Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Is Ability In English Important?

You betcha. The debate on English education in Malaysian schools has from my perspective largely been conducted on the basis of “he said, she said”, with very little in the way of compelling research to back up either of the two opposing positions. While I’m firmly in the “English is important” camp (it’s certainly helped boost my career), I’ve never been comfortable without the backing of solid data. So I was quite happy to see this in my RSS feed yesterday (excerpts):

English skills raise wages for some, not all, in India

It is widely believed that there are sizable economic returns to English-language skills in India. Due to India’s British colonial past, English remains an official language of the federal government, and is still used in government and education. Moreover, due to the rapid expansion of international trade and outsourcing in recent decades, English has become even more important. Despite this, there are surprisingly no estimates of the wage returns to English skills in India. The impediment appears to have been the lack of a microdata containing measures of both earnings and English ability. In our study (Azam et al. 2010), we quantify the English premium using data from the newly available 2005 India Human Development Survey (IHDS)...

Estimates from Table 1 suggest that for men, hourly wages are on average 34% higher for workers who speak fluent English and 13% higher for workers who speak a little English relative to workers who speak no English. These effects are not only statistically significantly different from zero, but also economically meaningful. For example, the return to being fluent is as large as the return to completing secondary school, and half as large as the return to completing an undergraduate degree. For women, the average return is 22% for fluent English and 10% for a little English...

A striking finding is that older workers earn high returns to English regardless of their educational attainment while younger workers earn high returns only when they are highly educated. For example, older men without an undergraduate degree receive a 53% wage premium for being fluent in English, compared to 28% for older men with an undergraduate degree. In contrast, younger men without a degree receive a 13% wage premium for being fluent in English, compared to 40% for younger men with a degree. Among younger men, the returns to English are increasing in educational attainment. Furthermore, we find that English skills do not raise wages at all for younger men who have not completed their secondary school education...

Quantifying the returns to English-language skills in India is of interest for several reasons. First and foremost, a deeper understanding of the returns to learning English will help individuals and policymakers in India make decisions about how much to invest in English skills... But the amount to invest is the subject of active debate. In India, as well as many other developing countries, there are those who favour promoting the local language as a way to make primary schooling more accessible and to strengthen national identity. At the same time there are those who argue that learning English leads to economic prosperity given the role of English in the global economy and many Indians are willing to spend extra money on schools and tutors to gain English proficiency. Given that English skills are costly to acquire – it takes time, effort, and often money, to learn English – choosing the optimal amount to invest in English-language skills involves comparing expected costs to expected benefits. This study provides the first estimates of these expected benefits.

‘Nuff said.


  1. The UKM vc was shown on tv calmly explaining that in her campus, the students are encouraged to speak english in casual settings within the compounds of their asrama's but the general over-arching policy is to make sure our national language is the main staple in that university.

    My gripe is to ask her what's the purpose of the university? Is it to guard against the national language falling into disuse or to inspire students to acquire world-class knowledge so that they can fend for themselves later or lead the nation to greater global success?

    The whole focus seems to be about not losing something than to be about acquiring something else that will open minds to what's really happening in the world.

    The very fact the policy-makers have chosen not to see this clearly indicates they themselves are sunk by the effects of the policies they have implemented.

    The Malay mind is no less capable than the others to assimilate things in any language. But it happens in today's world some of the richest stores of knowledge and techniques are in the english language.

    Without these, there can be no new ways to do old things. It will be just repeating one generation after another the same mistakes and deadpan approaches that have led to the moribund nature of our industries and economy only propped by a propaganda machine that is fueled by the ease with which it can continue to convince simple minds kept away from real-world data and information couched in languages they cannot read.


  2. "Is Ability In English Important? You betcha."

    They ALL know it, but remain adamant in the name of "patriotism.".

    We now find they teach 1 hr english per week in even secondary schools and expect miracles. Coupled with a general disinterest in the humanities, we having ben courting disaster for well nigh 30 years!!

    Who will ring the changes?

    we are all of 1 race, the Human Race

  3. walla,

    LOL, speaking of ironies, my wife is a senior lecturer at UKM - teaching English lit. You've pegged UKM right, they're more concerned with nationalistic issues than with effective development or education.


    You're dead right. In this case I think change can only come from people power. If you look at the two sides of the debate, it's the parents pushing for English teaching to be expanded (we know what's important for our children), and its the teachers and intellectuals who are against.

    We'll only get an expansion of English education if parents put a lot more pressure on the government and teachers union for change.