Asia grapples with need to improve English proficiency

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Mar 23 15:34:36 UTC 2005

JULY 30, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 30

>>From classrooms to boardrooms, Asia grapples with the need to improve its
proficiency in English

Munshi Ahmed for Asiaweek

Singapore's bilingual education policy requires students to learn English
as well as their mother tongue KEEP YOUR RIFLE CLEAN, your boots polished,
and follow orders. That used to be enough to become a good soldier - but
not any more. "You will not rise in rank if your English is way beyond
help," says Philippines Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado. What? We know
that bankers, computer engineers and hoteliers need English. But soldiers?
Mercado is firm; English proficiency is as essential for a military career
in the Philippines as the ability to march and salute. "A lot of
information, procedures, official forms, our legal system, our management
manuals, are all in English," he says. It's another sign that anyone in
Asia who wants to avoid spending his or her professional life as a foot
soldier has to ask a simple question: "Is my English good enough?"

English, the de facto global language, is turning from a mere useful skill
into a prerequisite for access to the best jobs and the highest incomes.
"In technology, business and diplomacy, a command of English is
essential," says Najib Tun Razak, Malaysia's minister of education. Of
course, Asia has long known the importance of being able to communicate in
English - historical, political and economic ties with the United States
and Britain made sure of that. Now, though, the demand for more and better
English is increasing so fast that individuals, companies and entire
countries are wondering if they can keep up. "There is a growing concern
within the government that we have to make a very conscious effort to
improve proficiency in English throughout the educational system," says
Najib. "It is important for Malaysians to have a good command of English,
particularly if we want to be an important global player." Ditto the rest
of Asia.

technology. Highlighting the challenge is the Internet, where 80% of Web
pages are in English. Since the biggest companies, the hottest startups
and the best research institutions are in the U.S., the industry and the
technology dance to English lyrics. "Our students have no future in the
information technology universe if they cannot command English as an
effective medium of communication," warns Joseph Wong Wing-ping, Hong
Kong's secretary for education and manpower. And computer technology is
changing the way other businesses work - giving English-speakers an edge.
Most spreadsheets, databases and other productivity-enhancing programs
first come out in English, so those awaiting local-language versions must
watch while rivals steal a march. Meanwhile, advanced communications allow
work to be done anywhere on the globe where there are English-language
skills. India, already riding a boom as its English-proficient programmers
handle Y2K bug fixes for clients from Iceland to Indonesia, now wants to
grab a chunk of mundane clerical and other back-office tasks that
multinationals are increasingly shifting overseas via the Internet.

Even without the IT boom, the globalization of business has been raising
the need for English. As Asian economies move up the value chain, shifting
from manufacturing to services, and becoming home to more foreign
investors, the ability to communicate grows increasingly important. No
longer is it sufficient for a factory's top manager to be able to decipher
a telexed English-language order. Everyone, from the president to the
receptionist, is likely to have to talk to English-speakers. Dennis Wong,
managing director of the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Hong Kong, says
deals are closed, contracts are signed and ideas are presented all in
English. "I have written no more than five documents in Chinese since I
joined advertising 20 years ago," he notes. And it is not just a matter of
speaking with Westerners. "Most Southeast Asian tourists speak English as
an automatic first language when they come to Hong Kong," points out John
Girard of the Omni Hong Kong Hotel.

Beyond its importance in day-to-day business, English is now the prime
language of learning - perhaps even of thought. "Books on current findings
are almost entirely in English," Malaysian Education Minister Najib points
out. "We do not have the capacity to translate each and every book. If you
have low proficiency, your access [to new knowledge] will be cut off."
This is true not only in science and technology but in economics,
management, finance - in every field where Asia stumbled into its recent
Crisis. "The common denominator of the countries that have done best in
this age of dashed expectations is that they are the countries where
English is spoken," U.S. economist Paul Krugman said in a recent issue of
Fortune. Besides the fact that English is the language of technology and
of business, Krugman reckons that English-speaking countries were largely
immunized against the Crisis by the ideological groundswell they underwent
in the 1980s in favor of open markets and against government intervention.
"Perhaps the rest of the advanced world missed the tide because it
couldn't read [economist] Milton Friedman in the original," he said, only
half in jest.

For Asians, the importance of English in winning promotions is obvious.
But just to join the Bank of the Philippine Islands, candidates have to
pass written and oral tests "all conducted in English," says Dina Orosa,
vice president for human resources. "The bottom line is, everybody should
know how to express himself in English, [even if] not necessarily in
perfect English," she says. Professionals used to be able to hide behind
their qualifications, but not anymore, especially now that jobs are tight
in the aftermath of the Crisis. "I expected all my expatriate clients to
bring a [Bahasa-speaking] interpreter, which was appropriate to my
position," says accountant Fransisca Lesut in Jakarta. But since the bank
that employed her closed down earlier this year, she has been studying
English at the Indonesia-America Institute. "If the employer has to choose
one of two candidates with similar technical qualifications, but one
candidate's English is much better, he will get priority," Lesut says. She
is right.

Yet even as the importance of English is rising, proficiency in much of
Asia remains poor - though not necessarily at the top of some companies.
Charles Johnson, manager of industrial services at International
Environmental Management in Bangkok, says he is impressed by the level of
fluency he encounters among engineering staff. "Most people with technical
skills speak English very well, so I haven't had to stretch myself." But
below a certain educational level, English fades and disappears in the
Thai workplace, Johnson says. The situation is better in former British
colonies such as Malaysia, but standards seem to be falling there too.
"There has been a slow but steady decline in English-language skills,
especially among support staff - secretaries, drivers, non-professionals,"
says James Travis, director of technical services at Perwaja Steel in
Kuala Lumpur. Business still gets done, but clients have a slightly harder
time reaching the right people, managers have to watch over their staff a
little more closely and everything is subject to a bit more friction -
until someone decides that enough is enough and cancels an order or
relocates an office. James Tien Pei-chun, chairman of Hong Kong's
pro-business Liberal Party, says locals will lose jobs to Shanghai unless
their English improves. So worried are the Liberals they have begun
putting up public billboards around the city proclaiming "Use English.
Keep Hong Kong International."

Why have so many Asians tried so hard for so long to learn English, with
so little to show for it? In Beijing, 14-year old Wang Shaolin reacts to
"Did you have a good week?" with a blank stare, despite almost five years
of English in school. "I haven't learned that yet," she responds in
Chinese. Traditions of rote learning are part of the problem. "As long as
queries have a direct relation with the text book, an unsuspecting
observer might think that the level of most students is okay," says Imara
Johnpulle, who teaches in Beijing. A professor in the Philippines, where
"cool" students and even instructors liberally mix English and Tagalog in
the same sentence, notes that usually smooth understanding can stumble
when abstract concepts come up. He once failed to get an answer to the
question, "What are the two currents of socialist thought?" because (he
later learned) his student did not know the meaning of the word

In some cultures, students are throttled by the fear of looking foolish.
"I am ashamed so much for making a grammatical mistake," confesses Takei
Takashi, a Tokyo college student. "My major challenge is to overcome such
psychology." Poorly trained instructors don't help. "I saw a teacher
pronouncing 'the' as 'ta-hee,' so it was 'ta-hee boy' and 'ta-hee girl,'"
says Rung Kaewdaeng, secretary general of the Office of the National
Education Commission in Bangkok.

Such problems mean that the years of English that many Asian school
systems require are wasted. Education authorities are well aware of this
and are starting to emphasize practical usage over grammar and
memorization. "Look at textbooks today and you will see how completely
different they are from those we used to study," says Fukuda Hiroshi, a
Japanese Education Ministry official in charge of foreign-language
teaching in high schools. But he acknowledges that progress is slow and
not always obvious.

Some Japanese are not prepared to wait for a government fix. After
returning home from two years in the U.S., Goto Minako and her husband
decided to send their two daughters, 13 and 10, to an international school
in Tokyo. Goto speaks hardly any English but her children are now fluent.
"Our children love the freedom and creativity in their school. They
display a confidence and maturity that Japanese children don't have," she

In South Korea - a laggard if ever there were one in the use of English -
the prestigious Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology this
year began asking bilingual professors to teach their regular engineering
and computer courses in English. School president Choi Duk In agrees that
that both teachers and students had trouble at first, but says the
experiment is working. "Some have mixed feelings, but they know they
should do this," he says. About 13% of courses are now in English. Choi
wants to push that up to 20% as soon as possible.

Malaysia went the other way in the 1970s. It introduced Bahasa Malaysia as
the language of instruction in government schools, teaching English as a
subject. Now Hong Kong and the Philippines are making similar switches
(see story). Mother-tongue instruction often carries nationalistic ideals
but has a pedagogical purpose as well - children are said to absorb
instruction more easily in their native language than in English. But
critics say these countries are squandering their linguistic advantage.

One other problem is whether the English that some Asians speak is really
English. Singaporeans, probably the most proficient in English in the
region, use "Singlish," a distinctive way of talking that identifies them
wherever they are. "When [children] listen to Singlish in local radio and
TV programs, they assume that this brand of English is acceptable," frets
an Education Ministry spokesman. But Tommy Koh, the city-state's
ambassador-at-large, is not too worried. "I would be concerned if we spoke
only Singlish because then our ability to communicate with the world would
be diminished," he says. "I wouldn't be concerned if there is a steady
increase in our fluency in standard English at the same time."

Sometimes, what appears to be a decline in English proficiency is more
perception than reality. At one time, fluency in English was the preserve
of the urban wealthy, the only group that had dealings with foreigners.
Now, as more people with origins in the countryside join commercial and
civic life, fluent English speakers are declining proportionately. But the
total number of English communicators may be rising. Says Nigel Bruce,
principal language instructor at the University of Hong Kong: "What we're
seeing is an increasing number of people admitted to higher education,
more people competent to use English in international business, and the
disappearance of those who went to elitist secondary schools and to
overseas universities." Truly atrocious - and commercially perilous -
English has also become largely a thing of the past. Martin van Hameren, a
Belgian businessman dealing in agricultural technology, recalls being
completely dependent on incompetent translators when he first went to
China 15 years ago. "We were talking about 10,000 kilos, while they
thought it was 100,000," he says of one near disaster. "You don't see
those problems anymore."

Is there a minimum level of English that an economy needs, below which it
will hemorrhage industries and jobs? That is difficult to say. While tiny
Hong Kong may need more English-speakers than Japan, with its huge
domestic market, language is just one part of an equation that includes
factors such as infrastructure, costs and location. Nonetheless, English
is the language that offers the single biggest market, the largest pool of
talent, the most educational and research capabilities, and the greatest
probability of being able to communicate with anybody else on the planet.

And it hasn't suddenly happened in the age of the Internet. Over a century
ago, Japan's first education minister, Mori Arinori, predicted: "Our
meager language, which can never be of any use outside our islands, is
doomed to yield to the domination of the English tongue, especially when
the power of steam and electricity have pervaded the land." For a long
time, Mori appeared to have got it all wrong as Japan caught up with and
seemingly overtook the West. Now, he is sounding a bit more prescient.

One day, the English-dominated computer industry may give us flawless,
simultaneous translations. But that's for the future. Right now, English
remains a bridge for individuals, companies and countries in Asia to help
themselves out of the Crisis and into the next millennium. And, yes, it
will get you out of mess duty in the Philippine armed forces.

- With reports by Julian Gearing / Bangkok, Anne Meijdam / Beijing,
Yulanda Chung / Hong Kong, Dewi Loveard / Jakarta, Santha Oorjitham /
Kuala Lumpur, Raissa Robles / Manila, John Larkin / Seoul, Jacintha
Stephens / Singapore, Murakami Mutsuko / Tokyo and Suvendrini Kakuchi /

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