By Pepper Marcelo
It used to be that the Philippines’ biggest competitive advantage in the global job market is the proficiency of our skilled workers in the English language. This advantage, however, is fast being eroded by rising competition from other countries coupled with declining mastery of the English language by our college graduates.
Recent language test results released by the IDP Education Pty. Ltd. Philippines, an accredited group that administers the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) to Filipinos seeking to work and migrate abroad, showed that the Philippines is no longer the top English-speaking country in Asia.
With an overall score of 6.71, Malaysia is now the No. 1 in English proficiency in Asia. The Philippines placed only second with 6.69, followed by Indonesia (5.99), India (5.79) and Thailand (5.71). This was gleaned from IELTS results in 2008, during which some 35,000 Filipinos — 70 percent of them nursing graduates applying for jobs abroad — took the language exam to evaluate their English proficiency in reading, writing, speaking and listening.
During a conference on English organized by the Centre for International Education (CIE) in Manila, Andrew King, country director of IDP Education Pty. Ltd. Philippines warned that the continuous decline in Filipinos’ English proficiency could affect the growth of the call center industry which provides thousands of jobs at home and abroad.
English still rules
In an interview with Planet Philippines, King stressed that English remains the lingua franca or default language of international business and diplomacy.
“Things like international treaties, business contracts and so on, are written in English, because it’s an exact language,” he says. “You have to have people that can speak, read and write it well. To operate at high levels, you need very good English.”
He states that employers in today’s global market want people that have not only international experience and good qualifications that are recognized all over the world but also high proficiency in spoken and written English. “English has less elasticity and flexibility so you can say exactly what you want to say and not argue about the meaning. If you get your tenses, plurals and prepositions wrong, then you’re not going to be accurate.”
He adds: “Here and around the world, people are asking for better competency in English. Being able to get by is not enough.”
King says proficiency in English is a huge advantage for every job seeker, even those who have no plans of working overseas. Foreign companies in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector, he notes, locally administer their contracts in English. “A foreign company won’t enter into a contract that’s not of their language.”
For business consultant Peter Wallace, who also spoke at the CIE English conference, comprehension is the problem. “Do you understand what you’re hearing? Do you understand what it means when you say that? These are the issues.”
BOP takes action
The biggest obstacle for the ever-growing BPO industry sector is recruiting enough capable graduates with the required English skills. Industry observers estimate that only three in every 100 applicants are able to gain satisfactory employment. In certain cases, the BPO industry has taken it upon themselves to train prospective employees so that company growth will not be impeded.
“The formal educational system is hard-pressed to train young Filipinos in proper grammatical English, so the private sector has taken the lead,” says Frank Holz, CEO of Outsource2Philippines.
Observers have attributed the decline in English skills to budgetary constraints and lack of proper infrastructure in the country’s educational system. “In fairness, the Department of Education is trying its best, but unfortunately, this generation of teachers does not have the capability,” says Wallace.
King attributes the decline in English to the poor quality and training of local schoolteachers, as well as the continuing use of outdated or erroneous textbooks. “Students are not being taught correct English and the resources and materials they’re given is incorrect.”
Another problem, and a continuing topic of debate, has been the educational system’s bilingual policy, adopted 35 years ago which compels schools to use English and Filipino as medium of instruction. “People use the excuse that there’s ‘Filipino English.’ Filipino English is English as long as it’s correct. If it’s incorrect English, it doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s just being an apologist for people’s mistakes is wrong,” King points out.
The incorrect use of the language on local TV newscasts and English-dubbed cartoons, also contributes to the decline in English proficiency among Filipinos. “Everyday, on virtually all television and newspapers, you hear incorrect use of prepositions,” adds King.
He cites the words “in” and “on” as examples. “You hear the car was driving on the lane, which would mean on top of, rather than in, as in within the two lines.”
He also blames technology such as the internet and SMS messaging (texting) on cell phones, which favors speed and levity but fosters poor written skills. “We use abbreviations in chat rooms, and we have created a whole new language, and texting on cell phones has created a short language.”
Even cultural prejudice and ignorance is an issue, King laments. “Snobbery – you’re a snob if you speak English. No, you’re a person that’s committed to learn more than one language.”
In response to IDP’s released test results, the government assures that it remains committed to improving the quality of teachers in the Philippines, particularly in public schools. Malacañang cites a number of ongoing projects to improve the English proficiency of teachers and students in public schools, such as the “Project Turning Around,” “Every Child A Reader Program,” and the National English Proficiency Program. Officials also said the government is allotting P1.1 billion to train nearly 400,000 teachers in Math, Science and English skills.
Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Augusto Santos said he brought up the problem during one Cabinet meeting and top government officials agreed to do something about it.
“We are part of the global community and there is economic competition among countries in the world. Let’s face it, English is still the number one language in the entire world,” said Santos.
King says that the problem could be traced to the prevailing social and political conditions in the country. “One of the issues is that there are too many children for teachers to cope with. You can go back to population control, so there are so many that you can’t manage within the education system. But that’s a whole different argument.”
One possible solution he suggests is to import external people to analyze the English curriculum and resources, and try to identify the issues that are affecting the ability to communicate accurately.
Another solution, adds Holz, is to use the internet in English training. “More work needs to be done on this, but eventually there won’t be as great a reliance on instructor-led training,” he says. “Rather the entire process from assessment through delivery through final validation will be able to be done online.”
Whatever the solution, King says it’s going to take time. “You’re not going to magically turn around a generation of people whose English has been taught incorrectly.”