For This Economist, English Language Learning is a Gateway to Opportunity

A Shift Towards English

In the 1940s and 1950s, people across Latin America aspired to learn French, the “language of the world,” Today, things are different – English has become the most influential language in the world.

“Since the mid-twentieth century, across Latin America, the opinion has changed,” says Ariel Fiszbein, Education Program Director at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank dedicated to Western Hemisphere affairs.

“If you’re going to learn a foreign language, the obvious choice is English.”

Ariel’s most recent work, a research paper to be released this week, focuses on a subject he knows very well. The report titled, “English Language Learning in Latin America” explores recommendations for improving English proficiency in the region and the importance of doing so.

Across the Region, Low English Proficiency

“English proficiency is increasingly linked to economic competitiveness and growth in the global economy,” Ariel says.


“English proficiency is increasingly linked to economic competitiveness
and growth in the global economy.”


“For individuals, learning the language is not just about finding a job or a better job—it’s necessary to being able to understand and connect with the whole world.”

English proficiency is instrumental for countries to become more innovative and attract foreign investments to be more productive. According to the World Economic Forum, “research shows a direct correlation between the English skills of a population and the economic performance of the country.” Furthermore, there is a correlation between English proficiency and one’s quality of life.

In some countries, Learning English is mandated by law, and there are proficiency standards and assessments in place in many more.

Latin America, Ariel says, has recently implemented various policies and programs with the goal of improving English language learning.

“Despite these efforts,” Ariel says, “research indicates that English proficiency in Latin America remains very low.”

Seeking Answers

Soon after joining the Inter-American Dialogue, Ariel says he had many conversations with colleagues and others about potential explanations for the disconnect.

With Pearson’s support, Ariel and his research partner, Kathyrn Cronquist, spent six months researching the state of English language learning in ten countries in Latin America: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay.

Through in-depth interviews with more than a dozen education experts from those nations, they explored current laws related to English language learning, learning standards and objectives, classroom curricula, teacher training, and assessment policies.

“We wanted to understand what governments are doing to promote English language learning, and also to identify the bottlenecks that are impeding progress towards proficiency,” Ariel says.


“We wanted to understand what governments are doing to promote
English language learning, and also to identify the bottlenecks
that are impeding progress towards proficiency.”


Key Findings

“Six of the ten countries we studied require the teaching of English in primary schools, and English study is strongly encouraged in the others.”

Further, eight of the ten countries have well-developed learning objectives and standards for that learning—related to listening, reading, speaking and writing English.

Most of these include standardized curricula to support classroom instruction.

“Our major conclusion from the research is that the foundation for English language learning in these countries is strong,” Ariel says.

“The problem lies in the execution. There are major gaps that need to be filled in to achieve significant improvements in English proficiency,” he says.

Two Areas of Concern

Ariel says those gaps are in two major areas: teacher training and student assessment.

“Qualified, quality teachers are essential to improving English proficiency,” says Ariel.

Unfortunately, most of the English teachers in Latin America aren’t proficient in the language.

Further, teacher accreditation programs are few and far between.

“There is very high demand for English teachers, and as a result, teachers are trained by literally hundreds of different colleges and institutions—most of which are of poor quality and are totally unregulated,” Ariel says.

“The quality of teachers, in my view, drives everything. It’s the root of the problem.”

Insufficient Student Assessments

The other major area of concern, Ariel says, is a lack of student assessment.

English proficiency exams are either non-existent or ineffective.


English proficiency exams are either non-existent or ineffective.


“It’s impossible to measure progress without measuring performance along the way.”

According to the research, only two of then ten countries studied (Chile and Columbia) have implemented standards, measurement, and evaluation when it comes to student achievement. Five countries haven’t implemented any of the three.

“Because there aren’t widespread assessments in the region, there’s a lack of reliable data that shows how effective they can be in raising proficiency levels…and thus a lack of motivation to bring them to the top of the political and educational agendas,” Ariel says.

Spreading the Knowledge

Next month, Ariel will travel to five of the ten countries he studied to present his research. He will recommend improving training for both current and future teachers, and maintaining that improved quality through regular, effective assessment of student learning.

“There is no silver bullet for achieving the ultimate goal of improving English proficiency across the region,” Ariel says.

“We certainly don’t have all the answers, but what we came up with through our research, I think, is a very solid baseline for forward progress.”


“We certainly don’t have all the answers, but what we came up with through our research, I think, is a very solid baseline for forward progress.”