Chile, Panama Lead the Way in Improving English Skills in LATAM

Thanks to its bilingual program, Panama’s EF EPI score has improved more than that of any other country in the world.

People in Argentina have high English proficiency compared to those living in other Latin American nations, but Chile and Panama are seeing the largest upsurge in English learners in the recent years, according to the latest EF English Proficiency index. Overall, adult English proficiency in Latin America remains weak.

English is not just the most global language, but English language skills offer countries ways to participate in the global economy and participate in high-technology exports. The report noted that there is certainly a desire among Latin American countries to have more English speakers. In the past three years, a large majority of Latin American countries have launched an array of programs to augment or overhaul their domestic English education.

Currently, Argentina ranks first in Latin America (15th out of 70 countries studied), followed by the Domincan Republic (24th), Peru (35th), Chile (36th), and Ecuador (38th). But Chile is at the forefront of the battle to increase English-speaking workforce and it jumped from 44th in the world in 2013 to 36th in 2015.

In 2003, the Chilean Ministry of Education launched the English Opens Doors Program, one of the earliest national English-language training initiatives in Latin America. The program has recruited and trained over 2,000 foreign English-language volunteer teachers, hosted total immersion English camps and competitions, and supported professional development for Chilean teachers.

Since her re-election in 2014, President Michelle Bachelet has tasked the program with reaching 1,000 Chilean schools during her term in office. As a result, the number of English speakers in Chile has been on the rise.

Many other countries have launched similar programs to teach English to adults. Thanks to its bilingual program, Panama’s EF EPI score has improved more than that of any other country in the world, with it going from . Despite this progress, the report says, most Panamanian adults still lack the English skills necessary to work across borders.

The Panama Bilingual Program includes local and overseas teacher training, additional lessons taught in English for elementary school students, and after-school English classes for secondary school students. The program’s goal is to create 10,000 bilingual teachers and 260,000 bilingual students over the next four years.

In spite of strong economic and social ties with the United States, English proficiency among Mexican adults remains low. In 2014, the Mexican government launched Project 100,000, and the program aims to send 100,000 Mexican students to the United States for short-term, intensive English language courses by 2018. In return, the United States has promised to send 50,000 students to study in Mexico by 2018.

Brazil has launched numerous programs to improve English skills, but the South American giant does not seem to be performing better on the index. In 2013, Brazil’s Ministry of Education created “English Without Borders” to prepare university students for graduate studies in English-speaking countries. Since its launch, the program has tested and trained hundreds of thousands of students at more than 120 public universities across all Brazilian states.

In preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Ministry of Tourism together launched Pronatec Turismo in 2012, offering free English and Spanish lessons to over 150,000 tourism professionals in 120 cities.

“Brazil’s English level has improved slightly from last year, but this progress has not significantly expanded the number of competent English speakers in the Brazilian workforce,” the report states.

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Colombia is also investing in English training. President Juan Manuel Santos announced in July 2014 that his government would invest $690 million over the next 10 years to train 12,000 English teachers and subsidize private English lessons for 40,000 professionals.