The Philippine English warming

By Paolo Reyes – THE Philippines’ claim as the only English-speaking country in Asia used to be a proud badge that every Filipino wore. We always marketed our country as having the highest literacy rate in the region, thus a foreign investor’s dream location. Sadly, this competitive advantage is rapidly being lost. I call it the “Philippine English Warming” (in reference to Global Warming).

The turn of this century saw the advent of the business-process outsourcing (BPO) industry. Call centers sprouted around the country, mining the rich “English-speaking” talent pool.

Getting a job as a call-center agent was relatively easy then. I walked into a center at 3 p.m. and was offered a job by 4:30. Aside from the fact that I was not a crazy person or had a criminal record, I got the job because I could speak proper English; I could understand and be understood by the customer at the other side of the phone.

The small things I took for granted, like watching Sesame Street and Electric Company as a kid, seemed to be the key to get into the so-called sunshine industry of the Philippines. At that time, one could walk along Ayala Avenue in Makati or Emerald Avenue in Ortigas Center and hear people talking English with a twang. Those days actually gave birth to the notion that if you were 20-something and spoke good English, then you must be working in the call-center industry.

Fast-forward to today and that “sunshine industry” might be heading to its sunset sooner than we think. I have since moved on from answering phone calls to conducting training of agents, and have seen the rapid decline of English proficiency in the talent pool. Fewer people have the minimum basic English skills required to get a call-center position. My work has forced me to travel to remote provincial cities to try to acquire better talent. Believe me, it is not easy. The talent pool is thinning out so fast that as far as the BPO industry is concerned, we are scraping the bottom of the 7th barrel.

My travels and classes in different regions have steadily shown the decline in English skills. From poor comprehension to bad grammar to funky pronunciation, I always have to control my laughter.

I once asked a student to construct a sentence showing proper subject-verb agreement, in observance of the particular rule that a singular subject is matched with a singular verb. After about 30 seconds of deep thought and contemplation while looking out a window, I saw her eyes sparkle. I prepared myself for a brilliant answer. “I saw the building collape.” I immediately replied by asking, “You mean COLLAPSE?” To my horror, her reply was a confident, “No, sir, COLLAPE. The word “building” is singular so the verb is COLLAPE—no ‘s’!”

Needless to say, it took a lot out of me to hold my laughter so as not to embarrass her. But what was more amazing was that only about three people in the class of 16 smirked or reacted. Only three people actually realized the mistake. The others looked at me as if saying she was correct, so why did I have a puzzled look?

During an actual job interview, a student of mine was asked by the recruiter, “What are your directions for your career in the next five years?” My student promptly answered, “Oh, it is very easy to get to Makati from here. You can take a bus or ride the MRT.” When he was not hired, my student came back to me wondering why. Maybe to this day he is still wondering.

The Philippines is a haven for outsourcing. The business environment and logistics are laid out to host big international companies so the BPO industry will always flourish, even during the current global economic crisis. The industry will always need people to fill the seats. Hence we always need new talented people.

The Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP) expects to garner 10 percent of the global BPO industry worldwide by the end of 2010. This translates to about an additional half a million seats available. With current hiring rates at 3 percent (meaning only three people out of a hundred are hired), there needs to be more than 16 million applicants to be able to fill those seats. The solution therefore is to improve the quality of the talent pool.

Culturally, Filipinos can speak English, even if it’s the “carabao English” we all know about. We can understand each other. But to remain competitive in the global economy, we must remember that our sunshine industry does not deal with Filipinos but with Americans, Canadians, Aussies and Brits. If they cannot understand us, we will lose the business.

At the end of the day, I guess I should not be really complaining. If our educational system does not change to produce better English-speaking people, I will continue to have a job. If people who desire to be globally competitive continue to watch nothing but teleseryes and telenovelas, “Tagalized” canned shows from abroad and even cartoons, we might lose the benefits of being the second-best outsourcing destination in the world.

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  1. Nimrod says:

    Blame it on Marcos.
    When Marcos took power in 1972 there was this talk Tagalog movement that started. That is why we have these funny Government Institutional Names in tagalog that really looked dumb in (parenthesis) after the English name. Example would be that of the Dept. of Agrarian Reform (weird sounding tagalog name) then came the bastardized proliferation of

    Blame it on Crappy tagalized cartoons and Anime.Crapped out tagalog dramas everyday 24/7.

    Tagalized English Cartoons then Tagalized Anime cartoons. There was a time when prime time programs were all prime English Cartoons and Serial Programs from the US not these gamut of Tagalog dramas running one after another.

    Now, only channel 9 and 23 has English programs. I believe this was why English has deteriorated severely in the Philippines today. It has been badly mangled by our toleration of Tagalish, another language pathology exclusively Filipino when Ab Initio, we already had the “regional inflections” that was harmful to English pronunciation, but with all these hindrances to good English language utilization, I do not believe we will ever recover our mastery of the Language.

    We will live to regret this because technology is English based and the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans know it that is why they would come here to learn English. We are such a pitied dysfunctional race. We love to destroy our treasure. I do know why.

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