EXPECT the debate on the use of the English language as a medium of instruction to flourish now that the school system has opened for the school year 2007-2008.
There are those in our midst who are saying we should stick to “Filipino” as the medium of instruction in the schools and deemphasize English. We are among the increasing number of organizations and people who are saying we should, in fact, master English in the schools and the workplace as part of our drive for global competitiveness. We should give it due primacy in all educational levels as well as our official communications.
Why the need to master the English language? Because everybody else is trying to do the same.
Right now, there are probably close to 400 million native English speakers, making English the third largest language next to Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.
Experts say, however, that when combined with nonnative speakers like us Filipinos, English is probably the most commonly used language in the world. And certainly, the number of English speakers is growing as it is now the commonly taught language in Europe, Mainland China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Yes, the Chinese, the Koreans, Japanese and the Taiwanese are trying to learn English—and fast—because they know the future lies there. English has emerged as the global language that is widely used in information technology, international trade, aerial and maritime communications, the sciences, global sports, as well as in international bodies like the United Nations. About 95 percent of the articles published in Science Citation Index, where breakthroughs in science and technology are published, are written in English.
Of course, critics of the English language have been saying that these countries are not good English speakers yet they are able to industrialize and develop their economies. That is certainly true, but the fact is that these countries right now are sending their sons and daughters to all the corners of the English-speaking world to learn the language. They know they are not secure in their economic perches; they need a hedge and an extra edge in their continuing search for innovation and competitiveness.
Why? Because the shelf life of most economic strategies these days are shorter than, say, a hundred years ago when economic powers had to undergo the Industrial Revolution.
Remember the story of “newly industrializing countries” whose strength came from hosting global production networks by multinational corporations? Singapore is a classic story of that. For 40 years, Singapore rode on the waves of massive doses of foreign direct investments in electronics and semiconductors, thinking the good thing may last forever.
Then the MNCs realized it’s actually more effective to locate the factories in low-cost locations like China, the Philippines and Vietnam, and suddenly the electronics industry that buttressed the “Singapore dream” vanished completely in 2006.
The Singaporeans were rattled, but the tiny island state continues to grow fast (i.e. 6 percent in the first quarter of 2007) on the strength of its services and trading sectors because it has maintained its global competitiveness. Why? Because its people speak the global language on top of its major attraction as a place where the rule of law, transparency and public sector efficiency prevail.
Now, it is trying to leverage these competitive advantages to develop niches in the fast-growing global production and trade in digital media, thus making the Singaporeans a potential threat to the Philippine animation industry.
Japan has been priding itself for its rare virtue of clinging to its language and maintaining its insularity. But these days, many corporate executives are questioning this attitude in the face of increasing competition from Western MNCs that are achieving efficiencies derived from outsourcing, something that Japanese firms couldn’t do because of language barriers.
No wonder, the Japanese are now scrambling to learn English, a fact not lost on the South Koreans—their bitter rivals in the global marketplace for high-end electronics—who are currently sending their people to the US, Britain, Australia and the Philippines to beat them to the draw.
Even Indians these days are shaking their school systems to improve their English proficiency. If there’s one country that has earned billions of dollars for its people because of its language and science skills, it’s India. Its $20-billion-a-year IT and IT-enabled services provide more than a million jobs to its young population.
But right now, the urgency of improving its population’s English-language skills is not lost on its leaders who are pushing for more English-language skills-upgrading programs in schools.
Of course, some “nationalists” in India are fighting back and are agitating for the primacy of Indian national languages in schools and institutions. However, the joke there is that most of those politicians, while agitating for institutionalizing Indian languages in India’s school system, are sending their sons and daughters to Harvard, Yale and Stanford in the United States so they could master the sciences and tame the English language.
“Do you know why English-language newspapers in India—especially in cities like Bangalore, Chennai and Delhi—are rising? It’s because people, especially the growing middle class, are buying newspapers to improve their English proficiency,” said one editor lately, underscoring an example that bucks the tide of declining newspaper circulations elsewhere. He said that for an increasing number of Indian families, English has become an investment for the future. They know because the new middle class in their midst that are going in and out of the posh campuses of Infosys and Wipro in their brand-new cars speak good English.
The moral lesson? We should not dilly-dally on embracing policies that would restore the importance of English in Philippine society. Actually, we have no choice. Some sources in the business community say more than 60 percent of the country’s GDP are accounted for by the “globalized” sectors of economy (e.g. remittances, merchandize exports and outsourcing, among others). These are economic activities that are conducted, processed and concluded through the English language. Given the structure of the Philippine economy, there’s no doubt where our national interest lies. (Drafted as editorial for the BusinessMirror, 5 June 2007).