The Philippine Economy and English Education

With globalization and the emergence of informationalism, a new stage of global capitalism that Manuel Castells defines as “a technological paradigm based on the augmentation of the human capacity of information processing and communication made possible by the revolutions in microelectronics, software, and genetic engineering” (11) or, in other words a global economic system facilitated by advancements in information and technology and resulting in a knowledge-based economy, Mark Warschauer suggests that changes in English language teaching will arise. These changes include: 1) the further spread of English as an international language and a shift of authority to nonnative speakers and dialects; 2) the use of English by nonnative speakers for the presentation of complex ideas, international collaboration and negotiation, and location and critical interpretation of rapidly changing information; and 3) the transformation of notions of literacy, making online navigation and research, interpretation and authoring of hypermedia, and synchronous and asynchronous online communication critical skills for learners of English. He says,

The above changes, taken together, will render ineffective curricula based strictly on syntactic or functional elements or narrowly defined tasks. Rather, project-based learning — incorporating situated practice and critical inquiry, and based on students’ own cultural frameworks — will be required if students are to master the complex English literacy and communications skills required by the emerging informational economy and society.

The place of English in the world has indeed become more important. As the most widely-used lingua franca, English has become the international language through which information, communication, and business are conducted throughout the world. Thus, literacy in English has become a requirement for participation in the global economy. This situation is true for thePhilippines, whose economy relies heavily on foreign investments and OFW remittances. This essay will discuss how the demands of global business have affected English teaching in the Philippines and determine whether the changes in English language teaching suggested by Warschauer is evident in the country.

English in the Philippines has long been a language of power, given that it is the language of government, law, business, and diplomacy. It is also largely the language of print media, with most of the country’s major newspapers and publications written in English. And although the Department of Education has recently mandated the use of the vernacular language as the medium of instruction in all levels of elementary school with its multilingual education (MLE) policy, English remains necessary to access sources of information such as textbooks and online journals, which are still mostly written in English.

Because English is used in those formal domains related to the economic system of the country, the knowledge of English is often needed to operate effectively in such domains, in which white-collar jobs exist (McKay 40). Thus, proficiency in English is closely related to social and economic mobility. The knowledge of English is important not only in the domestic job market, but also in the international labor market. According to a survey of employment agencies accredited by the Philippines Overseas Employment Agency (POEA), a comprehension of spoken English was a requirement for most jobs (McKay 38). Considering that, according to the Bangko Sentral, as of the first quarter of 2009 OFW remittances account for almost 13 percent of the country’s Gross National Product, it is no wonder that the knowledge of English is instrumental to the country’s economic survival.

The rise of the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry in the Philippines, the country’s fastest growing industry, further contributes to the instrumentality of English proficiency. The National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) defines BPO as “the delegation of one or more IT-intensive business processes to an external provider that, in turn, owns, administrates, and manages the selected process or processes based on defined and measurable performance metrics.” It is an industry dependent on information technology, an industry of informationalism. In the Philippines, the major components of the BPO industry include call centers, software development, animation/creative services, data transcription, back office processing, and engineering design (NSCB), although call center operators in the Philippines comprise about 80 percent of BPO players in the country (“Philippine Call”). Since the year 2000, the call center industry has been rapidly growing in terms of both revenue and employment. Offshore call center outsourcing services in the Philippines have not only contributed 12 percent to the country’s GNP but have also comprised one of the biggest sources of employment for Filipinos (“The Growing”).

According to Diamond’s 2007 global outsourcing industry study, the Philippines currently ranks 6th in the world as a BPO destination after India, the United States, Canada, China, and the United Kingdom (Arcibal). Since the industry mainly caters to markets from the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, the Philippines is considered one of the most competitive call center destinations, being the third largest English-speaking country in the world and having a high literacy rate (Danlog).

To remain globally competitive, the government, along with various business groups, including both the U.S. and European chambers of commerce, is striving to promote English as the ticket to a good career. The Arroyo administration has even invested 500 million pesos to help improve the English proficiency of “near-hires” — an industry euphemism for applicants rejected due to a weak command of English — through a 100-hour English refresher course (Vitug). What is troubling, however, is that the government has been designing the educational system of the country based on the demands of the global market for semi-skilled workers. Its goal seems to be to produce graduates that fit the qualifications needed by the industry. Thus, the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) of the Department of Labor and Employment has collaborated with outsourcing firms to provide free call center and medical transcription courses. New curricula and training centers have also been instituted. A number of schools all over the country, like the University of the East, now offer subjects like “Advanced Communication for International Business,” in which students learn marketing, finance, English proficiency, public speaking, and American geography (Danlog). Oral proficiency in English is now emphasized as never before, with some schools integrating “Dynamic Education” (DynEd), a spoken English training course, into their syllabus. The DynEd module includes lessons on answering calls as if working in the front desk of a company (Papa). Formal training and certification programs for call centers have been established within educational institutions, like AHEAD Learning Systems and the Avaya Customer Contact Training Center (ACCTC) located at the Mapua Institute of Technology. Call centers like People Support have also conducted special classes in the University of San Jose-Recoletos (USJ-R) on basic call center education for graduating students (Danlog).

Despite these training programs, call centers apparently still can’t keep up with the demands of the industry because they can’t find enough employees who can speak “proper” English. Most of the people who apply for call center jobs are rejected because of poor English communication skills. Data from the John F. Kennedy Center Foundation-Philippines, which designs training programs for call centers in the country, show that annually, only about 2 percent of all applicants are hired. Jim Santiago, the foundation’s president and CEO, attributes this to the applicants’ difficulty with spoken English in terms of “conversational fluency, tone, and accent” (qtd. in Remollino).

Because call centers indeed place a premium on oral English proficiency, English language training geared towards a call center job tends to focus on acquiring the needed accent and reading a script properly rather than on writing or literature, thus resulting to a superficial grasp of the language. Moreover, aside from the stressful nature of the job, it is also often remarked that the usual work done in a call center does not hone talents and thinking. The monotony of the job inhibits intellectual growth. It also alienates its employees from the immediate community they live in, by demanding that they situate their consciousness in their customers’ context (Cinco).

The growth of the call center industry has also resulted in another kind of brain drain. If the lack of local jobs have forced professionals to seek employment abroad, the current focus on the call center industry and the government’s support of it have led students, fresh graduates, and professionals to work in call centers rather than to study full-time or work in their fields. Call center jobs await English students and teachers, and many do choose to leave the academe to work in the call center industry, attracted by the lucrative pay. The so-called “sunshine industry” of the country offers 11, 000 to 15,000 pesos as starting salary, and it also boasts of pro-rated bonuses, the shortest probationary period, regular incentives, perks, and team-building activities. In a month, a call center agent can earn as much as 20, 000 pesos for parroting spiels and dealing with irate calls (Cinco). That amount is just about as much as what a tenured professor in the University of the Philippines gets. Even if being a UP professor has its advantages, such as research opportunities and an intellectually conducive environment, the institution’s inability to provide for its teachers’ needs frustrates even the most committed educators (Papa).

It is no wonder, then, that even those teachers who remain in the university take on jobs on the side. Some professors, for example, teach in the Intensive English Program (IEP) offered by the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UP. The IEP caters mainly to visiting foreign students (most often Koreans but sometimes also Japanese and other Asians) and Filipino students who need remedial classes in English. Those who teach in the IEP are assigned classes that don’t conflict with their regular teaching schedules. However, as one of the professors who teach in the IEP says, “The [Monday to Friday] foreign classes drain me of some energy, so I’m a bit tired when I attend my regular classes.” Teaching in the IEP also isn’t a very fulfilling job. The same professor says, “I find it fulfilling [sometimes], when I have students who are enthusiastic and hardworking, and who don’t need to be disciplined.  But they are the exception rather than the rule, and so much of the time, to be honest, I don’t find IEP teaching to be particularly satisfying or fulfilling, and I feel like I’m only doing it because of the extra pay.”

Such sentiments are probably shared even by those who teach English outside the academe. Because of the important role of English in the global economy, non-English speakers now try to learn the language in order to qualify for high-paying jobs. The Philippines, having relatively low living, labor, and educational costs, attracts foreigners who seek to hone their English skills. Every year, foreigners flock to the Philippines for language education, or English teaching businesses grow and hire Filipinos to tutor foreigners online. While interacting with people from another country can be an interesting experience, it can also be a frustrating and monotonous one, especially in online English teaching establishments where tasks and instructions are often repetitive and offer little intellectual stimulation.

Although globalization and informationalism did transform notions of literacy, what with online and international language education, the other effects it was supposed to bring about don’t seem to apply to English language education in the context of Philippine economy. Authority did not shift to non-native speakers; those who work in call centers, for instance, still have to learn and speak the variety of English that their customers use and to situate themselves in their customers’ context, customers who are usually native speakers of the language. These workers seldom put the language to critical use or inquiry, as they are simply required to rattle off spiels provided them. Curriculum is largely influenced by the needs of such industries; thus functional elements and narrowly defined and repetitive exercises remain staples in the teaching of English. So long as the Philippines and its economy remain dependent on foreign investments and thus subject to foreign interests, the shift in authority in the use of English supposedly afforded by informationalism will not be realized.

 

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This paper was written for Dr. Judy Ick’s English 191 class and was submitted to her on 26 Aug. 2009. It was supposed to be for a class project, a website, which somehow never materialized. I just remembered this existed, and I’m putting it online because I can. Harhar.]

 

Works Cited

Arcibal, Cheryl. “Philippines still top BPO destination – consulting firm.” GMANews.tv. 4 Oct. 2007. 25 Aug. 2009 <http://www.gmanews.tv/story/63053/Philippines-still-top-BPO-destination—consulting-firm>.

Castells, Manuel. “Informationalism, Networks, and The Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint.” The network society: a cross-cultural perspective. Ed. Castells. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2004. 25 Aug. 2009 <http://annenberg.usc.edu/Home/Faculty/Communication/~ /media/Faculty/Facpdfs/Informationalism%20pdf.ashx>.

Cinco, Maricar. “The Person at the Other End of the Line.” Bulatlat.com 7.24: n. pag. 25 Aug. 2009 <http://www.bulatlat.com/2007/07/person-other-end-line>.

McKay, Sandra Lee. Teaching English Overseas: An Introduction. Oxford: UP, 1992. Google Books. 25 Aug. 2009 <http://books.google.com.ph/books?id=wJKqv6FfycUC&pg=PA37&lpg

=PA37&dq=teaching+english+as+a+business+philippines&source=bl&ots=6Z_JSseSiI&sig=0DaynYpXAIBTy1mCu5mSjLfXTHg&hl=en&ei=y6WLStWNLork7APqqeyhDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5#v=onepage&q=&f=false>.

Papa, Micaela and Jerrie M. Abella. “Graveyard shift.” Bulatlat.com 7.26 (2007): n. pag. 25 Aug. 2009 <http://www.bulatlat.com/2007/08/graveyard-shift&gt;.

“Philippine Call Center Industry Enjoying Strong Government Support.” Philippine IT Offshore Network. 25 Aug. 2009 <http://www.piton-global.com/resource16.html>.

Philippines. Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. “Gross National Product (GNP) By Industrial Origin.” 25 Aug. 2009 <http://www.bsp.gov.ph/statistics/spei_new/tab42.htm>.

Philippines. National Statistical Coordination Board. “Understanding the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) Industry in the Philippines.” 9 Nov. 2007. 25 Aug. 2009 <http://www.nscb.gov.ph/factsheet/pdf07/FS-200711-ES2-01_BPO.asp#1>.

Remollino, Alexander Martin. “Call Center Jobs: Hope for the Unemployed?” Bulatlat.com 6.9 (2006): n. pag. 25 Aug. 2009 < http://bulatlat.com/news/6-9/6-9-call.htm>.

“The Growing Call Center Industry in the Philippines.” Philippine IT Offshore Network. 25 Aug. 2009 <http://www.piton-global.com/resource18.html>.

Vitug, Marites. “Lost in Translation.” Newsweek.com. 29 May 2006. 25 Aug. 2009 <http://www.newsweek.com/id/47939>.

Warschauer, Mark. “The Changing Global Economy and the Future of English Teaching.” TESOL Quarterly 34.3: 511-535. JSTOR. 25 Aug. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3587741&gt;.

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