.

But we were not taught only Mandarin. On the same day we also learned the stories of Dick, Jane and Sally and their dog Spot. By Grade 1 we added Pedro, Maria and Nene with their dog, Bantay.

There was no confusion on which language was being taught; no argument as to which was more important, no worry that one language could slow down the learning of another and no issue about not understanding the lessons.

In elementary and high school, our lessons in all subjects-including Mathematics and Science were taught both in English and in Chinese. Subjects in the morning were in English, while those in the afternoon, Chinese-totally different topics and, usually, at different levels of difficulty.

For example, Math in the Chinese sessions was much ahead of Math in the English session, as there were several more strokes for the Chinese character for car than a three-letter simple word. As children, we had not heard of bilingual education-we thought that was what was expected in school-to learn as much as you could.


In recent years, there has been much interest in Mother Tongue Based-Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE), which is also the Philippine government's banner for the K-12 (Kindergarten to Grade 12) flagship program, which is mandated by Republic Act No. 10523.

The law requires schools to start with the students' mother tongue (L1), before adding more languages. It is believed children learn best using L1. Only when L1 is solidly in place can knowledge and skills be transferred through L2 (Filipino) and English (L3).

The Inquirer had published two articles in the Talk of the Town section from opposite sides of MTB-MLE.

Dr. Ricardo Duran Nolasco's primer on MTB-MLE had this dramatic title, Never Again: A Nation of '5th Graders' (Aug. 23), for his responses to 23 frequently asked questions. Less than a month after, Dr. Eduardo R. Alicias Jr. rebutted with his article Yes to Filipino-English Bilingualism (Sept. 20).

I asked my students in a doctoral class to read both articles. On the next class meeting, they were divided into two groups to debate for and against MTB-MLE. It was quite a lively debate that started with both groups presenting their points, followed by cross-examination and a break before the rebuttal and, finally, conclusions.

Undoubtedly, speaking in the mother tongue is important, not only in strengthening a sense of national identity and belongingness, but also for its significant positive effect on children's learning, as some data have shown. Moreover, it also addresses inequalities and linguistic discrimination in schools.

The question is: How many mother tongues are there?

If you check the Internet, the Philippines has 170 languages (not dialects). Adding the dialects within each of these languages (as witnessed by my students who come from different regions), how many mother tongues should be taught in K-3 nationwide?

With the perennial shortage of teachers, can the Department of Education train, provide and distribute teachers according to a particular mother tongue spoken in a particular town?

English at what age?

After the debate, this was my observation: Both groups agreed unanimously that learning English was important. My question was: At what age would a child learn English formally in the MTB-MLE scheme?

Apparently, if we follow the MTB-MLE guidelines, English will be taught around age 9. This comes after, say, one year of Kindergarten and three years of elementary school when a transition program will usher Filipino and English into the curriculum simultaneously in Grade 4.

The duration of transition required and what constitutes an effective transition are unclear.

Linguistics science tells us there is a critical period of learning a language. Language learning is easiest and at its peak at ages 2 to 5, whether for L1 or L2.

By age 9, learning a language takes place in another part of the brain and will take more effort. The child would have passed the period when phonology, morphemes and grammar are learned best and most naturally.

Noam Chomsky, the famous psycholinguistics theorist, believes that children can pick up languages simultaneously without problem. Since children have a large capacity to learn languages, why is there opposition to bilingualism?

This stems from subtractive bilingualism-a misconception that learning one language detracts from learning another and that it is confusing for children and will cause cognitive challenges. This is false.

In fact, research studies have shown that learning two languages is additive bilingualism and that it sharpens the mind and can protect and preserve cognitive function even well into old age.

As children cope with multiple languages, they use cognitive resources beyond those required for monolingual acquisition. This has lasting positive consequences to build cognitive reserves.

Learning two languages actually increases attentional control and the executive function of the brain.

Bilinguals have more cognitive flexibility and have more cognitive pathways to learn. Bilingualism fosters analogical reasoning and problem solving, concept formation and deeper processing. Bilingualism enhances metalinguistic awareness- knowing how language works and understanding nuances in languages and the ability to detect patterns and parts of speech.

Exposing children early to two languages opens up early reading literacy in two languages, promoting greater appreciation of different cultures and traditions.

By being able to read and write well in two languages, biliterates are also found to achieve well in schools. Last but certainly not least, bilinguals have advantages in the employment market. This has been the ticket to overseas employment for millions of Filipinos.

Does bilingualism mean the mother tongue has to suffer? Certainly not. The reason it is called mother tongue is that it is the language spoken by mothers. The best place to learn mother tongue is at home. If parents do not value their own mother tongue and do not care to teach their children, why do they expect teachers would?

Learning one's own tongue relies on much early and frequent exposure. Infants absorb sounds and syntax, memes and meaning way ahead of school-age kids. Why wait until Kindergarten to learn the mother tongue?

If we follow the logic that the mother tongue is very important in school and society, why not continue with it until high school and college? Why does the K-12 program require the change to Filipino and English by Grade 4? There must be a rationale why English is still required-sooner or later.

It takes eight to 12 years to master a language; if English and Filipino are introduced at age 9, at what age shall we expect students to master English? By age 21? Does this mean many college students and graduates would still be struggling with English? Do we have a wide range of books, other than English, to teach Biology or Engineering, Philosophy or Law?

English and Mandarin were the media of instruction when I was in primary and secondary school.

Except in Kindergarten where Mandarin was read with Hokkien, Hokkien itself was not in our curriculum. It was the home language, which we absorbed naturally in daily conversations with our parents.

Hokkien was and is my mother tongue, which I speak very fluently and find useful not only in communications among Chinoys, but also with fellow Hokkienese in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Fujian in China.

The home is the best school for mother tongue.
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Publication:Philippines Daily Inquirer (Makati City, Philippines)
Date:Dec 1, 2015
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