The Nearshore English Evolution: Costa Rica Services Sector Defies “Average” Rank

Costa Rica holds its average rank for English proficiency, but government initiatives and personal motivations are forging a different reality on the ground.

costa rica english

Known for its strong capabilities in most Nearshore services, Costa Rica has become a reputable player in the industry, attracting plenty of foreign competition on the ground. This has resulted in a decent availability of English-speaking talent for IT, BPO, and the growing number of captives in the country.

Even so, Costa Rica has been ranked at number 38 on the EF English Proficiency Index 2016, placing it almost dead-center of the global leaderboards, despite being five spots higher than in 2015.

Costa Rica has held diplomatic relations with the US since 1851, during which time it has become an important trading partner. In 2015, the U.S. had a US$1.7 billion trade surplus with Costa Rica primarily due to Intel’s relocation of their chip manufacturing plant the year before. Today, more than 50% of all FDI into Costa Rica comes from the US, as well as around 40% of the country’s imports.

Furthermore, tourism and immigration plays a deciding factor, with approximately 100,000 American citizens living there and more than 1 million US visitors every year, driving an even deeper necessity for fluid English skills.

Government Level Initiatives

“We are aware that the country needs students with a higher level of English, and it’s the first time that we’re counting on a curriculum that is in accordance with international standards,” said Ana Isabel Campos, the national English adviser, cited by the Costa Rica News.

The Ministry of Public Education is aiming to graduate more than 1 million bilingual students every year, with expectations of sixth graders achieving an A1 level, and secondary school students to hit B1 or B2.

“It would be a great achievement for the country if we manage to get graduates with a B1 or B2 in English by 2021. We want our students in public schools to speak English as well as those who study in private educational centers,” said Campos.

According to the Ministry, around 60% of teachers in public schools have B2-C1 levels in English, 20% have B1, and the remaining 20% have an A2-A1 level. It’s for this reason that the government is providing courses to teachers to get them to intermediate or upper-intermediate levels of English.

Development Sector Shines

tess manderson
Tess Manderson: “So far, we haven’t had Costa Rican candidates that have been passed on by clients because of their lack of English skills.”

“For mobile and web app development, including dev-ops, QA, Java, etc., we haven’t had an issue finding candidates who have good English skills,” said Tess Manderson, Vice President at Gorilla Logic, and company lead when it comes to recruitment. “We have run into problems when looking for infrastructure skills, such as DBA, for example, but this is mainly because these roles are not particularly client facing.”

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During the interview process, Gorilla Logic performs technical phone screening in English, in order to show that candidates can get their thoughts across technically in the language. “So far,” Manderson said, “we haven’t had Costa Rican candidates that have been passed on by clients because of their lack of English skills, but we have had it with non-Costa Rica nationals, mainly because of the difference in accent.”

Individual Motivation to Improve

With the growing number of US companies opening small offices in Costa Rica, the talent pool of developers is getting much more exposure to English. While written English is the stronger talent right now, people are actively working to improve their spoken English.

“At Gorilla Logic, we have an English instructor that does voluntary workshops daily, which have had very high participation rates,” said Manderson. “People are going regularly to refresh their skills or focus on developing their professional language ability over the more casual.”

Everyone the company hires has to go through US-based recruitment process in English, so Manderson was surprised that Costa Rica is halfway down the EF rankings. “My exposure to local talent in the IT industry paints a different picture entirely,” she said.

Alongside the initiatives from government and industry, local universities should also consider upgrading their curriculum to develop teachers, as well as introduce innovative new teaching strategies for students. An enhanced level of English country-wide will spark greater interest in a career in the services industry, growing the already strong and capable talent pool.


Check out other countries in this Nearshore English Evolution series by clicking here. Meanwhile, we’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this topic, so please join the conversation in the comments below. 

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