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Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education in the Philippines : Its success and struggle

From JD, national correspondant of MeridiE in the Philippines


To read and understand a simple text is one of the most fundamental skills a child can learn. Evidence indicates that learning to read both early and at a sufficient rate are essential for learning to read well, and consequently understanding what is read. The Government of the Philippines has placed high priority on improving literacy and is currently undertaking comprehensive reform initiatives including curricular reforms and implementation of a mother-tongue based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) program in 19 national languages.

The Philippines is an ethnically diverse country and there are 181 documented individual languages. Four of which are already extinct (no known speakers) and 24 of which are dying or going extinct, according to the Summer Institute of Linguistics in the Philippines. National languages unite a country, promote nationalism, and are a symbolic representation of a nation.

In the year 2012, the Department of Education (DepEd) implemented the use of Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education in all public schools, specifically in Grades 1, 2, and 3. At first, there are 12 Languages selected to use in different regions such as; Tagalog, Kapampangan, Pangasinense, Iloko, Bikol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Waray, Tausug, Maguindanaoan, Maranao and Chabacano. However, in the year 2013, 7 more languages are added in the MTB-MLE such as, Ybanag, Ivatan, Sambal, Aklanon, Kinaray-a, Yakan, and Surigaonon.

In South East Asia, the Philippines is the only country to have instituted a national policy requiring Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) in the primary school years (source: Mother Tongue Education: Prioritizing Cognitive Development). Hence, the Philippines is being looked at as an example for the rest of the region for the implementation of MTB-MLE. This brings forth an argument to the complex issue of language policy in education which offers a challenging environment for implementing a language policy that will serve the whole country.


In this article, 10 teachers from different regions in the Philippines who speak their own regional languages were asked via an email interview about their insights and experiences on utilizing MTB-MLE as language of Instruction as well as a separate subject area. 6 of which declined to avoid sensitive issues while teaching in the Public Elementary Schools. Among 4 of them agreed to be email interviewed but subjected to their availability as they were currently preparing for the yearly  “Brigada Eskwela” or the National Schools Maintenance week.

Map 1. The Philippine map showing the widely spoken languages in the Philippine households.

Map of Philippines languages


Figure 2. English words translated to various Regional Languages in the Philippines. Similarities of the different regional Languages are because of its Austronesian Language origin and the influence of many other language groups throughout the Philippine history and as well being influenced by each other.

Words in Filipino languages


According to a Teacher from Davao City, Region XI, who uses the regional Language Sinugbuanong Binisaya or Cebuano as a medium of instruction, makes the teachers comfortable in the thorough explanation of their lessons. It also helped both teachers and students in a broader understanding of the lessons since it is exemplified using MTB-MLE. She also mentioned that children are given the opportunity to be more oriented in their native dialect, they can share and express their thoughts at an early age during a discussion of the lesson. Also, the reading level of pupils developed now that MTB-MLE is used compared to days when it was not yet implemented.

A teacher from Region II (Nueva Vizcaya) who uses Tagalog as a language of instruction reiterated that, some learners can easily understand the content in the learning areas which are being taught in MTB-MLE and that learning in regional languages during the early grades helped improve students’ understanding of lessons thus quickly grasping the lessons being taught.

In Region VII (Central Vizayas), Cebuano is the language of instruction. According to one of their teachers, MTB-MLE helped in the process of letting the learners know what to understand and that it is easier for the teachers to transmit what needs to understand by the learners.

In Region II (Cagayan Valley), particularly in Cagayan Ybanag is the language of instruction. According to one of the Teachers there, when in their first language learners learn to read more quickly, made the lessons more interactive and that this enhances the pride of the learners’ heritage, language and culture.

According to this interview of Teachers from different regions in the Philippines using their regional languages, the biggest benefit of MTB-MLE is that learners increased their understanding of classroom content (increased comprehension) that in mother tongue they can learn all the words and they can understand. The slow learners also benefited a lot in the MTB-MLE because they can easily learn it.


English and Filipino (Official Languages) are predominantly used for different functions [churches, religious affairs, print and broadcast media, business, government, medicine, the sole language of the law courts, and the preferred medium for textbooks and instruction for secondary and tertiary levels].

Utilizing the MTB-MLE policy, arises a concern that this could cultivate a lower English skill despite the positive responses toward the MTB-MLE. The transition period from Grades 1, 2, and 3 thru Grades 4, 5 and 6 is also a crucial phase for learners as they are being introduced to a second (Filipino) and third language (English). Teachers also have to contend with limited educational resources in local languages

 Here is what the Teachers of different regions have to say:

“When learners reach into higher levels, they will have possibilities for another language struggle. I have observed difficulties in the transition period, that is from grade 3- grade 4 in which the medium of instruction used is already in English in some learning areas. Pupils will have difficulties since English is used as medium of instruction already. It could have a long-term effect that children can no longer speak English fluently when in fact they need the skills most importantly for global competitiveness. Another disadvantage I observed is in the aspect of “how deep (reading level) is the comprehension of the students. In my opinion, reading with comprehension is more important.” -Region XI

“There are plenty of training for teachers in teaching MTB-MLE. Materials are available but not enough to suffice all the needs of the students. Teachers are equipped with knowledge, but the availability of the materials for students’ utilization are not enough” – Region XI

“During the transition of English and Filipino as language of instruction in Grades 4, 5, and 6, pupils have difficulties. Thus, resulting to low-quality English-speaking learners. Learners have the difficulty in adjusting to their intermediate grade lessons most especially the learning areas which used MTB-MLE as medium of instruction like Math and Science. Teachers have to make necessary adjustments with regards to their strategies as well as their instructional materials so as to adhere with MTB-MLE.” – Region II

“Professional exams, the board exams, the bar exams are mostly written in English or sometimes Filipino not in any regional languages. That is a fact where the Mother Tongue becomes imperative to learn or utilize as a medium of instruction. The concern is about the ability of learners to possibly complete their education successfully if they did not develop English skills.” – Region I

Figure 3. A typical classroom setup in the Philippines where both pupils and teacher are interactive in their class.

Teachers’ Recommendations to Policy Makers

  • Policy makers and some expert in the DepEd should make MTB-MLE as a separate subject, not as the medium of instruction in some learning areas in kindergarten to grade three. This will help the students familiarize the native dialect without having difficulty in learning Filipino and English.
  • Policy makers should consider the long-term effect of using MTB-MLE as a teaching learning method.
  • More trainings, activities, and sustaining the resources needed to effectively utilize the MTB-MLE.