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There have been plenty of column inches, in Spanish, devoted to the poor level of English in Colombia. It’s something that the country’s leaders are keen to address. The first step of course in solving a problem is realising you have one, and just how bad it is. To this end, that the state placed 48 out of 60 countries in Education First’s internationally recognised English Proficiency Index* has left no right-thinking person here in any doubt that much work needs to be done.
Considering how close the ties are between Colombia and the US, in comparison to other Latin American countries in any case, you might have been forgiven for thinking that the level of English usage here was relatively high. Not so.
As a casual English teacher in Bogotá where most of my clients come from the middle-to-upper classes, ranging from intermediate to advanced English speakers, I had been somewhat sheltered from the realities of English tuition for the vast majority of Colombians.
However, in recent months I’ve been given a fuller picture of where exactly English teaching ‘is at’ here; and by all accounts, it’s not in a very good place.
That the level of English across the board is low, the result is a dearth of quality Colombian born teachers of the language. Also, being able to speak English well here is somewhat of a status symbol that can open many doors. Therefore those who do possess it are more inclined to seek greater job opportunities, at home or abroad, than averagely paid teaching work. From a state-run school perspective, what you thus get are students leaving secondary level education with very little English.
What this leads to is a congested yet highly lucrative market for English language tuition aimed at young school leavers up to pensioners and everybody in between. You don’t have to look too far to find an institute proclaiming it can have you speaking ‘English in three months’. Impressive stuff. And when the importance of being able to speak the world’s business tongue dawns on those who don’t have it, such institutes are where many turn to.
Yet when it comes to language learning, there are no quick fixes. There must be a desire from the individual to succeed, working accordingly to achieve his/her goal. Yes, there are some shocking teachers out there. In the realms of English teaching, some native speakers can be worse than those who acquired the language, but in the end, all of these are just facilitators. The buck stops with the person who wants to learn.
The realisation of this though is not always forthcoming – both from the student and the institute, be that private or one of Colombia’s much (self) vaunted, ‘top-end’ universities. In one sense, it could be seen as a money issue on all sides. Students pay a nice sum to improve their English (or indeed any subject for that matter) and thus expect results. The institute or university in question wants to ensure it keeps on getting ‘clients’ to keep its finances in good order, so having a good pass rate and contented students is good PR.
So what you get is a lowering of standards; a race to the bottom you could call it. If shortcuts can be taken, take them. This has manifested itself in some institutes moving away from credible, internationally recognised publishing houses for their material to cheaper, sub-standard ones. (One such coursebook finds it acceptable to describe some Asians by a prominent facial feature – very politically correct that.)
It also appears that student feedback is given too much weight (again, from anecdotal evidence, this isn’t restricted to the English teaching sphere). If one particular teacher is failing too many ‘enrollees’, the problem is with the teacher, especially if he or she is getting some bad reviews – even more so if the feedback comes from a student with a bit of ‘clout’.
It’s a case of having less morally compromised professors, more of the type who are malleable to the students’ – and institutes’ – needs. ‘Give the fee-payer his/her certificate at the end, that’s the main thing.’ Sure, as long as you don’t have to take an Ielts or Toefl exam that is, or just even engage with anglophones.
Thus one becomes ‘qualified’ in English (or whatever else), but that qualification very often is not worth the paper it’s written in.
It comes back to that adage, ‘Qualification is a result, education a process.’ Yes, a qualification can be seen as a milestone in that perpetual process. The greater problems arise when the process itself is flawed.
Therein lies the crux of the issue for some of this country’s educational institutes.
*The following is a Spanish article detailing the results of the English Proficiency Index:
For related articles, see: A Globish affair & A qualified, uneducated elite?
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I think that the problem is in the system itself, unfortunately the Colombian government has always given priority to the defense and security field giving precedence to the budget earmarked for war and sacrificing the educational sector, this is translated into a deficiency and lack of resources to build more public schools and hire more teachers.
As an educator who has worked in the public sector, I can say that it’s a difficult task to give personalized feedback in a classroom with 45 students, plus the class time is only 50 minutes and students get only three English classes in a week giving as a result what you mentioned: “students leaving secondary level education with very little English.” The ministry of education should do something about it, they only write papers and policies but words easily go with the wind. I remember they created a norm in 2005 where it said that Bogotá should be bilingual in 10 years, I doubt that is going to happen, next year the famous program “Bogotá Bilingüe” should be accomplished. Let’s see which excuses they will make up.
Your picture reminded me of this enormous mistake that happened last year: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itMv6sW-STk
If someone wants to read about the Nation’s General Budget: http://www.larepublica.co/economia/en-guerra-se-gasta-215-billones-al-a%C3%B1o-del-presupuesto_19163
I remember that medal error — funny, if a little silly!
As I wrote at the start, there has been lots written and indeed talked about this particular topic. It’s a case now of taking corrective action. As you allude to though, is the desire there among the powers-that-be?
Thanks for reading and commenting!
That’s somehow a “systems issue” as one of my teachers would say. I think this lies with the conception of Education in the country. My aunt is an English teacher, and she keeps encountering people in her way, who only do it for the “diploma” (or as we say here, “por el cartón”), to get higher status, to be able to apply to bigger things. But there aren’t many who REALLY want to learn, to breathe, to absorb a foreign language.
On other side, I hope that the English-teaching-garage-institutions had more control… I’ve seen more than one complaining because the “cheap course” never worked for them.
Nice article, looking forward to read more!
Well I’m always around to lend a hand in the English teaching end of things Addy! Plus I know plenty of good, dedicated teachers here too (most, but not all, being expats). So people know where to find me and my ‘associates’!
Thanks for being the first person to leave a comment on any of my posts; you deserve a free coffee (or even cheap beer) for that. Resources are pretty tight right now, something my next piece will focus on — that’ll be posted in the coming days.
Feel free to spread the ‘Wrong Way’ word!