Should we be concerned about the state of English in the Philippines?

“We need to address the gap in qualified ESL teachers and the issues around ensuring the quality of ESL schools”

Mike Cabigon is the manager of English for Education Systems of British Council Philippines. He writes about a roundtable event organised by the British Council, where sector stakeholders weighed in on what needs to be done to ensure the Philippines retains its competitive advantage.

The Philippines is recognized globally as one of the largest English-speaking nations, with the majority of its population having at least some degree of fluency in the language. English has always been one of the country’s official languages, and is spoken by more than 14 million Filipinos. It is the language of commerce and law, as well as the primary medium of instruction in education.

Proficiency in the language is also one of the Philippines’ strengths, which has helped drive the economy and even made it the top voice outsourcing destination in the world, surpassing India in 2012. The influx of foreign learners of English is also on the rise due to the relatively more affordable but quality English as a Second Language (ESL) programs being offered locally.

“Proficiency in the language is one of the Philippines’ strengths, which has helped drive the economy and made it the top voice outsourcing destination in the world”

However, at a roundtable organised last year by British Council Philippines, key stakeholders from the government, academe, private, and nongovernment sectors acknowledged that even if the country were doing fine in terms of English competency, concerns on how much of a competitive advantage it still is here were raised. The stakeholders agreed that the country needs to step up its efforts in improving the teaching and learning of English, developing it as a vital skill of the workforce. This is an initiative that can potentially strengthen the Philippines’ distinct advantage in this part of the world, particularly with the upcoming Asean economic integration.

>Enhancing the teaching of English in the Philippines presents opportunities for the country in the area of tourism.

“To maintain the Philippines’ strength as a major ESL destination, we need to address the gap in qualified ESL teachers and the issues around ensuring the quality of ESL schools. This also includes exploring how we can extend incentives to ESL schools and teachers,” Renee Marie Reyes, the chief of the ESL Market Development Group under the Department of Tourism, said at the roundtable. The DOT is encouraging local ESL schools to offer structured tour packages to ESL learners, the majority of whom come from South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, by incorporating English-learning activities in the travel experience.

Roundtable participants from the government sector underscored the need for an interagency government body to regulate and support ESL provision in the country in order to further capitalize on its economic potential.

>Representatives of the academe focused on teacher training and professional development, highlighting the need for skills in differentiated instruction, materials development and knowledge sharing.

According to its dean, Rosario Alonzo, the University of the Philippines College of Education ensures this by emphasizing to its students that English is a skill to be used for communication. Education students focus on learner-centered teaching, and are taught to ask learners to do meaningful tasks using English.

“Our future teachers should ensure that English is a means of communication, rather than a set of facts to be learned”

“Our future teachers should ensure that English is a means of communication, rather than a set of facts to be learned,” Alonzo said. In the same way, the Department of Education focuses on the needs of learners and ensures that they learn the English language holistically, as specified under the K-to-12 basic education framework.

There is also a greater imperative to further build on the English skills of the labor force, particularly of those in the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector.

“The demand for BPO services from the Philippines requires more than 1.3 million employees by 2016, which means that 300,000 more new employees need to be hired by next year,” said Zoe Diaz de Rivera, master trainer of the IT and Business Process Association of the Philippines (Ibpap).

Private-sector representatives suggested corporate social responsibility programs to support teacher development, particularly in English-language proficiency in teaching other subjects. They also recommended collaboration between the government and the private sector to address language proficiency in teachers and students in the outlying communities.

Members of international and development organizations recognized the same gaps and agreed with the recommendations of the other sectors. In addition, they proposed a platform for information sharing and communication among stakeholders to avoid duplicating initiatives.

These statements were made amid the decline of the quality of English in the Philippines and the growing number of unfilled jobs in various industries that require certain levels of English communication skills. Ibpap statistics show that today, only 8-10 persons are hired for every 100 applicants in the IT-BPO sector.

Nicholas Thomas, country director of British Council Philippines, said developing a wider knowledge of the English language is one of its founding purposes.

“Part of our work is to share best practice in the teaching and learning of English with partner countries all over the world,” Thomas said, adding: “English has a distinctive place in the Philippine education system, and retaining high standards of English is critically important for the country’s economy and future development. We look forward to working with partners on more initiatives to support the teaching and learning of English here.”