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English: fuel for growth

Jonathan Dyson reports from the Philippines on a comprehensive ELT programme in Cebu province.

A range of measures designed to lift standards of English are to be introduced in Cebu, one of the most important provinces in the Philippines, following the launch of a major project aimed at building on the region’s strong economic growth.

The country’s economic potential is beginning to be realised, with GDP up 7 per cent in 2012. Cebu has the fastest-growing economy nationally, with a range of sectors across manufacturing and services expanding rapidly, while its international port facilities have attracted multinational companies to open offices and factories in the province. Mega Cebu Vision 2050, which was launched at the end of March by the Metro Cebu Development and Coordinating Board (MCDCB), is designed to help metropolitan Cebu capitalise on its socio-economic development and tackle the challenges created by its rapid growth. The plan stresses the importance of boosting standards of English across the region at all levels of education.

While over-arching ELT policies are set by the government, the focus of ELT within each region is heavily influenced by local bodies. Roy Lotzof, a board member of MCDCB, told the Gazette that the ELT policies outlined are designed to ‘increase the emphasis on English study with specific reference to an international focus’.

Lotzof said that lifting English standards in Cebu was particularly important to ensure the region capitalises on the opportunities driven by the Asean Economic Community (AEC), a liberalised common market of Asean countries to be established from 2015. English is the official working language of Asean countries.

‘It is imperative that English skills are improved for employment,’ he said, adding that one of the key aims of the plan is to boost Cebu’s competitiveness in the call-centre market. With many Filipinos speaking with a US accent – a legacy of the period in the first half of the 20th century when the Philippines was a US colony – the country is well placed to capitalise on the expanding call-centre sector. A growing number of global businesses are setting up call centres in the Philippines, increasing competition with countries such as India. According to Lotzof, many of the ELT policies in Mega Cebu Vision 2050 will be geared towards this sector. Lotzof added that the policies were also designed to lift levels of English as a second language, including for overseas Filipino workers – those working abroad who are expected to return following the end of their work contract or after retirement.

He said that one of the most important aims of the plan was to resolve a number of challenges that affect standards of English in the region. He added that many children in Cebu didn’t have enough English-speaking practice at home, and instead spoke the local dialect. A key focus for schools will be to improve learners’ language comprehension and conversational skills, Lotzof explained, adding, ‘Many of the English teachers need to be able to blend traditional methodologies with innovative technologies in learning strategies, upgrade their skills and understand the latest developments in teaching English.’ Tools to aid teachers will improve under the programme.

As well as boosting levels of English, Cebu aims to capitalise on its growing importance as a hub for overseas students. There are now more than a hundred schools in Cebu teaching English to overseas students on immersion programmes, with rapidly growing numbers from Asia, particularly South Korea and Japan, attracted largely by the relatively low costs.

Business and ESP English courses offered in Cebu are expanding particularly rapidly. A maritime English conference, titled Emerging Problems and Solutions in the Maritime Industry, will be held in Cebu in August, hosted by Tesol Asia and Academic Scholars Publishing House. Lotzof said that Tesol is continuing to expand its certificate programmes to ensure teachers are well qualified to meet the needs of overseas students.