By Kate McGeown
The Philippines is fast becoming the world’s low-cost English language teacher – with rapid increases in overseas students coming to learn English or study in English-speaking universities.
There might be other countries that people think about as a classic place to learn English, such as the UK, the US or Australia.
But there is one key reason that they are switching to the Philippines. It’s much cheaper. And in the competitive market for language students, it means the Philippines is attracting people from countries such as Iran, Libya, Brazil and Russia.
“We have very competitive rates compared with other countries,” says English teacher, Jesy King, citing her school’s fees of $500 (£313) for a 60-hour class – about a third of the price of an equivalent course in the US or Canada.
Another major advantage is the accent.
Filipinos speak with a clear American accent – partly because the Philippines was a US colony for five decades, and partly because so many people here have spent time working in call centres that cater to a US market.
These centres train their staff to sound indistinguishable from Americans, so callers never realise that the person they’re speaking to is on the other side of the world.
“I have a background in call centres, so I’ve learnt to adopt an American accent – it’s one of the pre-requisites when you join,” says Jesy King.
Her school, the International Language Academy of Manila, attracts students from all over the world.
The majority are from Asia – especially Japan, Taiwan and Korea – but in the past few months she’s also taught people from North Africa, South America and the Middle East.
Student numbers are growing rapidly. According to the Philippine Immigration Bureau, more than 24,000 people have applied for a study permit this year – compared to fewer than 8,000 just four years ago.
The government sees this sector as a golden opportunity for growth.
“We’re geared to accept more and more students,” says Cristino Panlilio, the under-secretary for the Department of Trade and Industry. “I believe the country should come up with more marketing for this.”
And it’s not just English language students who are coming to the Philippines – there’s also been a rapid increase in the number of foreigners applying for graduate and post-graduate courses in all kinds of fields.
The main reasons that attract them are, again, the cost – and the fact that, in the country’s top universities, all classes are held in English.
In order to study at a university here, foreigners need a full student visa, and immigration records show that three times as many foreigners applied for one in 2011 than they did just three years before.
Dr Alvin Culaba, the executive vice-president of De La Salle – one of the country’s top universities – is confident that the level of teaching in his institution can compete with that found anywhere in the world.
“Our programmes are very comparable, or sometimes even better, than in the US and Europe,” he says.
Driving a bargain
De La Salle already has a lot of students from China and Japan, but there’s recently been an increase in Europeans.
Elizaveta Leghkaya, a Russian engineering student, is one of them.
She looked at courses in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but the programme at De La Salle was a quarter of the price of the others.
“Here it’s much cheaper, and I’m really confident that the qualification I’ll get is just the same,” she says.
She had found other benefits of studying in the Philippines too.
“It’s a good experience, as it’s a different style of life than I’d get in Europe. It’s interesting to learn the culture. I like to travel here, and go to the beaches and museums.”
But studying in the Philippines isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Living here means coping with the bureaucracy and corruption, and if you’re in Manila, the heavy pollution.
And then there’s the fact that many Filipinos speak a rather different language than the rest of the English-speaking world.
The Philippines markets itself as being the third largest English-speaking nation – after the US and the UK – a fact proudly displayed on the Department of Tourism website. And in a way, that’s true. Most people speak at least rudimentary English, and the well-educated speak it fluently.
But a lot of people speak Taglish – a mix of English and the local language Tagalog – which is often difficult for foreigners to understand.
English signs often have the wrong spellings and the way English words are used is sometimes uniquely Filipino, with confusing and occasionally unintentionally amusing results.
For a foreign student trying to learn English, this will undoubtedly present some challenges.
But for an increasing number of people, these are small obstacles compared with the benefits of studying in the Philippines.
The spiralling cost of education in many parts of the world, coupled with the ease of finding out about foreign courses on the internet, mean that more and more students are deciding to study abroad.
And English-speaking nations like the Philippines are primed to cash in on this trend.