BANGKOK, Thailand - Never in man's history has the demand for the English language been this great. It has become an indispensable commodity around the world. Globalization, of course, has been one of the main catalysts behind this phenomenon.
It is not uncommon nowadays, for instance, for two individuals of different nationalities to troubleshoot technical problems or place orders in an instant despite the geographical differences that divide them.
California-based Mark only needs to dial a toll-free number to get directed to Manila-based call center agent Geoffrey who takes his call for tech support and asks him some preliminary questions. In a few minutes, Mark gets satisfied with Geoffrey's customer support service. Meantime, Geoffrey waits for another call that may come from the UK or any part of the English-speaking countries.
This scenario has become a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week routine, making it a way of life for many Filipinos in major urban centers in the Philippines.
In a recent study involving the Business English Index (BEI), the only tool that measures business proficiency in English in the workplace, the Philippines surfaced as the world's best country in business English proficiency, even besting the US.
The 2012 results demonstrated that out of the 76 countries that participated in the study, the Philippines was the only country that went above 7.0, “a BEI level within range of a high proficiency that indicates an ability to take an active role in business discussions and perform relatively complex tasks.” This came out even as the Philippines has been reported to have overtaken India as the international hub for call centers.
But how did this phenomenon start? What has made the 20-year-old call center industry in the Philippines successful? Can other non-native speaking countries learn from the Philippine experience? A number of reasons have been cited, but the Filipinos’ competence in the English language tops the list.
In GlobalEnglish Corporation's BEI study, skills such as taking participatory roles in business-related conversations or carrying out relatively complex responsibilities are highly prized. GlobalEnglish also implied that other more basic skills such as being able to “understand or communicate basic information during virtual or in-person meetings, read or write professional e-mails in English or deal with complexity and rapid change in a global business environment” were accounted as well.
Tom Kahl, GlobalEnglish president, noted that being able to convey ideas with ease and work with others within a multinational setting help boost an organization’s finances. The study revealed that the 7.11 score of the Philippines, the only country reaching the intermediate level, may help explain why the country’s economic condition has improved, placing it in the Top 5 in the 2011 and 2012 World Bank GDP data.
Aside from those cited by GlobalEnglish, an executive from an American company outsourcing customer service calls to a Philippine-based call center underscored the value of knowing how to use certain phrases and idioms.
It may seem fairly basic, but it counts as another factor why English-speaking Filipinos are highly preferred over their Indian counterparts. This may be correlated to a person’s vocabulary and grammar being central to his success or failure in every communication.
In Barry Tomalin’s “India Rising: The Need for Two Way Training,” he cited vocabulary and grammar use as a source of pressure for Indian call center agents. They tend to use “long, indirect questions, which prolong the exchange. Done out of politeness, it can actually be counterproductive as it draws out the exchange beyond what is necessary.”
The use of some words, such as “prepone” instead of saying “bring forward,” or “I will bring the needful” instead of saying “I'll do what is needed,” which may not be clear to multinational clients, further causes miscommunication. In short, knowing standard expressions offers a huge pay-off.
To become effective users of any language, one has to understand also the culture within which the language is used. Braj Kachru, a well-known linguist dubbed the “father” of World Englishes, once said that language and culture are intertwined.
To know and understand any language, one has to know and understand its culture as well. In the case of Filipinos, this does not seem to be a daunting task at all. The Philippines has long been prepared for this. With a century-old history of having been exposed to anything American, the Filipinos are more familiar with Western practices than other Asians.
This criterion might be frowned upon by other non-native English-speaking countries for fear of dampening their people’s sense of nationalism. Of course, for a non-native speaker of English to successfully know and understand the target language, he does not necessarily have to embrace the same set-up Filipinos have.
One practical advice Filipinos offer is that the support system to learn any language at the very least should be present. This means having a ready access to the English language inside and outside the classroom anytime.
In the Philippines, most signages and outdoor billboards are in English, there is a proliferation of Hollywood films in cinemas and American sitcoms on TV – without sub-titles in Filipino, official government documents are in English, as are nearly half of the local songs recorded (even as Top 40 songs from the US enjoy extensive airplay).
Parents use the English language with their children even before they go to school. Middle- to upper-class members of society use English when on the phone, when they e-mail, and when they chat. All these, they say, have never threatened their sense of patriotism, as patriotism – they argue – is what lies in one’s heart and soul.
With the ASEAN Economic Community starting in 2015, member-states are now busy preparing for the integration. Inasmuch as people are looking forward to enjoying the opportunities that the community-building will offer, it also brings with it challenges.
One of these is the people’s need to become competent players not only in their own countries, but also within the region. With competence closely tied to a worker’s communication skills, non-native speakers of English are faced with questions propelling them to reflect on whether they are as good or better than their counterparts in neighboring countries.
In the midst of all these, the Philippine experience may not necessarily be a perfect language learning model to the peoples of ASEAN. However, somewhere along the country's journey in making its citizens communicatively competent, perhaps some lessons can be picked up and put to good use. - Rappler.com
Analiza Perez-Amurao teaches research and writing courses at the Humanities and Languages Division of Mahidol University International College in Thailand. A finalist in the SEAMEO-Australia Press Award 2010, she holds a Postgrad Diploma in TESOL from RELC-Singapore and an MA in English Language and Literature Teaching from the Ateneo de Manila University. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Multicultural Studies at Mahidol University. Visit her website at www.analizaperez-amurao.com. Follow her tweets: @analiza_amurao.