Angeli Boteros speaks English like an American teenager. A lifetime of watching American TV and movies has left her sentences peppered with the trademark phrases of American youth, including "like" and "you know."
Boteros, 26, is so steeped in US popular culture, and has such a good accent, that on the phone, she could pass for a girl from California.
Over the last year, she has been doing exactly that. As a call center agent at GCom, Boteros helps customers half a world away overcome problems with products or services they have purchased.
"My friends used to tease me because of the way I speak English," Boteros said at an open-air cafe in this booming southern Philippine city. "Not anymore."
Davao City is one of several areas outside Manila where call center companies have been venturing, drawn by lower labor costs and large numbers of available workers.
But there has been concern lately that the industry's growth may be limited by the deterioration of its main advantage -- the English proficiency of the work force.
According to a study conducted by the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, 75 percent of the more than 400,000 Filipino students that graduate from college each year have "substandard English skills."
A survey in June by the Business Processing Association of the Philippines found that English proficiency was among the top three areas that the country should seek to improve, behind only the country's poor international image and political stability.
"English proficiency is also an urgent impediment to growth," the group said in the study.
"Fifty-one percent of respondents indicated that English proficiency has a `very significant impact' on their organizations' ability to grow,"the study said.
The same survey indicated that most call center companies hired only 5 percent to 10 percent of the job applicants they interviewed, mainly because of inadequate English proficiency.
The Philippine Congress responded to those concerns last month by passing a law restoring English as the primary instruction language from high school onward. Local dialects can be used up to third grade, and from third grade to sixth grade English will be taught separately under the new law.
The Philippines is always referred to as an English-speaking country, with more than 95 percent of the population able to speak or understand it. English, an outgrowth of American colonialism, was the medium of instruction in schools for decades.
But in 1987, the Education Department adopted a bilingual program to promote the use of Tagalog, the other official language.
The government was swayed by studies indicating that children tended to learn better in their native languages. Moreover, the nationalist lobby to restore Tagalog, also called Filipino, was overwhelming in 1987 -- a year after the revolt that toppled former president Ferdinand Marcos.
Over the years, Tagalog became more commonly used in schools, pushing out English. Yet English has always been a major attractor of investment and a source of pride.
The deterioration of English proficiency has been linked to an overall decline in education in the Philippines.
Public schools often lack books and teaching materials, and even classrooms, desks and chairs. In many remote villages, pupils must bring their own chairs and chalk to be able to attend class.
Public school teachers are paid meager wages, and many are forced to augment their incomes by taking second jobs. The better ones, meanwhile, seek employment abroad.
Today, teachers are among the most sought-after Filipino workers in developed nations.
Then there is the rise of "Taglish," a highly popular language combining Tagalog and English that skews all the rules of grammar and usage. Moreover, a majority of news shows on TV and radio are in local dialects.
Senator Edgardo Angara, a former educator who co-wrote the new law, described the problem as a "ticking bomb."
Such a "rapid decline in the English competency of Filipinos would eventually erode the competitiveness of the country's human resources, both here and abroad," he said after its passage.
Mitchell Locsin, executive director of the Business Processing Association of the Philippines, conceded that there was a problem but pointed to initiatives under way to help solve it, including better training for English teachers.
"We should begin in the primary and secondary schools," he said.
According to a recent government study, only 7 percent of high school graduates can properly read, speak or understand English, and poorly trained teachers are partly to blame, it said.
The Commission on Higher Education said it would put English-proficiency centers in hundreds of schools to teach these teachers.
The call center industry has also encouraged the establishment of private English training centers, especially for those who want to work in the industry. Some companies even offer this training free.
Business groups led by the European Chamber of Commerce have likewise begun a program called "English Is Cool."
There have also been suggestions to integrate what some have called "call center subjects" -- with emphasis on how to speak better English -- into school curriculums.
Peter Wallace, an Australian business consultant based in Manila who advises several multinational companies, said that one of the ways to reverse the trend was to "strictly enforce English as the sole medium of instruction in both public and private schools as it was in the 1950s and 1960s."
The Philippines, Wallace said, could be a major player in information technology, in the call center industry, and even in health care services and tourism.
"But only if it speaks English," he said.
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