Call centers’ hang-up: English skills

By Carlos H. Conde
Published: November 20, 2006

DAVAO CITY, Philippines: Two years ago, Angeli Boteros spoke English like an American teenager. A lifetime of watching American television and movies left her sentences peppered with the trademark phrases of American youth, including “like” and “you know.”

Like many young Filipinos, Boteros, 26, is so steeped in American pop culture, and has such a good accent, that on the phone, she could pass herself off as a girl from California.

Over the past year, she has been doing exactly that. As a call-center agent at GCom, Boteros helps customers half a world away with problems with their purchased products or services.

“My friends used to tease me because of the way I speak English,” Boteros said at a café in this booming southern Philippine city. “Not anymore.”

Davao City is one of several areas outside Manila where call-center companies have been venturing to take advantage of the low labor costs and excess manpower in the provinces.

But there has been concern lately that the industry’s growth may be limited by the deterioration of its main advantage: the English proficiency of the work force. According to a study by the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, 75 percent of the more than 400,000 Filipino students that graduate from college each year have “sub-standard English skills.”

A survey in June by the Business Processing Association of the Philippines found that English proficiency is among the top three areas the country should seek to improve, behind only the Philippines’s poor international image and political stability.

“English proficiency is also an urgent impediment to growth,” the group said in the study.

The same survey indicated that most call-center companies hired only 5 percent to 10 percent of the job applicants that they interviewed, mainly because of inadequate English proficiency.

The Philippine Congress last month responded to those concerns by passing a law restoring English as the primary medium of instruction from high school onward.

The Philippines is always referred to as an English-speaking country, with more than 95 percent of the population able to speak or understand the language. A legacy of U.S. colonialism meant that English was the medium of instruction in schools for decades.

But in 1987, the Education Department adopted a bilingual program to promote the use of Tagalog, the other official language. The government was prompted by studies indicating that children tended to learn better in their native languages. Over the years, Tagalog became more commonly used in schools, pushing out English. Yet English has always been a major investor attraction and a source of pride for a people known for their “colonial mentality,” the preference for anything imported or “made in USA.”

Experts describe the deterioration of English proficiency as part of an overall decline in Philippine education.

Then there’s the rise of “Taglish,” a highly popular bastardized language based on Tagalog and English that skews all the rules of grammar and usage. Moreover, a majority of news shows on TV and radio are in local dialects.

Senator Edgardo Angara, a former educator who co-authored the new law, described the problem as a “ticking bomb.”

Such a “rapid decline in the English competency of Filipinos would eventually erode the competitiveness of the country’s human resources, both here and abroad,” he said after its passage.

Mitchell Locsin, executive director of the Business Processing Association of the Philippines, conceded there was a problem but pointed to initiatives under way to solve it. Business groups led by the European Chamber of Commerce have likewise begun a program called “English is Cool!” There have also been suggestions to integrate what some called “call center subjects” – with emphasis on how to speak better English – into school curriculums.

Peter Wallace, an Australian business consultant based in Manila who advises several multinational companies, said that the Philippines could be a major player in information technology, in the call-center industry, even in health care services and tourism. “But only if it speaks English,” he said.

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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2 Responses to Call centers’ hang-up: English skills

  1. Pingback: Davao Today -- News, commentary, analysis, reports from Davao City, the Philippines

  2. Andrew says:

    Here in Davao, English is like a people repellant. Schools here have become so substandard it’s not a surprise that most people can’t speak decent English. If you can speak English well you become a conversation piece, a novelty perhaps, and that won’t change until everyone else chooses to smart up.

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