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Latin America: ELT supply marred by low teaching quality, access

The demand for ELT across Latin America is ripe as governments view the language as a tool to access the global economy, employers prioritise it among skills and societies begin to see it leads to cultural openness.

The Cerro Cristobal in Santiago, Chile. Geography and topography play a role in people's exposure to English and access to knowledge sharing in Latin America researchers found. Photo: David Berkowitz

The mammoth project surveyed more than 1,000 people plus hundreds of employers in Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Ecuador

However, a seven-country wide study carried out by the British Council has found countries are plagued by a shortage of well-trained teachers, persistent problems of access persist and a lack of national quality frameworks.

The mammoth project surveyed more than 1,000 people plus hundreds of employers in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Ecuador to establish what the levels and perception of English are, what policies are in place to support provision and what factors influence English levels in each country.

“These countries are looking at generally acquiring a B-2 level of English by secondary school”

“Government policies in Latin America are so fluid, they’re changing all the time, but there are themes in the policies across the seven countries we looked at,” said Zainab Malik, Research Director at the British Council’s Education Intelligence unit.

“These countries are looking at generally acquiring a B-2 level of English by secondary school and starting English at a younger age in a very short time-line,” she commented.

“But they also face issues with teacher shortages, with access, with the inability to properly internationalise higher education with higher levels of English. The challenges and the opportunities across the region were very similar but must be taken in context.”

The report found that a lack of quality teachers is the largest barrier to quality supply of ELT provision. Teachers aren’t trained to teach ELT and often don’t speak English themselves; this on top of the fact that pay grades are often low.

“Teacher training is a massive problem,” commented Allan Taggart, Director of English Americas at the report’s launch in London this week. “Teaching still has a low status and is often seen as a job you can fall into while looking for your real job.”

The presence of multinational companies who pay higher salaries equates into high turnover as well.

“Teaching still has a low status and is often seen as a job you can fall into while looking for your real job”

Malik highlighted that the reports aim to inform ministries of education in each country about the current status of ELT which she sees is a sector that will continue to grow as foreign direct investment grows.

“Governments do know that they’re losing out on foreign direct investment without English language levels being high so there’s a knowledge there and a need,” she said.

Isabel González Ferrada, director of the English Opens Doors Program for the ministry of education in Chile, the country with the largest per capita GDP in the study, said it was a good starting point to learn more about Chile.

“Our major goal in the near future, apart from our education reform, is to focus on vocational training,” she said at the report’s launch. “It’s very important in our country because 25 per cent of students go to vocational training.”

Malik added that private providers as well will find the study a beneficial source of market intelligence.

“It’s a fantastic market for private providers to go to because as governments implement their policy, their public provision of English can be limited, it hasn’t caught up yet,” she said. “In many cases if they want to learn English, people have to go to private providers.”

The reliance on private providers, however, speaks to problems of access, which can often be as affected by socio-economic factors as geography and topography.

“English is associated with better social status and opportunity in society and the labour market”

Malik used the example of Colombia being split in two by a mountain range creating a disparity between urban and rural environments.

“English is associated with better social status and opportunity in society and the labour market,” confirmed Ricardo Romero, executive director of the ELT Community Foundation in Colombia. “But, there is a huge gap between labour market and skill level.”

While employability was the most common factor driving demand across all seven countries, researchers found that English level might be used as a way to gauge applicants rather than actual use on the job.

“Employability is huge, people understand that they need it for their jobs,” said Malik. “What’s interesting though, is that when we asked people if they actually used it in their jobs, very few people said yes which indicates that it might be some sort of filter or some sort of symbol.”

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