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English 101

The Social Weather Station (SWS) released a few days ago the results of its March 2006 survey of the self-assessment by sample population of Filipinos of their English proficiency. And the results, compared to the most recent survey done about the same subject matter in September 2000, showed a declining trend in English proficiency of Filipinos, or the ability to speak, read, write, or understand English.

In the March 2006 survey, about two-thirds of the respondents (65 percent) said they understand spoken English; another 65 percent say they read English; about half (48 percent) say they write English; about a third (32 percent) say they speak English; a fourth (27 percent) say they think in English; while 14 percent say they are not competent in any way when it comes to the English language.

These statistics become a cause of concern when compared to the previous SWS survey in September 2000 when 77 percent of respondents said they understood spoken English; three-fourths (76 percent) said they read English; three out of five (61 percent) said they wrote English; more than half (54 percent) said they spoke English; two-fifths (44 percent) said they thought in English; while 7 percent said they were not competent in any way when it comes to the English language.

This survey was commissioned by the Promoting English Proficiency (PEP) Project, an initiative of the American Chamber of Commerce, the Makati Business Club, the European Chamber of Commerce, and, Philip Morris Manufacturing Philippines, Inc. The sponsors of the PEP project, obviously all employers groups, naturally want to determine, and keep, the comparative advantage of an English-speaking Filipino workforce as the cutting edge of our country in this seamless globalized trading regime.

The most telling evidence of this fact is the over eight million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) whom we hail as our "modern day heroes" because they have made the Philippines overcome the most difficult times for the economy through the years by their foreign exchange remittances. The English-speaking advantage of Filipinos has also worked well for our country with the advent of the call center industry where many American and multinational companies engaged in information communication technology (ICT) locate their operations here. Based on a survey by Michigan-based Kelly Services Inc. and Singapore-based ACA Research Inc., a global staffing firm and a market research outfit, former Sen. Ernesto Herrera noted transnational business process outsourcing (BPO) providers prefer Filipinos for their call center employees because of their superior work ethics and higher language skills. Herrera, who remains as the general secretary of the moderate labor group Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, endorsed initiatives to reinstate English as the medium of instruction in all school levels.

An OFW, Gary Olivar who works in Jakarta, Indonesia, however, wrote to Commonsense to take issue on Herrera’s endorsement to reinstate English as a medium of instruction in all school levels in the Philippines as too simplistically put. He wrote:"Reinstatement of English in our schools at this point is simply damage control, no longer preserving or building upon a fast-eroding comparative advantage. In the same vein, perhaps the former Senator will also look more kindly at other directions of economic reform that–like the long-ago replacement of English with Tagalog–assuage our nationalist and civic consciences but in fact prevent us from competing and progressing in an irreversibly globalizing world. One example is the minimum wage and related issues of labor union power, which invariably lead to job loss as investors vote with their feet. Another is the ability of foreign capital to enter into prohibited areas like the ownership of land and mass media. And if these and similar issues arise in a forum of Charter change, I hope that Senator Herrera will form his views boldly, wisely, and well."

Another OFW who reads Commonsense at the Philippine STAR website, Herbert Dizon, a medical doctor who has been working in Canada for the past 12 years, wrote us to share his experience on how it helped him a lot when English was still the medium of instructions in all Philippine schools, whether public or private. He wrote: "Just to let you know there are hundreds of English schools here in Greater Vancouver that cater to Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, Swiss, Brazilian and other nationalities who come here for a few months to 2 years to study English as a second language (ESL)…Believe me, our knowledge and proficiency in English is a lot better than Caucasians who have English as their first language. We had one Korean student who studied English in Cebu before coming here to Vancouver and apparently Cebu is popular in Korea… If the government does not do anything about this declining proficiency in English, we might find Filipino students among those thousands of ESL students here in Vancouver in the future."

In fairness to us Filipinos, even Americans whose first language is English, have trouble with their own tongue. My college classmate, Bejan Lionel Apas, sent me an email of his collection of common but funny lapses of well- known personalities speaking in their native American English.

Here’s some from his collection of "English Lessons:"

•"Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life," –Brooke Shields, during an interview to become spokesperson for the US federal anti-smoking campaign.

•"I’m not going to have some reporters pawing through our papers. We are the president." Hillary Clinton commenting on the release of subpoenaed documents on her and her husband’s questioned property in Arkansas.

•"Half this game is ninety percent mental," Philadelphia Phillies manager, Danny Ozark.

•"We are ready for an unforeseen event that may or may not occur," Al Gore, Vice President

•"If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure," Bill Clinton, President of the United States of America.

It happens even to the best. Feeling smarter yet? Share these with your brilliant friends. I just did!

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Write to marichu@philstar.net.ph

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