Posted on Monday, May 22, 2006 (EST)

For decades the troubled Philippines economy has been able to bank on one key asset in attracting foreign investors -- proficiency in the English language.

MANILA (AFP) - In recent years it has helped win outsourcing contracts in the booming business process and call center sectors, one of the few areas of the nation's economy that is actually expanding. But even that lifeline in this poor country appears a tenuous one as fears surface over a sharp decline in English compounded by falling school standards and a mass exodus of linguistically skilled professionals. Business leaders are starting to question just how long the country can go on touting its English skills. Some local and foreign business groups are so concerned they have started their own language centers to fill the gaps left by a deteriorating school system. The European Chamber of Commerce warned recently that 75 percent of the country's annual 400,000 college graduates have "sub-standard English skills". With an exodus of teachers, especially in English and math, to better paying jobs overseas the country's education system is fast deteriorating. Senator Edgardo Angara recently described the deterioration of the country's school system as a "ticking bomb". "We have practically squandered our intellectual capital," he said at a seminar. He said that in all international achievement tests, the Philippines is rated near the bottom in all subjects. "That is a reflected in the fast deterioration of our education standards both in public and private schools." Official achievement tests given to graduating high school students in the 2004-2005 school year showed that only 6.59 percent could read, speak, and comprehend English well enough to enter college. Some 44.25 percent had no English skills at all. Eduardo Gullas, who filed a bill in 2004 to make English the medium of instruction at all levels in schools, has warned that the rapid decline in English competency would "eventually erode the competitiveness of the country's human resources, both here and abroad, in an increasingly globalized village". His bill is still sitting in the House of Representatives gathering dust. "The employment of Filipinos overseas will soon be overtaken by China and India," Gullas said, warning that Filipino engineers in the Middle East risk being dislodged by

Indian and Chinese engineers who not only speak better English, but analyze and write reports in English better. Concerned with the decline in education, especially in English, the American and European chambers of commerce have begun ambitious training programmes in an attempt to reverse the trend.

The European Chamber, along with local business groups, recently launched a program called "English is Cool!" intended to revive the popularity of English among the country's youth. In a globalized economy, "English is a ticket to the future," the chamber said, adding that only three out of 100 applicants meet proficiency standards of the outsourcing industry. For program director Rina Tanchoco the decline of English among Filipinos is "definitely repairable and reversible". The Makati Business Club's Philippines-US Business Council and the American Chamber of Commerce are targeting their English proficiency program at teachers, students, and the workforce. The program hopes to have 50 computerized English language centers operating in the Philippines with 250 teachers and 42,000 students trained and certified within the next three years. Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has ordered the education department to make English the primary medium of instruction nationwide, although the decree does not have the force of law to compel schools to do. Although some subjects will still be taught in the national language, Tagalog, the Filipinos must recognize that English makes it internationally competitive, Arroyo said in a policy speech earlier this year. The decline of English sounds painful for Matthew Gray, an American who trains Filipinos to speak with American accents for jobs at call centers. "Filipinos are pretty good but they still have lapses with their tenses, verb usage, subject-verb agreement -- the basics," the Call Center Academy accent trainer told AFP. Peter Wallace, president of The Wallace Business Forum which regularly surveys foreign businesses in this country, said that only six percent of people interviewed for jobs in call centers had the required skills in English. "So it's hard to see how the Philippines can compete with elsewhere," Wallace said.

There is plenty of blame to go around, with Gray faulting cellphone text messaging and the popularity of foreign soap operas dubbed into the Filipino language. "There has been a steady decline from the time when the Philippines took pride in itself as one of the best English-speaking nations," Neil Perez an English and Literature lecturer at Manila's University of Santo Tomas acknowledged. Perez blames the decline on the influence of pop culture and domestic media, where the dominant language is "taglish", a combination of Tagalog and English. "The common language of everybody is this hybrid language taglish," he said. "It has become the standard rather than the exception. "The kind of things that we see on television promotes the bastardization of the English language. We accept what the media feeds us," Perez added.


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