Time and again we hear people whining about the decline of Philippine English. When news of this kind reaches Filipinos here and abroad, it is always met with contempt. Filipinos take their English seriously. Filipinos take to English with some degree of self-entitlement because the Philippines used to be an American colony. And that was that. Well, not really. At the height of the American occupation and beyond, Filipinos had practically owned the English language to the point where Filipinos writing in English had gotten into American mainstream literature. These Filipino authors’ works were published –and studied– in American literature textbooks.
We learned as well of legendary Filipino statesmen and women who had called up a storm either at the United Nations or elsewhere in America with their eloquent speeches.
Data from Global English Proficiency Index 2017
So, what now of the latest reports saying Philippine English is going downhill? The issue is complicated as it is tricky. According to a Global English Proficiency Index report in 2017, the Philippines ranks 15th worldwide, in the band of High Proficiency countries that include Belgium (12th), Malaysia (13th), and Switzerland (14th). Singapore is way up there at number 5! What Malaysia has done to get to that spot is something the Philippines should seriously consider doing as well. To my knowledge, about a decade ago that spot belonged to another country. The complication (brought about by the results, that is) is thought by many as a consequence of the failure of schools to teach good English. English teachers take the blame. At one point Filipino English teachers had become a butt of jokes. I caught wind of one of those nasty scenarios where an English teacher became a laughing stock in her own class: Finding the wind too strong, she sends a student to the back saying, “Please close the window because the wind is big.” This joke would later turn up in every student’s conversation with different versions but all aimed at the teacher’s inept English vocabulary. True enough, when selected English teachers at public schools were given a proficiency test in 2016, barely half scored above average. This year, selected fresh college graduates sat an English test and scored slightly above that of a senior high school student in Thailand. Again, it led to finger-pointing.
In the debate at hand, we’re not even entertaining the nationalist agenda—which calls for the abolition of English instruction in the Philippines. To this radical block, English is an imperialist tool of domination. Thus, we have a parasitic Philippine economy, heavily dependent on America. But this 2012 report from
the United Nations says otherwise. Good English does result in good economy. Which explains the massive contribution of BPO companies to the Philippine GDP since 2000. Last I heard, we’re still the “most preferred” country outside North America to do BPO in, but if the English decline trend continues, it could lead to a vacuum.
We go to the tricky part. In reality, the situation is not as bad as the media paint it to be. The Philippines doesn’t lack of English language experts. What most public schools lack (and many private schools as well) is a sincere investment in English language instruction. It’s not even financial capital. It is, more than anything else, a moral investment of some kind—if English is thought of as an economic driver, then it might as well be run as a moral and social institution. The drive to execute the plan should come more from the inside than outside. As it is, it shouldn’t be the job of the education department alone. Decision-making takes a small part in the scheme of things after all. And certainly, as in most things in life, English is learned best outside a controlled environment.
It’s not that bad, really: Just enough to pop our complacency.