In recent years an abundance of English speakers helped win outsourcing contracts in the business process and call centre sectors, one of the few areas of the nation's economy that is actually expanding.

But even that lifeline in appears a tenuous one as fears surface over a sharp decline in English compounded by falling school standards and a mass exodus of linguistically skilled professionals.

Business leaders are starting to question just how long the country can go on touting its English skills.

Some local and foreign business groups are so concerned they have started their own language centres to fill the gaps left by a deteriorating school system.

The European Chamber of Commerce said recently that 75% of the country's annual 400,000 college graduates have "sub-standard English skills".

With an exodus of teachers, especially in English and math, to  better paying jobs overseas the country's education system is fast deteriorating.

Ticking bomb

Senator Edgardo Angara recently described the deterioration of the country's school system as a "ticking bomb".

"We have practically squandered our intellectual capital," he said at a seminar.

He said that in all international achievement tests, the Philippines is rated near the bottom in all subjects.

Education standards in schools
have deteriorated sharply

"That is a reflected in the fast deterioration of our education  standards both in public and private schools."

Official achievement tests given to graduating high school  students in the 2004-2005 school year showed that only 6.59% could read, speak, and comprehend English well enough to enter college, and 44.25% had no English at all.

Eduardo Gullas, who filed a bill in 2004 to make English the  medium of instruction at all levels in schools, has said that the rapid decline in English competency would "eventually erode the competitiveness of the country's human resources, both here and abroad, in an increasingly globalised village".

His bill is still sitting in the House of Representatives gathering dust.

Stiff competition

"The employment of Filipinos overseas will soon be overtaken by China and India," Gullas said.

 He said that Filipino engineers in the Middle East risk being dislodged by Indian and Chinese engineers who not only speak better English, but analyse and write reports in English better.

Concerned with the decline in education, especially in English,  the American and European chambers of commerce have begun training programmes in an attempt to reverse the trend.

"We have practically squandered our intellectual capital"

Senator Edgardo Angara

The European Chamber, along with local business groups, recently launched a programme called "English is Cool!" intended to revive the popularity of English among the country's youth.

In a globalised economy, "English is a ticket to the future",  the chamber said, adding that only three out of 100 applicants meet proficiency standards of the outsourcing industry.

For programme director Rina Tanchoco the decline of English among Filipinos is "definitely repairable and reversible".

The Makati Business Club's Philippines-US Business Council and the American Chamber of Commerce are aiming their English proficiency programme at teachers, students, and the workforce.

Primary medium

The programme hopes to have 50 computerised English language centres operating in the Philippines with 250 teachers and 42,000  students trained and certified within three years.

Gloria Arroyo, the Philippine president, has ordered the education department to make English the primary medium of instruction nationwide, although the decree does not have the force of law to compel schools to do comply.

Although some subjects will still be taught in the national  language, Tagalog, Filipinos must recognise that English makes it internationally competitive, Arroyo said in a policy speech earlier this year.

Arroyo wants English to be made
the prime medium of instruction

The decline of English sounds painful for Matthew Gray, an  American who trains Filipinos to speak with American accents for jobs at call centres.

"Filipinos are pretty good but they still have lapses with their  tenses, verb usage, subject-verb agreement - the basics," the Call Centre Academy accent trainer told AFP.

Peter Wallace, president of The Wallace Business Forum which regularly surveys foreign businesses in this country, said that only 6% of people interviewed for jobs in call centres had the required skills in English.

"So it's hard to see how the Philippines can compete with  elsewhere," Wallace said.

Decline's causes

There is plenty of blame to go around, with Gray faulting  text messaging and the popularity of foreign soap operas dubbed into the Filipino language.

The kind of things that we see on television promotes the  bastardisation of the English language. We accept what the media feeds us"

Neil Perez,
University of Santo Tomas,
Manila University

"There has been a steady decline from the time when the  Philippines took pride in itself as one of the best English-speaking nations," Neil Perez, an English and literature lecturer at Manila's University of Santo Tomas, said.

Perez blames the decline on the influence of pop culture and  domestic media, where the dominant language is Taglish, a  combination of Tagalog and English.

"The common language of everybody is this hybrid language taglish," he said.

"It has become the standard rather than the  exception.

"The kind of things that we see on television promotes the  bastardisation of the English language. We accept what the media feeds us."