Credit: Maria Oviedo / Inter-American Dialogue

The Inter-American Dialogue hosted a panel discussion on September 19, 2017 to celebrate the launch of its latest report, “English Language Learning in Latin America.” The panel, moderated by Maria Alexandra Vélez from Pearson, featured Ariel Fiszbein, Director of the Education Program at the Dialogue, Kathryn Cronquist from Mathematica Policy Research, Denise Lowery from the U.S. Department of State, Kendra Gaither from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Mateo Samper from Teach for All. The report discusses the shortcomings regarding English language learning in Latin America, as well as makes recommendations to improve English education in the future.

The event began with a summary of the report’s top findings. Ariel Fiszbein talked about  the importance and need for English language education by recognizing that as members of the 21st century, having proficiency in a foreign language like English is a fundamental skill, not only culturally, but also in the workforce. According to the report, eighty-seven percent of human resource managers of multinational companies in thirteen countries worldwide (including three Latin American countries) consider English as one of the key skills when it comes to potential employees (Educational Testing Service & Ipsos Public Affairs, 2015). There is much promise in the region for young students to have the opportunity to learn English, but when it comes to implementation, a gap clearly exists.

Next, the conversation highlighted two major areas of improvement: teacher qualifications, and assessment of student and teacher proficiency. As the interest in learning English is growing rapidly, and many new policies are being generated with extra emphasis on English language education, qualified English teachers are in high demand, but there is not enough access to accredited training programs to accommodate the needs of all the students. Due to the lack of training, many teachers who are not proficient in English are given teaching positions, and in turn, they are not producing students who are proficient. In fact, Latin America performs below the world average in the EF English First English Proficiency Index, particularly in the 18 to 20 year-old groups (EF EPI 2016).

So how can change start to take place? In her remarks, Kathryn Cronquist, the main author of the report, noted that much of this is reflective of the fact that reliable data rarely exists, which leads to a lack of understanding on where improvements should be made, as well as a lack of role models in the region for countries to turn to. By starting to measure more accurately how students are achieving, as well as assessing the proficiency of all teachers and students, countries will be able to pinpoint where they need to improve, and have accurate data to back it all up. In fact, ninety percent of teachers worldwide believe that a global framework for English is needed to raise teaching standards (“On raising English standards with a Single Global Framework”). Without addressing these issues, it will be difficult for Latin America to improve the quality of their English language education.

The event featured perspectives from the U.S public and private sectors on their efforts to improve proficiency in Latin America. Denise Lowery, from the U.S. Department of State, said the agency is working to create better opportunities through programs like the English Language Access Microscholarship Program, a program designed for students between the ages of 13 and 20 from economically disadvantaged sectors that offers intensive English courses after school in the hopes of giving these students better educational and career opportunities down the road. Next, speaking on the point of view of the business community, Kendra Gaither, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC), said that English proficiency is one of the three factors businesses take into account when looking to expand into new markets. The USCC has also been partnering with universities in Mexico and Chile to engage with the students there and create more opportunities to maximize their potential as future members of the workforce. As Executive Director of the U.S.-Colombia Business Council within the USCC, she said Colombia’s government has placed a priority on the tourism and service sectors of business, and that has created an urgent need for English proficiency to be able to attract tourists and connect them to Colombia’s culture.

While the task at hand may seem daunting, one way to continuously seek improvement may come from regional collaboration, as highlighted by Mateo Samper. He talks about how nonprofits, NGOs, and other organizations of the like should be engaging with one another to disseminate information and learn from each other. This idea echoes some of the main recommendations in the report which stress that there must be more information sharing across ministries on policies and innovations and also advance a common research agenda.

Above all, in order to improve English proficiency levels in Latin America, countries must evaluate teachers and students regularly to monitor levels of proficiency and progress, improve teacher training while finding innovative solutions to the shortage of English teachers, and collaborate with other governments on sharing challenges, experiences and best practices.

The report will officially be launched in Spanish next month in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Peru.

You can watch the recording of the event here: