One of the Philippines’ major selling points to attract foreign direct investment has been the claim that the country is “an English-speaking nation.” This has been one of the main factors attracting BPO investment, which has created over 1 million new jobs, so clearly the claim has a justifiable basis.
When I worked in China for a major multinational, one of my primary roles was to negotiate to secure oil and gas concessions, a task demanding many face-to-face meetings with Chinese government representatives and their negotiating teams. The standard approach to handling the language and communication issue [as I do not speak fluent Chinese]was for the company to employ translators to interpret what I was saying to the “other side,” an approach that was far less than satisfactory.
The translators were of course Chinese. They would turn what they thought I meant into a Chinese version that was then sent across the table to draw a response that was then translated by the interpreter into the English words that she thought would convey the intended meaning. All of which brings to mind the old UK joke about the First World War with soldiers passing messages from one trench to the next. The commander passes the message, “Send reinforcements, we are going to advance,” which by the time it reaches trench number ten has become “Send 3 and four pence, we are going to a dance!“ In order to try to improve the level of negotiation communication, I required the Chinese side to use English-speaking negotiators, which they did and from which time the quality of discussion and progress improved significantly and with good results for my multinational.
Thanks to the widespread use of English in business, there is rarely if ever any need for translation in the Philippines and, despite the worry that the use of a foreign language not only in business but also in legal and regulatory matters would impinge on national character and identity, there is little doubt in my mind that it is highly beneficial to economic development not only at home but also in facilitating opportunities for the 13 million or so overseas Filipino workers and their very significant contribution to the domestic economy.
I just saw a claim in the Indian news that “foreigners prefer to use Sanskrit for technical matters.” I cannot imagine how such a claim would be justified! Much knowledge is recorded in English and even the work and thoughts of the old Greek philosophers are mostly used in English translations rather than the original Greek. It really is so difficult and restricting to enforce the use of a national language to the exclusion of others, particularly in a nation such as the Philippines that has so much dependence on the rest of the world.
There was an editorial in this newspaper a few weeks ago questioning why the President always gives his speeches in Filipino. It drew quite some negative comment from readers who seemed to think that of course he should give his speeches in the national language rather than following his predecessors who usually gave their speeches in English. While it would be easier for me and the international community to know what he said, his first duty is to the 100 million Filipinos, an increasing number of whom do not have the English-language competency of their forebears.
Despite what the Chinese may like to believe that the world is going to suddenly change to one in which Chinese is the lingua franca. In simple terms, it’s just too difficult a transition, which even the Chinese are now learning, but alas they are unlikely to take up Filipino if they want to holiday in the Philippines as ever increasing numbers of them seem to like to do.
It is my view that the use of English in the Philippines should be further encouraged rather than being tacitly discouraged as now seems to be the case. It should be a prime language of education. Competence in English opens up fields of knowledge that are not all available in Filipino and, more important, it opens up job opportunities both at home and abroad. Don’t view its use as a threat to national identity, see it as the differentiator it is proclaimed to be.
Mike can be contacted at email@example.com.