Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Bad English: In Australia and everywhere.

While some members of the Pinoy elite lament the decline of English competency among Filipinos, I recently read a feature article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on-line about Asians graduating from Australian universities with bad English!

The article does not place Filipinos among the Asians who graduate with poor English skills. Top on the list are South Koreans, followed by the Thais, Nepalese, Taiwanese and Chinese. Japanese students are midway on the list and suprisingly, citizens of former British colonies like India and Singapore (who have aggressive government sponsored promotion of the English language) are also on the list.

I suppose Australia's regulators of educational institutions (such as the Vice Chancellors Committee) were rocked by the report. The Education Minister Julia Bishop was very concerned. I did my degree in Australia and I know it for a fact that a month or two before the semester starts, overseas students are required to take English courses. Depending on the level of proficiency one may take a two week course (which most Pinoys do) and or a semester's worth of intensive English.

There are no exceptions unless you come from a country where English is the first language. I had an Ateneo. La Salle, UST and of course UP alums (presumably the top schools at home) in my English class and we found that we still had trouble with prepositions!

The Australians are now looking into the problem. According to some academics there is an anecdotal mountain of evidence that some universities lower the English requirement of courses to help overseas students with their studies. Universities are hesistant to institute more remedial English courses since this adds to costs.

From my experience, the Asian students who I worked with could function in Australian society speaking English although at times they may need some assistance. I had a lab mate from Taiwan who arrived with limited English skills and by the time she was awarded her PhD four years later, she could explain to me major themes in Confucius' philosophy and how it relates to Chinese cooking in a clear manner, in English!

Like all newly learned languages, English has to be used. What is probably happening with Asian students in Australia is that they may not be integrating with the wider Australian society than they should thereby missing out on daily English use.

Now to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA. I am a visiting prof here and there are a lot of Asian students. There are a lot of Asian profs too. I don't think the Asians have a big problem in English at all. My housemate is an Iranian PhD student who just arrived in the country before the fall term. His English is not that bad but he still building a good vocabulary. This could be remedied by reading, and this he does.

Filipinos may rejoice that we are not in the Aussie list. For one thing very few Filipinos are full fee paying students in Australia. Most Filipino students are on Philippine and Australian government scholarships. They have been screened by a rigorous process of selection. It is not surprising that they have above average English proficiency. As the Philippine economy strengthen we may see even middle-class families considering an overseas education for their kids. When these students attend university, then this is the real test of Filipino students proficiency in English in Australian universities.

However, I disagree with the Inquirer letter writer who attended an American university. She says that scientific skills are more important than English language skills. She gives her Chinese PhD student roomate as an example. I believe that scientific skills and English language skills are both important. The Chinese PhD student will have to defend her dissertation in English and publish her first academic papers in English. Of course she will get the assistance of English speaking professors but in the end she has to write these herself if she is to get a plum post-PhD appointment.

The letter writer does not mention that these Chinese and Indian soon-to-be PhDs will be largely returning to their home countries. China and India are rapidly expanding economies and jointly will likely give the United States a run for its money. Thus there are countless opportunities where these science skills are needed. It is likely that they would be using their science in their own language environment. English will not be widely used by these graduates unless in international communication.

As for us Pinoys studying overseas, you may not like what I say, but your first task after graduation is to find a job in your host country. Going home is barely a second choice. I can't blame you. We have very little opportunity in the country although the opportunities are indeed growing.

But our economic expansion is predicated by the remittances you would send to Inang Bayan. Probably 20% of the Philippines GDP is based on your remittances. Why should I berate you? To paraphrase another foreign student, Jose Rizal, I myself share your weaknesses.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA


juned said...

I would agree that it is still important to learn English. And like all languages in order to become more adept at it one has to use it.

Geraldine said...

I was the one who wrote a letter to Inquirer which you reacted to.

The point I'm trying to make is that Filipinos love to highlight their mastery of the English language over their Asian neighbours and there is a pervading delusion that such is enough and we should pat ourselves in the back

And it isn't. And we shouldn't.

Our poor English speaking Asian neighbours are beefing up their homegrown R&D capabilities whereas the Philippines has not. Singapore has been aggressively promoting itself as the haven of stem cell research and succesfully "pirated" well-known scientists to work in their laboratory.

Our neighbours are graduating more and more scientists and engineers than we are.

If the choice is indeed dichotomous - either we focus on English or we focus on science and engineering - I would pick the latter.

I will pick another example instead of my MIT experience.

Just look at Japan. It's the 2nd wealthiest country in the world due to their engineering and innovation capabilities definitely not their ability to speak English. For instance, they are leading the way to fuel cell powered vehicles. If Japan did not have enough scientists and engineers and R&D capabilities, they would not have been able to do that. And no, they didn't have to speak excellent English to do this.

きら(Kay) said...

Yes I agree with geraldine. I am a Japanese PhD student in Australia. English skill of the Japanese is terrible, but it does not matter in most of cases. The problems occur when one gets into the English-speaking world.

My question is, "What is English?" (or should be). As a university tutor, I am facing a problem that Australian local students cannot spell Australian English. Due to Ameriacisation, many students mix Australian spelling with American one. Spelling inconsistency is a serious issue but many Australian students do not care.

While writing my thesis, I have realised that only a few people can tell me what Australian English is or not.

My silly idea tells me that one day we will have "Asian English" like European English already exists. I really agree with blackshama and juned, it is important to learn English, but which type of English?

When one says Australia is in the Asia-Pacific region, Australian English could be a common English in the region. But their English is becoming broken, so who can validate what the proper English is? Not only English but all language is becoming broken anyway.

Hope I can improve my English more while I am studying in Australia... but how I can probe my English to the rest of the world when Australian English becomes bad?