In the globalized, knowledge-based economy, command of the English language is more than ever a necessary skill for moving up the career ladder. Unfortunately for Latin America, the region is still lagging behind.
According to the latest Education First English Proficiency Index, the largest cross-national study of English attainment across sixty-three countries, the region is a serious underperformer. The EPI finds that the majority of Latin American countries rank as “low proficiency” or “very low proficiency” with regional leaders like Brazil, Mexico, and Chile all doing poorly. Only Argentina achieves “high proficiency,” coming in at 15th.
The EPI index is composed by combining data dating back to 2007, the first year of the rankings, with the results of the 750,000 adults who took their test in 2013. Unsurprisingly, Nordic countries, with their world-class educational systems, take four of the top five positions. Meanwhile, Peru, Brazil, and Mexico score 34th and 38th, and 39th, respectively, while Chile – with likely the best education in the entire region – comes in at 41st. Venezuela, Guatemala, Panama, and El Salvador all place even lower.
With companies increasingly needing to compete internationally, improving the region’s language skills poses an existential challenge. Some governments are taking up this challenge, at both the federal and local levels, but as the EF reports, “private initiatives…and companies are responsible for a large portion of the progress in English proficiency worldwide.” In other words, the companies that most need these skills are also the ones taking the lead in developing them among their own workforce.
The private sector is very good bringing innovations for market opportunities, so why isn’t Latin America’s English problem being solved this way? As it turns out, it increasingly is, as companies realize that it is up to them to pick up the slack. The language sector in Latin America is a huge and relatively open market, and the past several years have seen a major influx of investors and entrepreneurs seeking to provide education solutions.
In addition to traditional players like Berlitz, Harmon Hall, or Wall Street English, independent providers are on the rise. Open English, a web-based platform that provides live online tutoring from native English speakers. There is also the US-based Rosetta Stone, and Voxy, founded by entrepreneur Paul Gollash in 2010, which provides users with interactive mobile tools in their target language. Duolingo, one of the most popular interactive mobile language learning apps, was founded by the Guatemalan Luis Von Ahn.
The commonality between these companies is their innovative use of technology in order to make language learning more intuitive, interactive, and better integrated into daily life. Video chat sessions can reach students in remote places, while apps that respond to a student’s strengths and weaknesses make learning more personalized and self-paced. It also gives full time workers and older adults far more options than they’ve ever had.
Just ten years ago, these options did not exist – and now they help millions of students a year. This is an improvement, but its still not enough – the region has over 117 million school age children, nearly 40 percent of whom don’t finish school. And of those that do, few are in schools known for quality English instruction. Indeed, most of the new companies are targeting an adult audience, which begs the question – if they are delivering results, why can’t those results be expanded and replicated for K-12 students?
This is where collaboration between government and the private sector could make a real difference. Not with so-called “public-private partnerships,” which often seem like just another way for business to lobby for government contracts, but instead through a model in which private innovators launch small scale projects that, if successful, can be scaled up by state or national governments. Such an approach, which may also include public subsidies or seed money for new ventures, allows some of the risk undertaken by entrepreneurs to be harnessed in pursuit of the common good.
Similarly, governments can help overcome market failures. “In the education sector, a lack of information can lead to underinvestment, and this might be one of those cases,” says Ariel Fiszbein of the education policy center PREAL. “The financial return to studying English is not always clear to individuals, especially at the K-12 level.” Thus, demand for English services might be low among those who need it the most. Government initiatives can add value here by raising awareness of the importance of a second language in the job market.
Those who work in job placement services know this well. “Mastery of English is the single most important factor in finding work in almost any industry in Latin America,” argues Azucena de Benedetti, who leads Gente Estrategica, a technical school that provides training to more than ten thousand students in fifteen industries.
The Education First data concurs – and not just with regards to Latin America. “English is becoming a basic skill for the entire global workforce…[and is] increasingly a core element in determining employability,” explains the EPI report. In this new reality, finding a way to combine the successful models of language entrepreneurs with the power of public policy will be key for the region’s economic development.