Current Affairs


24 Comments 21 February 2010


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.”

Bilingual policy

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.”

Gov’t response

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.”


Your Comments

24 Comments so far

  1. Jonha says:

    It is very essential for every Filipinos to continually expand our trainings and qualifications. We should not stop from just having a degree, get related trainings and don’t just settle for what you have now. It is also helpful to visit the library from time to time and not just sit at home with your idiot box.

  2. Mr. Espinosa says:

    Actually, the “idiot box” you mentioned has strongly influenced me in acquiring English when I was a kid. Having studied language acquisition, teachers should put in mind the importance of continual immersion to the language in order to achieve fluency. This immersion can be achieved through constant reading of English articles, communicating in English, and–what I strongly recommend–watching television programs that use English language. National Geographic does not make tv viwers idiots. It all goes back to parental responsibility.

  3. Bernie Panzo says:

    “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.”

    Wow! A sweeping statement from a businessman whose interest as we all know is to sell more of his wares.

    As a teacher, I’ve become a witness to the efforts and sacrifices of my fellow teachers to make English lessons in Philippine classrooms meaningful and enduring to students.

    Mr. Andrew King, your statement was dull.

    Teachers are not passive recipients of knowledge from outdated or erroneous books. DepEd provides training for these teachers every six months. There are still honest and talented people behind government agencies. People who sacrifice blood and sweat, who are doing their share, to make the country better.

    Some teachers even receive scholarships to study abroad and the government continues to support them. Braving distance from love ones and weaving anecdotes of life in another culture, these teachers face many challenges, hence, they will become more effective.

    We are doing our share.

    I wrote this so the public may know!

  4. bj says:

    i am an extemporaneous speech contestant, and english proficiency is the theme.i am very glad to see that the philippines is acting upon this global issue and for strengthening it.

  5. nice says:

    It is useless if teachers will keep on studying and explaining to the children about the lesson when almost of her/his students go to school with an empty stomach…and of course how can you teach a class with almost 60 pupils inside…it is so devastating and why blame the teachers in the public schools with this poor quality education…

  6. maicy says:

    inability to speak english is not to be blamed on teachers alone…students have their share of blame too. it’s hard to teach someone who’s not interested in learning…an eager mind does not depend on what the school can offer but searches for more knowledge..

  7. ...onipilif says:

    there is nothing wrong with using philippine english as long as you are fluent in both languages. Readers should also be aware about the positive effects of code-switching in developing english proficiency. we should remember that we cannot learn english without our lingua franca.

  8. Alice says:

    I agree that texting is one of the most common reasons on why our English-speaking skills are declining. However, I must say that peer pressure (and sometimes, bullying too) is also a factor on why it’s declining. For instance, I’m a high school student and I have noticed that whenever I try to speak English (without a Filipino accent), my peers would either imitate the my tone (in an extremely agitating way) or mock me. Since fitting in is important in us teenagers, some would intentionally speak less fluently just so they wouldn’t be mocked by their friends. Doing so would result in a teen, who used to be good in English, but is now awful at it. Or, at the very least, less fluent in the language than before.

  9. laong laan says:

    how are we going to escape the shadow if we are still in the midst of darkness…..corruption and parental guidance leads the way to overcome lots of concerns you know… the Philippine setting….its like abomination of creepy ideas….

  10. meaningsdisestranged says:

    This article simply echoes the fears imposed by capitalists on weaker forces. Mr. King’s musings are highly business-oriented. The Philippine education system may be riddled with corruption but the teachers who are in contact with the pupils and students have the keenest interest in ensuring that learning progresses. We have to be extremely careful about reading through comments coming from a businessman. A capitalist industry is highly dictated by first world economies. British Council for one practices both covertly and overtly mechanisms of oppression. To empower the use of English should not rest on who sets the standard. The distinct Philippine English has its exclusive right in establishing the discourses in the Philippine setting. I am a language scholar and I could very well tell you that whenever I speak with Americans, Canadians, British, Australians, etc., their jaws drop as they ask: Your English is superb. For one, the awareness on the English language of these native English users could be low, even those who teach English. I DON’T REALLY SEE ANY MERIT THAT READERS GIVE MUCH ATTENTION TO THIS TERRIBLY AND SUBJECTIVELY WRITTEN UP ARTICLE.

  11. norlan says:

    this article helped me a lot in making the script of our panel discussion.. :)

  12. Filipino UK says:

    I have a lot of friends and relatives in the Philippines and as I do not speak Tagolog or Visayan it can often hamper conversations. Some of these people have been denied work and employment in the United Kingdom as well as America due to their poor English, and so work in areas like the middle east where they get paid less and treated terribly.

  13. eroll ang beja says:

    i am so glad that we are addressing this problem… the decline of the English proficiency of our country’s academe…

    i am currently working as a full time English instructor in one of the local state universities here in NCR and i, together with my co-instructors, had done our best to impart what we have… but sad to say our institution doesn’t have a heart to support for our training to hone our skills, we have to face the reality that our environment is always changing and we must cope up with those changes by pursuing our graduate studies…and how are we going to impart something that we don’t have??
    in the present situation of our institution, in order to give the right for education of all the constituents, i am teaching more than 100 students in a class…

    so tell me, could i still be an effective instructor? with this huge crowd with an hour of discussion thrice a week… and with a very minimal compensation…

  14. As a students I do believe and agree that “an eager mind does not depend on what the school can offer but searches for more knowledge..”In fact,it is more easy to us students to have an advance or shall we say had a background of the topics to be disscuss,since english language as a lingua franca is broad.

  15. joy says:

    I am a neophyte English instructor in one of the State Universities here in the Philippines. I thought it is only because I am new in the teaching profession that I become frustrated of the declining English proficiency of the students, but with your discussions I can say that this concern should really be given much focus. I think our government should really give additional budget to education for us, teachers, to attend to some significant trainings/seminars to enhance our teaching strat., for the administrators to purchase quality reference materials, for the students to have enough classrooms conducive for learning,…more so, increase the salary of teachers because money is really a necessity in this generation…correct me if I’m wrong…

  16. Mervyn Penny says:

    I am not a Filipino so my comments should be taken as constructive Criticism only. I am an Australian who married a Filipina 28 years ago. We worked for the same International Company in Manila.

    I am also not an English teacher, simply one who learned English as a first language so my observations are from the grass roots position, so to speak.
    I do have a basic grasp of both the Tagalog and the Visayan languages.

    These are my observations from my nearly 30 years of being in and out of your Country :

    Many Filipino school teachers teach incorrect English: my wife’s Nieces and Nephews used me to test their English proficiency and I found many errors in what they were taught. I do not think the blame can be leveled at the Teacher, but at the system.
    The Teachers themselves were never taught the language correctly in the first place.

    Females generally have a higher English literacy level than males.

    Some of the errors I noticed:

    Incorrect use of Gender: Continually mixing up he and she; which really does confuses the listener when trying to make sense of the story. I know that in Tagalog there is no word for he and she, only “Siya” which simply means either he or she. Ex President Ferdinand Marcos who was an accomplished and prolific orator also made this mistake.

    Incorrect use of plural; whacking an “s” on the back-end of words that are already in the plural form. Sounds funny to our ears but definitely an error worth correcting. (example “Peoples”)

    Incorrect use of Tense; He did (past tense) He is doing (present tense) He will do (future tense) the use of tense goes a lot deeper than this. But this the most common misuse of tense in everyday speech.

    The Philippines being the longest Asian country in contact with the western world for many years held the position as the most westernized country in Asia and to have the highest English literacy level, apparently this has now been lost to Malaysia, I believe the title can easily be regained.

    Future successful employment of Philippines educated young people does depend on high English proficiency

    I was amused to read what Alice above had to say about the ridicule she suffered in trying to speak without a Filipino accent, I have seen the exact same thing many times myself. I have also noticed the English proficiency level in people who once did speak English well drop, probably because of those caustic comments. I think that they simply give up.

    But, on the other hand; the English Language no longer belongs sorely to the English. Many Countries have adopted English words into their language, changing the spelling to suit their way, this word then becomes part of their language. This is fine for use within the Country, the time a problem arises is in communicating with English speaking Foreigners at Business, Education or Government levels, then correct English use is important. A lot of Foreigners can be just like some Filipinos, far too “Judgmental”

  17. Mommy E says:

    Alice is right. I enrolled my daughter in a public school (where I also graduated- because I believe that its a good school- its actually pilot school in our place). My daughter has learned to speak and understand English well, even the accent is good and one day i asked her if how’s school, i almost cried to hear that most of her classmates have not been that kind to her because of her accent- imitate her (in a ridicule) plus they thought of her as a snob because of that,when actually,they are the ones who snob her. I’ve already talked to the teacher of this subtle bullying and I’m thankful she’s receptive and has taken appropriate actiion

  18. loveyoudown says:

    @Alice @Mervyn Penny Exactly. In 2011, when I was 15 and in my 4th year of high school, my classmates choked me in the neck and called me a “malansang isda” or a smelly fish everytime I’d talk in English. Because of them, I practically have no native language. I talk in Tagalog everywhere, even at home, but I still have a bigger vocabulary in English. It used to be that I spoke in either language depending on what I felt like, but not anymore.

    Since I’ve been trying to hide my true nature for only three years, people could still tell I’m different. For example, I can’t hold back from using big words and it shows. And also, I’ve been told that I say certain words funny, such as bubblegum.

  19. bam says:

    Good English doesn’t really depends on teachers or school.As matter of fact English people also sucks regarding English.Basic English with a pinch of self confidence can take you farther.Just keep in mind that asking is not a sign of poor English it’s a symbol of interest and development!

  20. marlon says:

    Do you have to pay for english proficiency test. if you are currently enrolled in the school?

  21. Hi there, just wanted to say, I enjoyed this article. It was practical.
    Keep on posting!

  22. Onipilif says:

    I am more comfortable to speak English to a non Pinoy. I used to work in a Italian company and got no problem with my Filipino English.

  23. Lilybeth Ariate Mcgrath says:

    I noticed a lot of younger generation Filipinos here in Canada coming directly from the Philippines who prefer to speak in Tagalog than in English once they saw another Filipino. Why oh why they do that? They get upset if you talk back in English. Really? Why should they presumed that because you have brown skin and obviously “might” be a Filipino that you know how to speak Tagalog? besides they are not in the Philippines anymore why can’t they practice their English then?

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