If we are so good in English, why aren’t we rich?


For decades, we have billed ourselves as an English-speaking country. We proudly claim that one advantage we have over other countries is our ability to speak English. We even laugh at nationals of other countries who, in our view, speak terrible English.

I also thought the same way, until I was interviewed by a foreign correspondent from a newspaper with the largest circulation in a foreign country. He said he was puzzled and asked, “If you Filipinos are so good in English, how come you are not rich ?”

He was puzzled, he said. Thousands of Asians, particularly Koreans and Japanese come to the Philippines to study English so that they will have good careers and prosperous lifestyles. Many more learn English in language schools using call center technology. They are taught by Filipinos. Their students move on to higher studies or to better jobs while the lot of their Filipino teachers remain unchanged. How come, he asked.

Firstly, I answered him, not all Filipinos speak and write English correctly. Those who teach in English language schools are a special group; they undergo intensive training. The English they speak is not really typical of the English spoken by most Filipinos. Filipinos generally speak Filipino English and all its hilarious variants.

We are not necessarily an English-speaking country. We are a Filipino-English speaking country.

One reason is the educational system. Our cohort survival rate is appalling. This means that few Filipinos successfully finish elementary education; fewer still finish high school; and very few finish higher education. A farmer’s child who has not even finished elementary school cannot work in an English language school or a call center.

Because of limited educational opportunities, the kind of English most Filipinos speak is not sufficient for them to innovate, create, and produce new technology, create business empires, and manage financial and investment houses. For many Filipinos their English is just enough for them to work as salesgirls, factory workers and clerks. I told the correspondent and his Filipino assistant—all you need to do is watch TV or listen to the radio to hear typical Filipino English.

Secondly, problems of endemic, deep-seated poverty prevent young people from finishing their studies or going to schools which give good, useful training in English.

Thirdly, working in a call center teaching English is a” dead end” job. It does not offer a career path where one can start at the bottom and work his or her way to the top. Many young people consider a call center job as a way-station to better things, if there are such opportunities. They usually leave after a year or two because job-related stress and the health risks are too high. The chances of their becoming business moguls or taipans are not likely.

Thirdly, and most importantly, being an “English-speaking country” does not necessarily guarantee progress, development and prosperity for a country. As we all know, many of the “old” countries which became rich and industrialized are not English-speaking. Five of the G-8 countries—France, Russia, Germany, Japan and Italy are not English-speaking. The BRICS group of newly emerging industrialized countries–Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, with the possible exception of India, are not English-speaking either.

The case of prosperous Asian countries is interesting, e.g. Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. They developed first before they tried to learn more English.

While the ability to speak English might be useful, there are many factors which lead to development–national planning, technology, innovation, material resources, good governance and many others.

Going back to the original question. if we are an English-speaking country, how come we are not rich? The answer–English is not necessarily the sole key to prosperity. Even if it were, many Filipinos can only speak Filipino English.


Please follow our commenting guidelines.


  1. Exactly. All that English did in our education from K-12 did is to dispel our Filipino-ness, which stunted our cultural evolution and advancement- creating a nation of “assimilated savages” -which in turn transformed an abundant paradise into a desert.

    The undercurrent of opening ourselves up to foreign languages- is to accept without question, the way of life and ideas not natural to our ecosystem- thus we blindly step upon our own treasures, forcing discord to dispel our integrity and self-respect. The operating process for advancement and innovation is to ask intelligent questions; and what drives people and nations to attain the 3D’s to success: Direction, Discipline and Determination is anchored in a strong sense of self, self-respect, and national identity.

  2. I am an English major and holds a license in teaching English in the Philippines. She is right in saying that teaching English in schools require intensive training and that those who can speak English but are not trained intensively proceed to jobs in sales, etc. I think the reason why our country, the Philippines, cannot lift itself from having an image of a third-world country is that our expertise are used by other countries. Those people who are good in different industries and can do well in English move to other countries and not as an Overseas Filipino Worker but as an immigrant. Thus, people who are uneducated and not capable of handling technical jobs are lessen. Only few of us stay here. The compensation for professionals is relatively lower compared to the compensation offered by other countries. Also, it has something to do with the culture. Many Filipinos prefer to have a happy and decent life than to have a wealthy but miserable life. Filipinos easily get contented to what they have and do not wish for anymore but merely to stay with the people they love.

  3. Antonio Reyes on

    In the first place, it is not a valid question. English is neither a guarantee nor a prerequisite for economic prosperity or financial success – just as a superior IQ does not guarantee success either. Many members of Mensa are not successful professionals.

    A good command of English (or any language for that matter) could only be an advantage if the competition is less eloquent, as exemplified by higher paying jobs enjoyed by the more articulate amongst us, whether in the Philippines or abroad, in whatever field.

    With regard to the question of economic prosperity in the Philippines – or the lack of it – the matter is a much more complex issue, requiring discussions about historical, political, cultural, sociological, and other factors, and cannot be oversimplified into merely a question of a country’s fluency in another language.

    • leonor magtolis briones on

      @Antonio Reyes, thank you for your answer. you are right. economic prosperity is shaped by many factors and not just fluency in english. i consider myself fluent in written and oral english but i am not rich. so it is with many people. so it is with many countries.

  4. English has nothing to do with wealth. Most Filipinos lack financial literacy and thats the root cause of poverty

  5. Filipinos can be equally successful as others foreigners, we just need to be given more opportunities.

  6. “Because of limited educational opportunities, the kind of English most Filipinos speak is not sufficient for them to innovate, create, and produce new technology, create business empires, and manage financial and investment houses.” <—- THIS IS A LOAD OF CRAP! She's making it sounds like everything evolves around the English language which is bull crap! Everything evolves around Math and NOT the English language. The real reason, in my view, why Filipinos are not rich is the lack of attitude… it takes an attitude to dream big, to take a risk on something, to think outside the box…

    • leonor magtolis briones on

      Jhun M, hi,i believe we both agree that progress and development does not revolve around english alone. i mentioned the fact that many countries developed without learning english.i also agree that math is crucial. not only math but all the hard sciences which are translated into technological advances. no, it is not my intention to make it appear that everything revolves around english. this is exactly my point: development and progress does not revolve around english.

      you will note that in the last paragraph of my article, i stated that this is the most important thing to bear in mind. i cited countries who have advanced without english as the basic language. i cited countries which tried to learn english only when they had already developed.

      cool ka lang, Jhun M. we are on the same side. i am a diehard fan of Sir Stephen Hawking. i believe in the importance of math not only in understanding our universe but also in bringing about progress and prosperity.

  7. Ricardo Manansala on

    Marami magaling mag ingles na pilipino, marami kaya magsalita ng ingles… bakit hindi tayo maunlad na bansa, “Hindi natin sinusuportahan ang sariling atin, at ang MGA FILIPINO SCIENTIST wala pondo”. Kung gusto natin umunlad. bigyan ng suporta Techinicians, Scientist, Engineers, (inventors) dito sa atin.

  8. We are not rich because of US imperialism. US imperialists owns and controls hundreds if not thousands of companies and corporations in the Philippines. Many Filipinos believe that foreigners are not allowed to own businesses here !!! How wrong they are !!! The profits of this US controlled corporations are repatriated back to the US. This constitute a vast outflow of capital. In order to generate jobs you need capital. If the capital is going out then no jobs are generated in the country. Another reason why we are poor is because of the vast smuggling operations (which is controlled by the Chines pseudo-capitalists). This also results in a vast outflow of capital (because of the importations of illegal goods). So, we can be the best in English in this planet but with no capital we will be poor. That is why we must end US imperialism and smuggling.

    • You can take your anti US attitude where the sun don’t shine… American’s haven’t done anything that stopped any Filipino in the Philippines to have a better life. The US would prefer to see the Philippines as a rich nation that do not need outside help… blame your corrupt and under educated politicians in power why Filipinos are not well off… even as recent as Yolanda’s super typhoon, the US was there to help the victims and funny enough, none of the folks rallying against the United States was around to take the place of the US military providing assistance… so once again, take your anti-American crap to where the sun don’t shine… I guess it is safe to say that you have no intention or even dream of living in the US or have relatives that lives in the US…and maybe it is also safe to say that you’ve never wore anything that is made in the USA… because if you have, then that only makes you a hypocrite …

  9. Jake Crisologo on

    I think the point here is that there is something so much more to poverty alleviation and employment than just learning how to speak English. Overpopulation MAY be a cause, though this is more debatable relative to structural issues in governance. This article raises realistic points and illustrates ideas on the fundamental assumption that one has to know how to speak English to be rich.

    The idea or assumption is simple enough: Being great at English=Global Competitiveness=Prosperity. This may be true in terms of education. A lot of literature and scholarship is in English. Most university subjects and discussions are done in English, where students are encouraged to “practice” for the “real world”. The typical academically exposed and employable Filipino will, more often than not, be literate in English. I think it’s obvious that the Filipino language (and the multitude of the vernacular) are not empowered in this country, at least in our idea of the prosperous and educated. Perhaps fluency in European languages offers an even more exclusive avenue for the elite, with the Romantic languages catering to a specific educated niche in the Philippines. Of other languages, well, Korean and Japanese has sparked a lot of interest more in a youth subculture. It seems like the Chinese have always been here so the Chinese language doesn’t have too many mainstream issues most Filipinos have to deal with. Haha.Though I have no issues with being multilingual per se, I do not like the hierarchy of languages in the Philippines, where language has become a signifier of social divides. Recently, CHED’s removal of Filipino subjects in tertiary curricula sparked debates and feelings of “betrayal” to our culture and national language. Personally, I see capacity in English more as an indicator of prosperity, rather than going for the pitch that English (alone) is causal to prosperity.

    Though I do believe that the English does contribute to a certain degree of competitiveness, given that English is a major international language, global opportunities, or opportunities with “global” standards or requirements (e.g. call centers, technical support, employment abroad), are not accessible to most Filipinos in the first place. Meeting these requirements entails structural solutions to our problems with education, employment, social protection, corruption, etc. These need to be addressed alongside taking advantage of opportunities that may arise from our capacity to be speak very well in English.

    We can deduce from Prof. Briones’ analysis that English, regardless of its opportunities, is not a panacea or a clear path to wealth. In fact, with call center jobs being practically career “dead-ends” unless you’re exceptionally brilliant and/or lucky, the lack of more sustainable employment opportunities puts a limit to the power of English in helping out this country in dealing with our economic and social obstacles. It can even be a disadvantage. Overly promoting English also presents a cultural and social dilemma in our identity as “Filipinos”. No wonder we are often criticized (mostly by active nationalists) that we are a US neo-colony, even if we disregard the more obvious geopolitical issues with the US. Our love for and affinity towards America is cultural.

    But then again, the world spoken in fluent English still only exists to a certain class of Filipinos. Where goes the non-conyo, non-English speaking Pinoys?

  10. This woman has forgotten that we managed to be no. 2 economy in Asia during 50’s-60’s,before Marcos regime. That time, Filipinos were very proficient in English. That’s why, we are called the ‘sick man of Asia’, because, from top 2, we became bottom 2. Makes me wonder why haven’t this taught in our history?

    • leonor magtolis briones on

      hi, julpax! no , this old woman has not forgotten that there was a time when we claimed that we were second only to japan in terms of prosperity. i was already a graduate student during that time. it was not only because we spoke and wrote better english; it was also because we had a much smaller population, higher standards of education and clearly set moral and cultural values. however, we had serious agrarian problems and prolonged rebellions. and when our economy deteriorated, it was not only because our english deteriorated; it was largely the economy which plunged into the global debt trap. we also had suppression of democratic rights even as rampant graft and corruption escalated. until now, the after effects of the debt crisis stll linger. i am not denying the importance of english to individual and national prosperity. what i am saying is that it is not necessarily the decisive factor. regards from “this woman.”

  11. majid mohame on

    Confucius was reported to have said, ” Learn Chinese, prosperity will follow”.

  12. Malaking Puti Kano on

    Ah, but you all miss the point… The fact that 20% of the population has been FORCED to leave the country for economic reasons is precisely what suppresses the wages here. With remittances coming in for each extended family of, say, 15-16 people, the “demand” for better-paying jobs is anesthetized. Why? Because with all the extra money coming in from abroad, NO ONE STARVES here any longer. Lack of impetus = lack of motivation to enact change. Tamad pareho ang tamad.

  13. Sam Abiertos on

    Prof. Briones, think how awful the situation in the Philippines would be today if Filipinos were not conversant in English or, at worst, incapable of speaking and writing even a smattering of it. Hardly any of its teeming population of 100,000,000 would be exportable to the world’s labor markets. In fact, the Philippines won’t have its 10,000,000 OFWs who are at this very moment saving the country from total perdition. They are propping up a perennially weak and mismanaged national economy with their estimated annual remittances of over US$25 billion. Add to this the estimated annual income of US$16 billion generated by the Philippine business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, which employs the better English speakers among us. Together they make a total of US$41 billion annually, or PhP17,630 per Filipino down to each and every newborn. This constitutes over 12.4% of the per capita gross national income of PhP142,061–a percentage that’s clearly not to be sneezed at. (This percentage could rise to an even healthier 20.68% if Filipinos were not so overly fecund and were disciplined enough to keep their numbers to, say, a more manageable 60,000,000). I therefore think that if not for its horrendous overpopulation, the Philippines would be rich indeed simply owing to the fact that Filipinos are, on the average, at least passably conversant in English. This may not make them more productive and disciplined like some of their progressive Asian counterparts, but at least it makes them eminently exportable abroad to earn life-and-death sustenance for their families at home. Think of the horrible consequences if the Filipinos were total strangers to the English language.

    • Jun Y. Viray on

      Yes you are right. Without having a good command of English these BPOs would never prosper as they are right now. OFWs would find it hard to climb up the ladder of higher management, or occupy sensitive positions. In the local corporate world English is a regular mode of communication. Imagine removin g English BPO and OFW –USD 41-B where in heaven’s name will they get that? Precisely, non-English speaking countries got rich because of hard work and perseverance. We can do no less. Definitely we cannot become rich just because of English, but we can be rich despite of it.

    • leonor magtolis briones on

      thank you for your comment. haha, i like your writing style and your choice of words–horrendous, teeming, fecund–not every writer uses these words nowadays!

      i agree with you that things could be much, much worse without our Filipino English speaking “exportables”. I mean no disrespect to our bpo sub-sector. i agree that the contribution of this sub-sector to the gdp is very substantial. i also agree that the survival of our economy is borne on the backs of our ofw’s. their contributions are increasing steadily. nonetheless, their heroic exertions are not sufficient to lift our economy out of the pit of poverty. agriculture, which is where most of our very poor are, continues to lag far, far behind the other sectors. you are also right about the unbridled fecundity of our population.

      yes, things could be much worse, but things could only be much better. it is not so much about speaking English– it has to do with sound economic and social policy, as well as good, accountable governance. it also has to do with a culture of discipline and not a culture of dependency, whether on government officials, ninongs–and yes on fate.

      nice to meet you virtually!

  14. Angel Pulido on

    I do not think that one’s ability to communicate in english language is a guarantee to become rich in terms of economy. It helps of course because in order to speak good english, education is required which is entwined with the Philippine culture. Because of this and the ability of Filipinos to speak english, thousands, if not millions are scattered around the world that no other country could perhaps surpass. And these heroes scattered around the world are making the Philippine economy RICH. But because of the thieves in the government, the Philippines is still considered poor thus majority of my dear countrymen are suffering while those scumbags in the government are enjoying their loot with their families. This is WHY Philippines is still poor albeit Filipinos speak english. I would like to mention in this connection however that in EVERY COUNTRY, USA included, there are unfortunates or considered poor as far as level of livelihood of that particular country is concerned.

  15. prosperous asian countries? please add Brunei, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand to Malaysia…the link? ex British Empire

    prosperous USA Empire countries??………………………………………….

  16. Manny F. Reyes on

    Since English-speaking countries are rich, people assume that a person is also rich if he speaks English. A country that is affluent almost always has a very rich and efficient language that is capable of communicating and articulating the complexity of its culture.

  17. Manny F. Reyes on

    From my experience living in the Philippines and an English-speaking country, I don’t see any logical connection between becoming affluent and fluency in English. I can be good in English and choose not to be rich. But I must admit that since English is a very rich and efficient language, it follows than any person who has a good command of it must be very sophisticated and articulate. Without a high degree of sophistication, one is only using English for everyday communication. This high degree of sophistication can only be learned and practiced. Without this skill, one cannot achieve to be in the top 10% of his chosen field of endeavor. In fact, Americans who speak informal daily English only for lack of formal education are not rich. Higher education or lack of it determines if a person will be above average or not. The language is only a means to present an idea, sell it, get implemented and place it in the market place.

  18. “If we are so good in English, why aren’t we rich?” Fluency in English does not equate to being rich, case in point Japan. Equating fluency with prosperity is over simplifying cause and effect of an obviously complex matter. We must realize combination of numerous factors (ability to communicate, discipline, drive for improvement, empathy, hardworking, initiative, opportunities, sacrifice, sense of community, etc.) contribute to prosperity both individually and of a nation. The answer is not a simple “because we are not fluent in English” but rather we lack the necessary combination of factors to achieve prosperity both individually and as a nation. We NEED admit this fact and STRIVE to gain these, if we want achieve prosperity for ourselves and our nation.

  19. My observations in the rural area of northern Luzon where I do medical and health education work is that even the English teachers in the best private schools in the provincial capital of this province (which shall remain nameless) do not speak good English. Fluency in English may not be a realistic or even a desirable goal. The policy that English must be the language of instruction may constitute a barrier to students’ acquisition of useful knowledge and skills, since the teachers struggle to communicate and the students understand little of what they are attempting to teach.

    I agree that English fluency is not a guarantee of sucess in life, however it is measured. Certainly not everyone in English speaking coutries is wealthy, nor as you point out, are those living in industrialized nations where English is not commonly spoken. Honest, efficient, enlightened governance with improved access to education, health care and basic public services is far more important.

    Thank you for your interesting and well written column.

    • leonor magtolis briones on

      thank you for your comment. a few minutes ago i read a comment by a university president on rehablitation efforts for yolanda.he said, “english is an impediment to rehabiitation.” studies have shown that the best way to teach and transfer skills is to use the mother tongue of the pupils/trainees.

  20. Antonio Javier Belzunce on

    Let us not be so naive. To speak a language like English has no connection to richness. It is only a means to communicate. It is applied wisdom that that can bring richness into a country.

  21. Carlo L. Adan on

    Right, Prof. Leonor Briones. Only the elite of the Philippines and the lucky few who paid attention to their English teachers speak English correctly. That’s why we’re not rich. And we Flips are not smart, either, as in the original question, “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”

  22. Pete Gabriel on

    We are not rich because our system of government is corrupt. Our politicians are nothing but thieves, stealing money and enriching themselves while in office. The rich and the government are not investing in our own people to give them better jobs and better opportunity. That is why we are not rich.

  23. Clarence Land on

    Some people in the Philippines are rich and perhaps they do not speak English. They did not become rich because of upward mobility. They are rich because their families have amassed large amount of capital over many generations. They use their money to make more money and to ensure that the status quo is maintained so they face little competition in the market place. It is to their advantage that most Filipinos have only marginal educations and speak little are no English. There is no incentive for the rich (or the Government) to foster good educations for everyone in the Philippines.

  24. we are good at english, which means talking,
    but does not include doing, which means action.
    so it’s all noise.