MEMO FROM MANILA
Proficiency woes force Philippine legislators to push for teaching in English from third grade
By Alastair McIndoe
NO ONE expected a dazzling display of erudition in the question-and-answer segment of last year's Miss Philippines beauty pageant. But the mangled English of one 17-year-old contestant made even the most forgiving television viewers cringe.
The episode became a national embarrassment. The Philippine media went into hand-wringing mode over the country's declining proficiency in the English language.
And the Department of Education (DoE), presumably to prevent this from ever happening in an international competition, reportedly offered free crash courses in English to beauty pageant contestants.
For Filipinos acutely aware that their country lags behind its neighbouring economies, proficiency in English has been a source of pride and a highly bankable asset. But, by a wide consensus, that has deteriorated over the years.
The decline is part of a wider malaise afflicting an underfunded education system, grappling with overcrowded classrooms and the massive loss of teachers to better-paying jobs overseas.
Many also blame a well-meaning but misguided bilingual teaching policy initiated in the early 1970s. That was reinforced in the following decade to institute Tagalog, the most widely spoken of over 160 local languages and dialects, as the medium of instruction alongside English.
In everyday conversation, many college-educated Filipinos speak a grating mixture of both languages, usually dominated by Tagalog-based Filipino.
A group of legislators believe that reinstating English as the language of instruction in public schools from the third grade will reverse the slide.
A Bill to do this will come up for its second of three required readings in the House of Representatives after Congress resumes next Monday. If it clears hurdles in the House - and that looks likely - it goes to the Senate.
'It's important that until the third grade, classes are still taught in the dominant local language,' said Senator Aquilino Pimentel, noting a wealth of research showing that mother-tongue tuition is best in the early learning years. The Bill gives school principals the option of teaching in English or a Filipino language up to the third grade.
Despite the concerns over falling standards, Filipinos still have a highly competitive edge in English-language proficiency in East Asia. Koreans, for one, have been coming here in droves to learn English in language schools for several years now.
Good English - a legacy of American colonial rule - can be heard spoken in some unlikely places here; by Ifugao farmers in the mountainous rice terraces of northern Philippines and women working in tuna canneries in the south. But they are mostly middle-aged or older, not the younger generation.
Foreign and local business groups tirelessly warn that the country will end up paying a heavy price unless English-language proficiency improves.
The European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines estimates that 75 per cent of the annual 400,000 college graduates have sub-standard English skills.
'The continued draw of better English speakers from outside the country puts the Philippines in a treadmill situation,' said Mr John Forbes, senior adviser on the investment climate at the American Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines. 'So the Philippines has to run faster than countries that do not have the same overseas-worker phenomenon.'
About a tenth of the Philippines' nearly 90 million population live and work abroad.
The biggest long-term obstacle to the so-far stellar development of the country's call-centre and outsourcing industry is recruiting enough graduates who can speak quality English.
'The acceptance rate for direct hires is only around three in every 100 applicants,' said Mr Mitch Locsin, executive director of the Business Process Association of the Philippines. 'So we take the near-hired and give them a couple of weeks' language-proficiency training.'
Not surprisingly, call-centre managers strongly support the English-teaching Bill.
For its part, the government favours a return to English. Back in 2003, President Gloria Arroyo ordered the language to be taught as a subject in the first grade, and to be the sole medium of instruction for mathematics and science from grade five.
A few years later, the DoE started a programme to improve the English proficiency of all its half-a- million teachers through remedial courses, some lasting a year. About 20 per cent have now done the course. Budget constraints hold back any significant increase in education spending.
Still, a 2008 opinion survey on the English-language proficiency of Filipinos by pollsters Social Weather Stations turned up an unexpectedly encouraging result: Self-assessed proficiency, especially on speaking English, had improved after a decline over the previous 12 years.
'The best guess for the reason was not that the education infrastructure had improved, but that the market was responding,' said Mr Forbes. 'Students and their families were placing a higher premium on English proficiency.'
[One may argue that one's pride in one's culture should lead one to cherish, love, and value one's mother tongue but then there is the pragmatic need to connect to the rest of the world. Discoveries and advances in science are mostly discussed in English so until science is mostly explained and discoveries disseminated in tagalog or bahasa, the language of science and trade is English and if you want to benefit you need to be proficient in the language. The only caveat is that as China develops and expands, there may be a need to consider Chinese as the language of trade.]