Considering its 47 million-strong population, Colombia has huge potential to gain traction in bilingualism, but a lack of grassroots English language adoption is holding it back.
Colombia is the ninth best country for English language speakers in Latin America – tenth if you count Dominican Republic. It sits in the bottom half of the rankings in the current EF English Proficiency Index at 49th, which is the second lowest rank it’s had since 2011, despite jumping eight spots in one year.
City-wise, Bogotá, Bucaramanga, and Barranquilla have the three best rankings in the country, while Cali, Medellin, and Cartagena follow behind.
The biggest challenge lies with the country’s English teachers, many of whom can write in English, but are under-developed on the speaking side. These teachers also face a lack of resources, motivation, access, time, language skills and contextual training, all of which are barriers to the evolution of English in formal education.
Insufficient Progress with Education Programs
“Honestly, the bilingual labor pool is still lacking in Colombia,” said Ricardo Duran, General Manager at Outsourcing S.A. “This has been the same for the last ten years or so. The reason is that the government’s efforts to increase the size of the bilingual labor pool are not yet effective. It is a long process.”
The National Bilingual Program (PNB), now the Foreign Languages Competencies Development Program (PFDCLE), instigated by the Colombian Ministry of Education (MEN) in 2004 has seen some slight progress at a school level, but its goal of developing an English-speaking population by 2019 was overly ambitious.
Colombia has a number of private English training companies, but they are not cheap. Students who attend courses with these providers generally have the educational and financial means to work in more high-skill, high-value added roles.
Only 4% of Colombia’s contact center labor pool is bilingual, according to Duran. That 4% have a high attrition rate, because the few outsourcing providers that are present in Colombia struggle to retain them. Bilingual talent is expensive to hire and they prefer to go to other industries that are better paid, such as hotels, high-end restaurants, or IT services companies.
Text-based BPO Focus
While Outsourcing S.A. is a 3,000-strong company, most of its focus is on Spanish-language clients, but it has a small English voice campaign with around 10 people. “We’re looking for businesses that are demanding bilinguals in chat, email, back-office, and written support,” said Duran.
For non-voice tasks in BPO, such as chat or email, Duran believes that the talent supply is better, because nowadays they can use tools such as Google Translate to respond more quickly. This shows potential to fulfill a niche when combined with the skills that Colombia’s bilinguals have for reading and writing.
“There is room for non-voice BPOs and we wouldn’t have a problem scaling up a campaign for that, but we are not in the best position for voice,” said Duran.
Culturally speaking, English is not a well-established part of family or business life, so the long-term success of government policies depend on the top-down economic and political factors that are shaping the country.
For now, Colombia needs to develop a stronger marketing strategy in order to gain a reputation in the US for its text-based customer service capabilities, which will generate a niche for itself in BPO. In the meantime, as we potentially begin to see results from government-led programs in the next few years, the industry should be preparing to scoop up that talent before it flees to other industries.
Read about other countries in this series by clicking on the links below: