State of English in the Philippines: Should we be concerned?

The Philippines is recognized globally as one of the largest English-speaking nations with majority of its population having at least some degree of fluency in the language. English has always been one of the official languages of the Philippines and is spoken by more than 14 million Filipinos. It is the language of commerce and law, as well as the primary medium of instruction in education. 

Proficiency in the language is also one of the country’s strengths that has helped drive the economy and even made the Philippines the top voice outsourcing destination in the world, surpassing India in 2012. The influx of foreign learners of English is also on the rise due to the relatively more affordable but quality English as a Second Language (ESL) programs being offered locally.

However, in a recent roundtable discussion organized by the British Council, key stakeholders from the government, academe, private, and non-government sectors acknowledged that even if the Philippines is doing fine in terms of English competency, concerns on how much of a competitive advantage it still is for the country were raised. The stakeholders agreed that the country needs to step up its efforts in improving the teaching and learning of English, developing it as a vital skill of the workforce. This is an initiative that could potentially strengthen the Philippines' distinct advantage in this part of the world, particularly with the upcoming ASEAN economic integration.

Gaps and Recommendations 

Enhancing the teaching of English in the Philippines presents opportunities for the country in the area of tourism. 

To maintain the Philippines’ strength as a major ESL destination, we need to address the gap in qualified ESL teachers and the issues around ensuring the quality of ESL schools. This also includes exploring how we can extend incentives to ESL schools and teachers,” shares Renee Marie Reyes, the Chief of the ESL Market Development Group under the Department of Tourism (DOT). DOT is encouraging local ESL schools to offer structured tour packages to ESL learners, the majority of whom come from South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan, by incorporating English learning activities into the travel experience.

Other participants from the government sector underscored the need for an interagency government body to regulate and support ESL provision in the country in order to further capitalize on its economic potential. 

Representatives from the academe focused on teacher training and professional development, highlighting the need for skills in differentiated instruction, materials development, and knowledge sharing.

Dr. Rosario Alonzo, Dean of the University of the Philippines College of Education, says that the College ensures this by emphasizing to its students that English is a skill to be used for communication. Education students focus on learner-centred teaching, and are taught to ask learners to do meaningful tasks using English. 

Our future teachers should ensure that English is a means of communication, rather than a set of facts to be learned,” says Dr. Alonzo. In the same way, the Department of Education focuses on the needs of learners and ensures that they learn the English language holistically, as specified under the K to 12 basic education framework.

There is also a greater imperative to further build on the English skills of the labour force, particularly of those in the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector. 

The demand for BPO services from the Philippines requires more than 1.3 million employees by 2016, which means that 300,000 more new employees need to be hired by next year,” says Zoe Diaz de Rivera, the QCCI Manager and Master Trainer of the IT and Business Process Association of the Philippines (IBPAP).

Representatives from the private sector also suggested corporate social responsibility programs to support teacher development, particularly in English language proficiency in teaching other subjects. They also recommend collaboration between the government and the private sector to address teacher and student language proficiency in the outlying communities.

The international and development organizations recognize the same gaps and agree with the recommendations of the other sectors. In addition, they propose to have a platform for information sharing and communication among stakeholders to avoid duplicating initiatives. 

These statements were made amid the decline of the quality of English in the Philippines while jobs in various industries that require certain levels of English communication skills are left unfilled. Statistics from the IBPAP show that today, only eight to 10 individuals are hired for every 100 applicants in the IT-BPO sector.

Nicholas Thomas, Country Director of the British Council Philippines, says that developing a wider knowledge of the English language is one of the British Council’s founding purposes.

Part of our work is to share best practice in the teaching and learning of English with partner countries all over the world. English has a distinctive place in the Philippine education system, and retaining high standards of English is critically important for the country’s economy and future development. We look forward to working with partners on more initiatives to support the teaching and learning of English here,” says Mr. Thomas.

For more information about the work of the British Council in English in the Philippines, please contact us at +63 2 555 3000 or visit our website

By Mike Cabigon