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Local Literature

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Improved English proficiency among Filipino adults ‘surprising’
This post was written by Hannah L. Nepomuceno, a senior mass communication student who is earning her summer internship credits with the PCIJ.
MORE Filipinos say they have a better understanding of the English language now, based on a recent survey by the Social Weather Stations, but the results do not appear very convincing to some.
Results of the survey done from March 30 to April 2 this year, as compared to the outcome of a similar polling in March 2006, showed “recovery in all aspects of English proficiency, most notably on the ability to speak English,” observed Mahar Mangahas, SWS president and chief executive officer. (Download the survey results here.)
Moreover, the results showed a significant improvement in self-assessed English proficiency among Filipinos in the last two years after a decline over the previous 12 years.
But Edilberto de Jesus, former secretary of the Department of Education, said the survey results were “surprising considering a turnaround in just two years,” expressing his doubts on the accuracy of the respondents’ answers to the survey.
Of those surveyed, three-fourths (76 percent) of the adult respondents say they understand spoken English, compared to 65 percent in March 2006. In September 2000, comprehension of the English language was at 77 percent, which was an improvement from 74 percent in December 1993.

The same SWS survey in April showed that: * 75 percent say they read English; * three out of five (61 percent) say they write English; * about half (46 percent) say they speak English; * roughly two-fifths (38 percent) say they think in English; and * eight percent admit not being competent in any way when it comes to the English language.
Compared to the March 2006 survey, only two-thirds (65 percent) of the respondents said they could read English; about half (48 percent) said they could write English; almost a third (32 percent) said they could speak English; a fourth (27 percent) said they could think in English; while 14 percent said they were not competent in any way when it came to the English language.
The latest survey also showed that more Filipinos are fully using the English language, from five percent in March 2006 to eigt percent in April 2007 while those who say they make “fair use” of the English language also increased a bit, from 35 percent to 39 percent in the same period.
A ‘surprising’ turnaround
“We hope the results accurately reflect the real situation. While it’s good news, it’s also surprising. It’s quite a turnaround in just two years,” de Jesus averred. “While we see the result as an improvement, it’s also incumbent to ask what happened in the last two years.”
“We hope it’s a real improvement and not just the awareness of how important English is that boosted it,” Mangahas likewise said.
De Jesus therefore suggested the conduct of another study to test actual English competency.
The survey was commissioned by the Promoting English Proficiency (PEP) Project of the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (AmCham) and the Makati Business Club (MBC), with funding from Philip Morris Philippines Manufacturing, Inc.
The project aims to develop a world-class Filipino workforce with English proficiency that meets high international standards.
College undergrads as targets
“Primarily, the target of this project are the college undergrads who will graduate and look for a job, Filipinos who are seeking work abroad, anyone who are entering the labor force,” explained John Forbes, PEP co-chair for the American Chamber of Commerce.
“The program that AmCham and MBC initiated was motivated by a need to improve the English language for those entering the workforce, so these are mostly college graduates, more in the formal sector of employment,” said Forbes.
“Our training and certification is not directed at elementary or basic education as much as it is with people that are in their late teens or starting their careers. Those are people looking for jobs and in those people who are looking for jobs, we saw a decline in English. So we’re trying to fix that,” he added.
DepEd Assistant Secretary Teresita Inciong theorized that the Filipinos’ proficiency in English declined in previous surveys due to economic reasons.
Decline ‘not education-related’
“I think that the problem is really not education-related, but rather economic-related. You can’t teach a child who’s hungry. You can’t teach a child who’s sick,” she pointed out. It was not established however that the improvement in the Filipinos’ proficiency in English was due to a better performance of the economy.
Inciong also cited regional differences in speaking the English language as part of the problem. “I think that it is not the grammar structure but the accent because most Filipinos can understand and speak (English although) but not in the way the local speaker would speak.”
Inciong recognized the need to improve the quality of teachers. In this regard, she said the DepEd has set aside P250 million for speech monitors intended to improve the accent of teachers.
Ramon del Rosario Jr., MBC chairman, noted that many applicants who are fresh from college fail in job interviews because of inadequate skills in English, prompting him to believe that the problem can partly be blamed on the quality of educators.
“It is a problem that a teacher who is not so proficient in the English language has the risk of possibly teaching or passing on to her students the wrong use or application of the English language since she herself is not competent and proficient,” he said.
“Lack of resources and quality of spending are part of the greater issues, and another is that the problem of low English proficiency is reflective of the Philippines’s basic education system,” del Rosario asserted.
Improve quality of education
“We did make a point that while there is a specific problem in English proficiency, there is in fact a serious problem also in Math and Science, for example, so I guess, part of the answer is, I think the approach is to really improve the overall quality of education,” he said. “Still, I think that Filipinos speaking in English is a definite plus.”
Quality education, del Rosario said, should equip children with better capabilities to cope with the demands of their future careers or the market place. Current efforts are focused on improving English proficiency “because the jobs that are feasible made it clear that English proficiency is a distinctive factor.”
Forbes shared del Rosario’s views on the need to take a closer look at the problem from its roots. “The broader advocacy is to fix English throughout basic education,” he said.
“With 20 million students in basic education, and virtually all of them are in public schools, so it’s the responsibility of the DepEd to fix that. It’s the responsibility of the government to collect enough taxes to make sure that there are enough classrooms, and that the teachers of English speak English,” he said, hastening to add that the AmCham-MBC’s PEP program “isn’t going to fix that.”
Chris Nielsen, managing director of Philip Morris Philippines, said his company is funding the PEP project as part of its corporate social responsibility to help improve employment in the Philippines.
The SWS survey had 1,200 adult respondents, with 300 samples each from Metro Manila, the rest of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

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