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For Filipinos, English proficiency is fading

Spoken English is no longer the official language in the Philippines. Filipino businesses bemoan the loss of Filipino English speakers. The government is responding with mandatory English proficiency classes in schools.

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Call-center agents, Filipinos chatting on their headsets to inquiring English-speaking customers half a world away, were supposed to provide the answer to the Philippines’ economy. They could be drawn from the country’s famously large pool of English speakers to tap into the lucrative offshoring and outsourcing (O&O) market.

But employers in the industry say they now have to reject 95 of 100 job applicants because their English proficiency is inadequate.

A country where spoken English once ranked as an official language has seen its collective proficiency slide over the years, even as the economic importance of the lingua franca has grown. The decline stems in part from nationalist campaigns to promote Filipino and from inattention in schools, which the government is taking steps to undo.

“I believe that every Filipino who wants to work in a call center and whose English is good enough to work in a call center is already working in a call center,” says one foreign O&O manager, who asked not to be identified.

Shrinking labor supply

The Philippine economy creates so few jobs that one-tenth of the population of 90 million work abroad, and their remittances account for about 10 percent of gross domestic product.

The Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP), which represents the bulk of the O&O industry, had hoped that by the end of 2010 O&O would indirectly contribute about 8.5 percent of GDP and directly employ 900,000 people.

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