Philippines hung up on English

06/16/2010 - Decades of education and economic mismanagement will need to be reversed if the one-time US colony is going to restore its language skills and build its lucrative call-centre business
On the 18th floor of a skyscraper in Manila there is a corner of the Philippines that is forever America. Here, row upon row of Filipino call-centre agents talk softly in American English to customers on the other side of the Pacific.

Until, that is, a little bit of the Philippines intrudes with an expression peculiar to local English. One of the agents puts a customer on hold with the words: "For a while ..." The supervisor frowns: "You don't say 'for a while', you say 'hold on, please'."

These call-centre agents, mostly young college graduates, are in the frontline of a campaign to make the offshoring and outsourcing (O&O) industry a saviour of what is often regarded as a hopelessly inept economy.

But they are the lucky few, because the Philippines, which boasts of being the third-largest English-speaking country in the world, is fighting a decline in the use of English that threatens to spoil the O&O industry's grand plan.

The vision of the Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP) is that by the end of 2010 the industry will have 10% of the world market, have revenue of $13bn, account indirectly for 8.5% of gross domestic product and directly employ close to 1 million people.

The industry has expanded at an annual rate of between 40% and 50% over the last few years, according to BPAP's talent development director, Jamea Garcia. "Despite the global economic crisis, we still managed to grow at a rate of 26% last year," she says.

But the business process outsourcing industry still has only about 400,000 employees, she says.
A big obstacle is the lack of proficiency in English among the graduates the industry seeks to employ. A study in 2007 found that more than 95% of applicants for jobs at call centres were rejected, largely because their command of English was inadequate.

The decline in standards seems to have begun about 30 years ago. Foreign journalists who covered the 1987 People Power Revolution that removed the dictatorial regime of President Ferdinand Marcos were delighted that the story was played out before them in English, as if specially for their benefit.

More recently, a newly arrived and somewhat bewildered ambassador from a European country remarked rhetorically: "I thought this was supposed to be an English-speaking country."

These days, among ordinary Filipinos, it is increasingly difficult to find anyone under the age of 40 who speaks English with confidence.

English arrived in the Philippines more than 100 years ago, when the US replaced Spain as the colonial power. When independence came in 1946, English was so well established that it remained an official language.

The reason for the subsequent decline is debatable. Some blame the introduction of Filipino as the language of instruction in schools in the 1970s. This was controversial, because Filipino is an invented language intended as a tool for nation-building.
Filipino is based on Tagalog, the dominant language in Manila and the surrounding region. As such, it is often resented by people who speak one of the 160 or so other languages and dialects used around the country. More crucially, the policy contradicted the principle that it is best to teach children in their native tongue.

Some think the decline has more general causes. "A lot of it is also brought about because of economic conditions," says Garcia.

The ruination of the economy under Marcos and its persistent underperformance since his fall have led to increases in poverty and relative decreases in the amount invested in education. Only 65% of children who start primary education finish it, only 43% go on to finish secondary education and only 2% go on to tertiary ­education.

Along with all other subjects, English has suffered, and not just among school pupils. By 2004, only one in five teachers in public secondary schools was proficient in English, department of education figures showed. By 2007 only 7% of secondary school graduates had a mastery of English.

The government's response was to mandate the teaching of English as a second language for six-year-olds, the use of English as the medium of instruction for some subjects for eight-year-olds, and the use of English as the main medium of instruction for all subjects in secondary schools. It has also poured money into improving English proficiency among teachers.

"I think the government is trying," says Garcia. "They should actually increase standards, and the industry is ready to work with them."

While the government has been pushing, the O&O industry has been pulling. Garcia says a few hours of extra training is often all that is needed to make an unacceptable candidate acceptable. And the industry has been spending its own money on various programmes to improve standards among teachers and students.

"It is really adding to costs, in a way, but in the end it will be relatively easy for the business," Garcia says. "Because of the way the business has grown, it will be able to accept all of this."

The result has been improvement in the performance of both teachers and pupils. The most recent survey of Filipinos' own assessment of their own proficiency in English indicated that English is making a comeback. But then, it is natural to rate one's own abilities more highly when those abilities might qualify you for a job.

People need jobs, and the O&O industry needs people, so there are strong incentives for both employers and potential employees to reverse the decline in English.

"If we do not supply the demand, then we will lose our business," says Garcia. "We will always need the English language." (

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