English and our future
by Michael Tan

Phil Daily Inquirer, "Pinoy Kasi"
23 January 2003

MICROSOFT'S Bill Gates recently toured Asia, spending time in India and China to discuss possibilities of expanding his company's investments. A few weeks after Gates' visit, the Chinese government announced that it was looking for Filipinos to teach English in China.

The two developments are closely related, the recruitment of English language teachers being part of China's attempts to upgrade its global competitiveness in the information technology (IT) industry.

Back in February 2001 there was an article in the business magazine Forbes, reviewing the software outsourcing industry. Outsourcing involves companies in developed countries, mainly American, contracting out certain tasks such as software programming to developing countries, where labor is cheaper.

There was a table in that Forbes article showing the countries leading in this outsourcing industry. At the top of the list was India, with some 300,000 available trained professionals. China was also in the table with 400,000 trained professionals, but the article noted that only 35,000 were considered to be high-level professionals, mainly because others lacked proficiency in English.

There were three more countries on the list that were considered to be main contenders for the share in this global software outsourcing industry: Russia with about 4,000 trained professionals, Pakistan with 23,000, and the Philippines with 30,000 to 50,000.

The software outsourcing industry is huge. Last Tuesday's South China Morning Post estimates that in the Asia-Pacific region alone, the software outsourcing industry generated some 30 billion dollars in revenues in 2002, with the figures expected to rise this year as the financial crisis in the United States drives companies to cut back costs, again by tapping cheaper labor in Asia.

Back in 2001, according to the Forbes article, India's software outsourcing contracts already generated revenues of six billion dollars. That's not loose change; that amount is equivalent to what our overseas Filipino workers send home each year. It's a tantalizing thought: If outsourcing generates enough well-paying jobs locally, it could mean many more Filipinos staying to work rather than going overseas. Remember there are many other segments of the global outsourcing industry, from cartoon animation and customer service call centers to distance education.

The race is on to learn English. The Thai government is investing the equivalent of one billion dollars to train schoolteachers for English. English language schools have sprouted all over Asian cities, much like corner convenience stores. With the richer countries, such as South Korea, young people go off to the States, Australia, or the Philippines to learn English.

China's recruitment of teachers from the Philippines tells us what their goals are. They're not after perfect spoken English; all they need to develop computer software is reading and writing comprehension, for which Filipinos can provide training. My fear is that when the Chinese do attain some of this English proficiency, they'll beat us to the software outsourcing market. Labor costs are cheaper in China, and more importantly, the Chinese have much stronger skills in science and math.

Mind you, the Chinese aren't interested simply in developing software programs for Bill Gates and other American computer firms. They're enticing the giant computer companies to set up shop in China, not just to generate jobs but also to bring in knowledge, skills and technology so that eventually they can develop their own computer industry.

Our view of English is different. On the part of the elite, English is a prestige language, a social marker of "class" to use for shopping in London or New York. For the elite, too, English is a way to migrate overseas and get a job in some large company. Others end up in the United Nations or some international development agency teaching other countries how to solve their problems.

For the masses, we provide rudimentary training, enough to export them as caregivers, construction workers, seafarers, entertainers. Certainly, they're all honest jobs that keep millions of Filipino families afloat, but we serve the world at the cost of neglecting local needs.

We're always poking fun at the accents our Asian neighbors have when they speak English but they'll have the last laugh yet because right now, they're using their English, however rudimentary and accented, to generate economic opportunities.

The Singaporeans for example, are already looking beyond information technologies, given the downturn in the market for computers. Browse through international science journals and you'll find ads from the Singaporean government, inviting foreign research firms and scientists to set up shop in Singapore for biotechnology, an exciting new field with many potential applications, from agriculture to medicine.

The Singaporeans offer strong infrastructure support in terms of laboratory facilities, efficient communications networks, plus a local corps of scientists who speak English. Typically Singaporean, the government launched a movement two or three years ago to discourage the use of "Singlish" (something like "Taglish") in favor of "real" English.

We cannot remain content exporting Filipinos with some English proficiency. We need to move on, looking into how we can further improve our English to facilitate our access to information and skills, which we can then use to develop our local industries, and our economy. Ultimately, the goal should be to encourage more Filipinos to work in the Philippines, speaking both Filipino and English.

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