Filipinos and the English Language

 

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Why is the Philippines included in  the discussion about which country is the BPO/Call Center capital of the world?

There are lots of positive qualities Filipinos have that make the country an attractive destination for business process outsourcing. This article, however, focuses only on what could possibly be on top of that list – their good command of the English language.

There were a few netizens from some parts of the world who, in videos, made fun of the ability of the Filipinos to speak in English. Whatever people, through the Internet, have seen in such videos make them think that it is the truth about the Filipinos’ ability to communicate in English.  There were foreigners also who experienced conversing with drivers, vendors, and bystanders in the streets of Manila or in far-flung tourist destinations in the countryside, who thought that the “broken English” they heard from these common people is a representation of the English proficiency of the Filipinos. It is not.

What kind of English do you expect from taxi and jeepney drivers in the Philippines? Do you expect street and sidewalk vendors and bystanders, who might not have even completed elementary education due to financial constraints, to speak impeccable English?

Those common people, not well-educated that they are, at least, can carry out a conversation in English, “broken” it may be. They understand what native English speakers tell them. They can give the latter information and directions they need. You are barely scratching the surface of the Filipino English proficiency when you talk to them. You need to dig deeper. One has to visit the halls of the academic community of the Philippine and stay in the lounges of the country’s business sector in order to have a more informed evaluation of the speaking, writing, reading and listening skills of the inhabitants of the island country.

It is safe to assume that the English proficiency level of the Filipinos occupying the lower stations in society is from “low intermediate” to “high intermediate.” The higher the level of proficiency of the Filipinos become when they at least finish high school. Once they succeed in receiving a college diploma that means that they have acquired both the lower and higher order thinking skills in English. They can remember and understand materials written in English. They can apply what they learned, analyze and evaluate them. In terms of language they can create… write sentences, paragraphs, and essays. Students in the tertiary level in the Philippines are required to write reaction papers and term papers in English while pursuing their degree and, in most universities and colleges, before they are allowed to graduate, they need to present a thesis.

it is no longer surprising that in surveys conducted to test proficiency (of non-native English speakers), Filipinos perform well.



For example, in a survey held (among countries not considered native English speaking) in 2016, the Philippines ranked 7th in the world (1st in Asia) in workforce English proficiency.

Philippines also received a strong rating in another 2016 survey among countries best at English as a second language. Philippines is 13th over-all and 3rd in Asia where in first and second places are Singapore and Malaysia, respectively.1

The fact that Filipinos are good at English is hard to dispute.

How do you think would English being the official language in Philippine schools (from pre-school to tertiary levels… including the graduate school) affect their proficiency in the language?

The Filipinos are bilingual and multilingual people. Filipino and English are the two official languages. Ninety-two percent (92%) of the 103 million Filipinos can speak English as a second language.2

Filipinos start to write and speak in English at an early age. English is heard and read everywhere in the Philippines. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is the language used in schools. Almost all subjects are taught in English.  Even the business community has it as the official language. It is in English that all communication in business and government are done. Most of the newspapers are also written in the said language.

Children of Filipinos professionals and those belonging to well-to-do families are trained in English even before they go to school.

That is the kind of exposure to the English language that the Filipinos are getting and that started more than a century ago when the United States of America annexed the Philippines and made it their colonial outpost in the Pacific. The Americans established the public education system in the island country and used English as medium of instruction to gradually supplant Spanish as the second language of Filipinos.

The Filipino accent in English is what some netizens and self-proclaimed language experts usually make fun of.

It is hard to understand why there are some who make accent a big deal. In communication it is the pronunciation that counts, not the accent.

“Pronunciation can be good or bad, but accent is accent and there isn’t a good or bad accent really.”3

There’s no such thing as right or wrong accent.



A recent study (Putting accent in its place: Rethinking obstacles to communication) explored the relationships among accentedness, comprehensibility and intelligibility.4 The study concludes that accent, comprehensibility, and intelligibility are partially independent constructs, and that simply altering accent will not necessarily affect the other two. In fact, communication obstacles are often based on things other than accent, but because of its extreme salience, accent is given more weight than it deserves.

On the contrary, there is evidence coming out that accent itself could be a barrier to effective communication.

According to an article entitled “Native English speakers are the world’s worst communicators,” “…often you have a boardroom full of people from different countries communicating in English and all understanding each other and then suddenly  the American or Brit walks into the room and nobody can understand them.”5

The article also explains that, “Native speakers are at a disadvantage when you are in a lingua franca situation, where English is being used as a common denominator, it’s the native English speakers that are having difficulty understanding and making themselves understood.”

 What could be making the Anglophones difficult to understand? Is it their accent?

 It’s a great thing that the Filipino’s English accent is (as generally described) neutral.

This could be one reason the Philippines is fast becoming, if not yet, the BPO/Call Center capital of the world. They can be clearly understood by both native and non-native English speakers.

The main goal of communication is understanding, not to sound fancy by copying somebody else’s accent. But if the Filipinos want to mimic somebody’s way of producing vowel and consonant sounds and diphthongs, they can easily do it. What works in favor of the Filipinos in terms of learning English is that they are no strangers to the language.

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  1. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/11/which-countries-are-best-at-english-as-a-second-language
  2. http://www.k-international.com/blog/countries-with-the-most-english-speakers/
  3. Gordon Scruton (http://gordonscruton.blogspot.kr/2012/11/accent-vs-pronunciation.html)
  4. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/language-teaching/article/putting-accent-in-its-place-rethinking-obstacles-to-communication/11D7A6BB87C915E074F50DE01FB7995F
  5. http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20161028-native-english-speakers-are-the-worlds-worst-communicators
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