How well people in Asia speak English and why
English is the lingua franca of the world. It is by far the most popular second language learnt, and it is being taught in almost every country. Sometimes well, sometimes not so well.
In 2015 and 2016 I worked in schools in India and Thailand, and visited many other countries in Asia. I noticed some incredible differences between people’s ability to converse in English. I’ve decided to give a rating out of 5 to the average person’s ability to speak English.
Except for in tourist spots, most people in Thailand speak almost no English. This is because the public education system does not have the resources or teachers to support a good English education.
On the contrary, there are many private schools that teach English very well, many of which call themselves ‘bilingual schools’. They often employ foreign staff, both native English speakers and Filipinos. Students who grow up in these schools do become bilingual.
The reason that Thai schools employ Filipinos is because of their fantastic English skills. Almost everyone I spoke to in The Philippines spoke English well, from the city bus driver to the small town market seller.
Most street signs are in English, and a lot of media is in English. Foreign, particularly American, culture is popular. Although the national language is Tagalog, only a third of the people speak this as their mother tongue, which means that Filipinos are used to learning another language simply to communicate in their own country. Unlike in most other countries in Asia, Latin-Script is used to write Filipino languages and they borrow a lot of English words. Both private and public schools use Tagalog and English as languages of instruction, from a young age.
Due to some similar reasons, such as having no universal language, being a mixture of ethnic groups, and being heavily influenced by foreign culture, Malaysians learn English well. It is an important part of the education system, although officially it doesn’t have to be used as a language of instruction.
Both in Mainland Malaysia, and in Borneo, almost everyone I spoke to was able to speak English. And I talk to a lot of people!
Apparently, China has the most English learners in the world. However, it is widely known that the Chinese are normally unable to hold a conversation in English. I’m not surprised, because they have a very self-contained society, and over a billion people speak Chinese as a mother tongue.
Japan and Korea 2/5
Both of these countries are trying hard to promote English, however their native languages are extremely different grammatically and phonetically, so it is very difficult. Most South Koreans or Japanese that I have met who speak good English are young people who have made a conscious effort. According to the North Korean government, they teach English at school too, but, they are probably lying.
India, Nepal and Sri Lanka 3/5
From speaking to people throughout India, I could see that the social divide is clear – people from wealthy families are educated in English (as was the case in the school where I worked) and people of poorer backgrounds have little contact with English throughout their education. In fact, I found myself accidentally stereotyping people simply by hearing their English ability.
Like in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the only people that seem to have a good grip of English are people in locations with lots of tourists or business, like Bali or Jakarta. However, most of Indonesia’s 260 million people know little or no English.
Singapore has an internationally commended education system, and its primary language of instruction is English. Even though most children speak Malay, Chinese or Tamil to their parents, their mother tongue is taught secondarily to English.
Some older people in Singapore have strong accents and poor vocabulary, however, after a week or so in the country, I never met anyone with whom I couldn’t speak.
Unsurprisingly, the difference I can see between these Asian countries’ English abilities is the education system. In countries in which the curriculum is written in English, or focuses heavily on English, the children will learn it well. In countries that don’t have the will or ability, children must go to a private school if they are to learn to speak English well. I’m sure that in the Philippines teachers mostly speak to their students in their local language, but it doesn’t matter. When most of the books and resources that a child sees are in English, they will absorb English anyway.
To conclude, in this Globalised world that we live in bilingualism is a real gift to give to our children. Singaporeans, Malaysians and Filipinos might not realise how lucky they are.
By Stephen Devincenzi