After years of stagnation, plans to improve English proficiency are finally gaining momentum in Latin America.
Twelve of the 19 Latin American countries included in this year’s EF EPI improved their adult English proficiency since last year, and five improved significantly, a more positive trend than in any other region. Although the population-weighted regional average only increased slightly, due to the downward pressure of Brazil and Mexico, the overall trend is encouraging.
In the past two decades, Latin American countries have made enormous progress in ensuring that all children have access to education. Now, attention has shifted to English skills. The Latin American business community is increasingly vocal in its demand for more English speakers, and, in response, a majority of the region’s countries have rolled out education reforms to teach English better and more widely. It is too early to judge these reforms based solely on adult proficiency levels, but national testing has shown promising results among students. Successful models will provide a roadmap for countries with less successful programs in the region.
For the second year running, Costa Rica’s English proficiency has improved. English has been a required subject there for decades, but, unlike many countries in the region, Costa Rica has invested heavily in teacher training and recruitment. Today English is taught in every secondary school and in 87% of primary schools, and nearly every English teacher holds a tertiary degree. Testing in 2015 showed that Costa Rican English teachers have the highest level of language mastery in the region.
In 2015, Uruguay rolled out an ambitious plan to raise English proficiency, investing in technology to enable remote English teaching at schools with no qualified English teacher on site. All urban public schools now have either locally or remotely taught English lessons, and the online course offering has been expanded to teachers to encourage them to upskill. The results so far are positive, with nearly 80% of students at the end of primary school testing at an A2 level or above, compared to just 56% in 2014.
Although it is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, Bolivia has cut rates of extreme poverty by half in the past decade and dramatically improved access to schools in rural areas. Literacy rates have risen accordingly, and our data shows that English proficiency is also on the rise, with a 2.77 point increase since last year.
EF EPI score: 57,38
EF EPI score: 54,08
EF EPI score: 51,64
Latin America is a region plagued by violence, with 42 of the world’s 50 deadliest cities, as determined by homicide rates. Fifteen of these cities are located in Mexico, and another 14 are in Brazil. These two large countries have also seen their English proficiency scores decline since 2017, and, although there is no direct link between this result and levels of violence, both are indicators of the fragility of state services.
El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras, infamous for high levels of violence, have made enormous progress in safety and policing. Murder rates are down 50% in El Salvador since 2015, and by a similar margin in Honduras since 2011. All three countries have seen significant improvements in their English proficiency since last year. These are still by no means safe countries, and, again, there is no causal link between levels of violence and English proficiency, but it is clear that when people are free to work and study without fear, society flourishes.
Despite laws that make English a required subject in most Latin American countries, access to English classes remains uneven. In some regions of Mexico, less than 10% of schools offer English lessons despite their legal obligation to do so. In Ecuador in 2014, that figure was less than 7%. Disparities in access to English education are particularly acute between rural and urban areas, and between private and public schools. In some countries, the demand for English in the workplace is so high, and the school provision so poor, that huge numbers of professionals invest in English lessons. A 2015 study in Brazil found that 87% of adults surveyed had paid for English courses since completing their education.
Men scored higher than women for the first time in Latin America, but, as in most other regions, the gender gap is narrow. Men outscore women in well over half the countries, with a gap of more than two points in Mexico and Panama. The situation is reversed in a few countries, but the gender gap is narrow.
Older Latin American adults improved their English proficiency, while younger adults did not. In contrast to demographic patterns elsewhere, adults over 40 in Latin America speak English as well, on average, as recent graduates. However, the region has narrow score differences between age bands, with the highest and lowest scoring age groups seperated by less than two points. Given the scarcity of government funding for adult education, the improvements among older adults are probably the result of corporate training programs, individual investments, and broader exposure to English-language media.