I've just come back from the Philippines where English is an official language, along with the local Filipino language. This does not mean that everyone understands or speaks English but it does mean that exposure to the language is so great that those who do speak it can communicate quite fluently. I was impressed that even people who had never stepped outside of the Philippines were fluent in English.
According to an Educational Testing Service (ETS) ranking based on TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores for 2010, the Philippines ranked 35th out of 163 countries world wide. The only other Asian countries to score higher than the Philippines were Singapore (ranked 3rd in the world with a score of 98), and India (19th with a score of 92). Malaysia tied the Philippines for 35th place with a score of 88.
What about other Asian countries? Ranked at the bottom in the English test scores were South Korea at 80th (score of 81), China at 105th (score 77) and Japan at 135th place with a score of 70.
In the middle fell Taiwan (score 76), Thailand (score 75) and Vietnam (score 73).
Japan, in an attempt to rectify its low status and aiming to make its economy more globally competitive, is considering introducing English education earlier, possibly in the third year of elementary school. They may also start teaching some high school classes in the target language.
Yet the Philippines has mastered English as a second language despite statistics that show large swaths of the country -- such as Mindanao and Eastern Visayas -- have a less than 30 percent elementary school graduation rate. Other claims estimate as many as 27.8 percent of school-age children nationwide either don't attend, or never finish, elementary school.
While introducing English earlier in the education system in Japan is a step in the right direction, as the Philippines shows, English proficiency may not have that much to do with early grade school education.
So, how has the Philippines managed to master English?
First, they had the foresight to understand the value of keeping the language imposed on them during the sometimes brutal U.S. occupation of the Philippines from 1898-1946. While the US helped plant the seeds for learning English, it was the country itself that took enough interest to dedicate resources and attention to maintaining the language after the Americans left. Japan saw no advantage to their exposure to English during their U.S. occupation from 1945 to 1952 (ending in 1972 in Okinawa) and South Korea abandoned Japanese language after being under Japanese rule from 1905 till the end of WWII. Ditto Taiwan, under Japanese colonial rule from 1895 to 1945.
Next, the Philippines deserves credit for its approach to learning English which is much different from that of Japan, China and South Korea, where English is seen more as a subject in school than a means of communication. Despite a proliferation of English language schools (for both children and adults) in these countries, and a keen interest in studying English, these Asian countries remain at the bottom when it comes to English proficiency.
Language success in the Philippines is due to its approach to learning English, not just teaching it. Not only is English taught in schools, but the population is given another key tool necessary for language acquisition: exposure outside the classroom.
English signs abound in the Philippines, and these signs are not there expressly for foreign tourists. "Don't block the driveway," say signs on the roads in Cebu. "House for sale," informs a sign in front of a dwelling in the countryside. Company signs, road signs and advertisements are in English (think about it -- are any of those things taught in a regular text-book based English language classroom?). Anyone has a chance to learn English through life experience too.
One cannot overemphasize the role of exposure in learning a second language. Not only does it allow people to experience the language firsthand, in real situations, but exposure provides reinforcement, something Asian students rarely get outside the classroom.
When I stepped into a taxi in Manila, the driver was listening to a radio news program that featured two pundits discussing a recent bus accident -- in both English and Filipino simultaneously. The country also presents national and world news in English on TV. These are not translations of news, as you often find in Asian countries, but news reported in English by Filipino news anchors.
Asian universities hoping to attract more foreign students should consider how the Philippines has significantly increased foreign student enrollments: top universities in the Philippines teach all their classes in English.
As a result, Filipino universities are attracting students from Iran, Libya, Brazil, Russia, China and Japan to earn graduate and post graduate degrees. These universities offer an alternative for students who would normally look at much more expensive schools in the US, UK and Australia.
It takes a certain amount of determination to learn a second language. Learning English as a subject in school is not enough. If the Asian countries at the bottom of the TOEFL score list want to improve, they need to start treating English as a working language and a means of communication. They should consider not just better ways to teach English, but better ways to learn it.