How good are we in English to communicate with people across our national borders? Or perhaps even among ourselves? A quick online research led me to two contrasting takes. Half-empty or half-full?
The blogs are lately abuzz with news that the Philippines has topped the 2012 list of the world’s best in Business English proficiency. It’s the only country-out of 76 countries whose 108,000 workers in global companies were assessed through an online test by the GlobalEnglish Corporation-that scored 7.11 and qualified our fluency at the Business English Intermediate level.
On a scale of one to ten-with one indicating an ability to read and communicate using only simple questions and statements and ten representing an ability to communicate and collaborate in the workplace like a native English speaker-the average test score was 4.15, down 7 percent from 4.46 the previous year.
In other words, our BEI level is “within range of a high proficiency that indicates an ability to take an active role in business discussions and perform relatively complex tasks.”
A Manila Times editorial even bragged that “the Philippines is supposed to have taken over India as the world’s primary hub for call centers and BPOs.”
GlobalEnglish Corporation is a California-based technology company that provides on-demand enterprise solutions to support global business performance through effective Business English communication. It found out that most of the “workers tested understand only basic information.”
Yet, two years ago, the Christian Science Monitor noted that Filipino call-center agents, “chatting on their headsets to inquiring English-speaking customers half a world away, were supposed to provide the answer to the Philippines’ economy. They could be drawn from the country’s famously large pool of English speakers to tap into the lucrative offshoring and outsourcing (O&O) market.”
That pool of English speakers turns out to be large but shallow. Says CSM, “Employers in the industry say they now have to reject 95 of 100 job applicants because their English proficiency is inadequate.”
The respected US newspaper quoted an unidentified foreign O&O manager who said “I believe that every Filipino who wants to work in a call center and whose English is good enough to work in a call center is already working in a call center.”
According to the CSM, the decline in English has more general causes. Among other things, as the economy has underperformed, so has education. About 43 percent of students finish high school and only 2 percent finish college. A Department of Education study in 2004 showed that only 1 in 5 in public high school teachers was proficient in English. A case of the blind leading the blind?
Long-term foreign residents say that in the late 1960s it was possible to converse in English with almost any Filipino that had attended elementary school. They say it is now hard to find ordinary Filipinos under the age of 40 who can speak English confidently.
I agree that as far as call center agents go, Filipinos have a good command of English, especially the conversational American English, which comes bundled with expletives when they converse with their customers.
But that fluency becomes something else when I complain to tech support on some glitch with my Wi-Fi connection. Thank God, I’m a Filipino who can fluently converse in our national language, Filipino, to the Cebuano staff on the opposite end of the line. What’s a national language after all?
I won’t, however, knock it with our decline in English proficiency. Just ask the Japanese, South Koreans and the Taiwanese and even mainland Chinese who come here in droves to study Filipino English.
Save for devastated Japan after World War II, the backward, rural economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea have far outstripped us, which in the 1950s was the second largest economy in Asia. In these countries, they talk to one another in their national languages.