English & Prosperity

English & Prosperity

If We Are So Good in English, Why Aren't We Rich?
By Prof. Leonor M. Briones, Chairperson, Board of Trustees

For decades, we have billed ourselves as an English-speaking country. We proudly claim that one advantage we have over other countries is our ability to speak English. We even laugh at nationals of other countries who, in our view, speak terrible English.

I also thought the same way, until I was interviewed by a foreign correspondent from a newspaper with the largest circulation in a foreign country. He said he was puzzled and asked, “If you Filipinos are so good in English, how come you are not rich ?”

He was puzzled, he said. Thousands of Asians, particularly Koreans and Japanese come to the Philippines to study English so that they will have good careers and prosperous lifestyles. Many more learn English in language schools using call center technology. They are taught by Filipinos. Their students move on to higher studies or to better jobs while the lot of their Filipino teachers remain unchanged. How come, he asked.

Firstly, I answered him, not all Filipinos speak and write English correctly. Those who teach in English language schools are a special group; they undergo intensive training. The English they speak is not really typical of the English spoken by most Filipinos. Filipinos generally speak Filipino English and all its hilarious variants.

We are not necessarily an English-speaking country. We are a Filipino-English speaking country.

One reason is the educational system. Our cohort survival rate is appalling. This means that few Filipinos successfully finish elementary education; fewer still finish high school; and very few finish higher education. A farmer’s child who has not even finished elementary school cannot work in an English language school or a call center.

Because of limited educational opportunities, the kind of English most Filipinos speak is not sufficient for them to innovate, create, and produce new technology, create business empires, and manage financial and investment houses. For many Filipinos their English is just enough for them to work as salesgirls, factory workers and clerks. I told the correspondent and his Filipino assistant—all you need to do is watch TV or listen to the radio to hear typical Filipino English.

Secondly, problems of endemic, deep-seated poverty prevent young people from finishing their studies or going to schools which give good, useful training in English.

Thirdly, working in a call center teaching English is a ”dead end” job. It does not offer a career path where one can start at the bottom and work his or her way to the top. Many young people consider a call center job as a way-station to better things, if there are such opportunities. They usually leave after a year or two because job-related stress and the health risks are too high. The chances of their becoming business moguls or taipans are not likely.

Thirdly, and most importantly, being an “English-speaking country” does not necessarily guarantee progress, development and prosperity for a country. As we all know, many of the “old” countries which became rich and industrialized are not English-speaking. Five of the G-8 countries—France, Russia, Germany, Japan and Italy are not English-speaking. The BRICS group of newly emerging industrialized countries–Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, with the possible exception of India, are not English-speaking either.

The case of prosperous Asian countries is interesting, e.g. Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. They developed first before they tried to learn more English.

While the ability to speak English might be useful, there are many factors which lead to development–national planning, technology, innovation, material resources, good governance and many others.

Going back to the original question. if we are an English-speaking country, how come we are not rich? The answer–English is not necessarily the sole key to prosperity. Even if it were, many Filipinos can only speak Filipino English.

(This column of Professor Briones was published in The Manila Times on June 23, 2014.)