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English and the Competitive Edge

By Dr. Jaime S. Ong

Does a people's proficiency in the English language have anything to do with a country's ability to compete in the global economy? The American Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines (AmCham) has gotten a scolding for saying just that, or more precisely, for identifying the Filipino's loss of skills in English as a cause of the country's low standings in the latest World Competitiveness Scoreboard of the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) and the Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum.

The Amcham's critic is columnist Dr Isagani Cruz, Palanca Awards hall-of-famer and former undersecretary of education. In the Oct 28 issue of the Philippine Star, Cruz points out that a) the IMD's competitiveness criteria -- economic performance, government efficiency, business efficiency and infrastructure -- do not include or involve the language used in a country's business or education, and b) English is not the dominant tongue in the world's most competitive countries, with the exception of the United States. While conceding the correctness of Amcham's concern over infrastructure, governance, corruption and instability as factors that reduce competitiveness, Cruz admonishes the chamber to stick to its knitting and leave questions of language to the experts. His logic is unassailable. If the criteria used to evaluate competitiveness do not specify proficiency in English, then a nation that wishes to vie with others in the global arena must focus on those factors – a predictable business environment, investments in infrastructure and education, quality, efficiency and transparency in government -- which matter more than language skills. And yet, and yet. Is the Amcham totally off the mark when it deplores the loss of our ability to speak and read in the language of international business? Is it pontificating half-cocked on matters better left to scholars, or speaking from its knowledge of what makes for better business performance? Embedded in IMD's writeup on competitiveness, under its section on business efficiency, is the statement: "A skilled labor force increases a country's competitiveness." Should a labor force's marketable skills include English language proficiency? One out of four of the world’s seamen, serving as officers and crewmen of vessels sailing under all flags is a Filipino. Granting that having to keep millions of OFWs abroad so our economy stays

afloat is no reason to rejoice, what skills should we reinforce so that Filipino seafarers remain more

sought after than those of other nations?

Consider the following factoids, from bestselling author Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue (Penguin

Books, 1990):

For the airlines of 157 nations, English is the agreed international language of discourse. It is

also the official language among the member nations of the European Free Trade Association.

When companies from four European countries -- France, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland

(none of whom is an English-speaking country) -- formed a joint truck-making venture called Iveco,

they chose English as their working language because, as one founder wryly observed, "It puts us all at

an equal disadvantage."

For the same reasons, when Brown Boveri (Swiss) and ASEA (Swedish) merged in 1988, they

made English the company language. So did Volkswagen's factory in Shanghai, because its German

engineers don't speak Chinese and its Chinese managers don't speak German.

In France, the Pasteur Institute announced in 1989 that its famed international medical review

would appear only in English, because too few people read it in French.

There are more students of English in China than there are people in the United States.

There may be a connect after all between English and business viability.

Bryson is a professed Anglophile, but there's no disputing his assertion that "More than 300

million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to." (Unless you are

Henry Higgins, who laments, in My Fair Lady, that "There even are places where English completely

disappears. In America, they haven't used it for years!")

For the Amcham, then, and for just about any Filipino thinking about marketability and

competitiveness in the foreseeable future, the decline in English speaking and writing skills, as

evidenced by diagnostic tests administered among the nation's students, is a stentorian wake-up call. We

ignore it, or leave it to linguistics scholars to puzzle over, at our peril.

Dr J S Ong is chair, marketing management department, college of business & economics, De La Salle University.

These article are contributed by the CBE Faculty in the column of Business Focus of Manila Bulletin

published November 29, 2004