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Colombia’s powers-that-be place a fair amount of importance, in theory anyway, on improving the level of English here. There was even a ridiculously ambitious plan from the government to have the country bilingual by 2019. Still on track with that guys?

There’s aiming high and then there’s the pie in the sky. Keep it attainable, people. (If only the Brits had colonised the place instead of those plundering Spanish, eh?)

In order to graduate from university, many Colombian students are forced into trying to learn English ...

“If only I’d started doing this years ago …” (Picture from web.)

Nonetheless, as the global language (for now) in an unprecedentedly interconnected world, there’s no doubt having English up to a workable level is, or at least could be, an advantage.

Thus, convincing the masses to warm to it is a noble pursuit.

Like most things, but perhaps even more so with languages, the younger this is done the better. However, Colombia’s track record in this regard, especially in public schools, leaves a lot to be desired.

This being the case, the fact that in many university courses you can’t graduate without attaining a certain, usually relatively high level of English could be viewed as being a bit harsh.

Of course, if you’re studying international relations or the like where English is usually a core element and prerequisite for the course, fair enough.

Money-making racket
Yet for degrees where English is not essential per se, why then make obtaining a good grade in it a qualification requirement?

If the student has shown to be competent and worthy of his or her degree in the chief area of study, let them at it we say.

Fair enough, as mentioned above having a decent grasp of English may open more doors in the workplace. So the universities in question could be seen as forcing a good deed on students who have paid hefty enrolment fees. How thoughtful of them.

Now as you know it’s far from cynical we are here, but those of that disposition could be forgiven for thinking that the English requirement is just a money-making racket. ‘Aw, hard luck, you failed English. Not to worry. Pay for a course to get your level up to scratch, pay for an additional semester and hopefully you’ll be good to graduate in a few months.’ Come on guys, these universities would never be so self-centred.

Easy way out
As tough as it may seem on those who struggle with English, as ever in these parts some centres of learning ‘allow’ a way around it. From what we can gather, in not all places does the English test have to be taken supervised, on campus. There’s an unsupervised, on-line option.

We recently had the friend of an acquaintance ask us to assist her while she took this on-line test. Of course, we objected strictly on moral grounds — it had nothing to do with the fact that it wasn’t financially worth it for us.

This practice, where it happens, obviously makes a mockery of the whole English requirement. (For the record, this was Universidad Central.) An Ielts or Toefl exam would soon find out those who profess to have English to a high level (to a point anyway; some people who do have good English don’t always perform well in these type of tests).

Outside of that, coming back to the practice of having an English test requirement for degrees where it’s not essential, isn’t it best to just let potential employers deal with that?

A Spanish-speaking civil engineering firm searching for prospective employees would probably list English as merely an advantage, not an actual requirement.

Forcing the language on people at a later stage in their development isn’t the way to achieve bilingual status.
Needless to say, it starts at a much younger age.

If English is a priority for Colombian officialdom, the place to get serious about it is at primary level education.

Alas, from a public school perspective anyway, it’s more a case of the blind leading the blind in this regard.
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La vida en Colombia desde la perspectiva de un periodista y locutor irlandés, quien ha vivido en el país desde 2011. El blog explora temas sociales y culturales, interacción con los nativos, viajes, actualidades y mucho más. Escucha su podcast acá: https://anchor.fm/brendan-corrigan.

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12 Comentarios
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  1. mauricio.p.gonzalez.54

    This blog sucks! It is poorly writen, it is condesending and it addresses a non-existent problem. What a pitty.
    Este blog apesta! Esta escrito de una manera muy pobre, con un tonito de infulas de patron y se refiere a un problema que no existe! Jua jua jua! No manches guey!

  2. I think it’s highly debatable whether there’s any university degree (besides Spanish or other non-English modern languages) in which the student doesn’t benefit from having good English, given how most scientific literature is produced in English. To use your Civil Engineering example, chances are that the most up-to-date publications on new building materials and techniques will be written in English (regardless of the fact they are written by researchers from a Chinese university, a Swiss Polytechnic School, or even higher learning institutions located in Spanish-speaking countries), so a student who doesn’t understand the language adequately will not be able to be at the vanguard of his/her discipline. In fact, part of the reason why Colombian universities fail to reach higher positions in world university rankings is because a significant portion of their research is not published in indexed periodicals that only accept submissions in English, which are normally the highest-rated ones -or at least the ones with the most impact-. Moreover, most disciplines rely on English terms as terms of art -rather than their translations in other languages-, so it is important for most professionals to be able to understand what they are talking about when a client asks for a “render” or they need to buy surveying tools whose descriptions are in English. Furthermore, practically all professional software used currently comes in English. Sure, there are instances where the program can be installed in different languages, but if you do that chances are you will have to learn commands and hot keys all over again, that you struggle with tutorials (online tutorials and/or books will generally be in English), and you won’t be able to collaborate effectively with colleagues abroad who are using the same software. Also, I’ve often seen that when Colombian companies work for multinational companies in the provision of services the client will ask for conference calls/video calls which are normally carried out in English. What are non-speakers supposed to there? Delegate and lose their spotlight? Upset the client? I’m a lawyer and I can tell you from first-hand experience as a university professor and as practitioner in a law firm that even in areas where the rules are in Spanish, lack of proficiency in English will hurt both students and professionals. Therefore, requiring students to pass tests which aren’t advanced is perfectly understandable well away from any intention to increase university margins of profit.

    Another point is that you are assuming that Colombian students will remain in Colombia or another Spanish-speaking nation for all of their professional lives, when, in reality, many of them will want to move abroad to study their postgraduate degrees (often taught in English) and many of them will seek employment elsewhere, or will be offered transfers if they work for multinational companies. In all these cases, knowledge of English is fundamental.

    Where I do agree with you is on the need to start foreign language education as early as possible and on evaluating Colombia’s public education achievements on that front as dismal. Then again, resources are scarce and all areas of the country’s public education system face serious shortcomings, so…

    • I agree with you on pretty much all of what you’ve written here Diego. English is the lingua franca right now, both formally and informally — the latter instance being an important distinction from both French and Latin in the past.
      The point in the article is, as far as I’m aware, many of these universities don’t make English a major requirement for entry, yet they then make it a graduation requirement, even in cases where it wasn’t a core subject in the course. In this regard, it appears a bit like a money-making racket. That’s what we’re getting at here. How sincere are they about actually improving their students English?
      Thanks for taking the time to make a serious, thought-out comment. Much appreciated.

  3. I’m all for writing with flair but your flair is a little sadistic if the intended audience is El Tiempo readers for whom English is a second language, rather than expatriates who read the City Paper. I’m not saying you should write in VOA Special English (if you’re old enough to remember that!), but perhaps tone it down a bit 🙂

    • VOA — Voice of America?! I must be too young for that so, but I’m not American in any case.
      As for the audience, well it’s difficult to know what it is; it is on the World Wide Web available to all! One writes what comes naturally. If I was getting paid for these, that might change things a little!

  4. You hit the nail on the head. The problem in all of this is the The problem is improvisation and the worst thing is wanting to imitate and snobing to show up the failure in what is really important for the student in his profession. It should be he who decides and measures the importance of learning English or another language that will serve him in his work and social life. If you want to impose English as a second language, as you say you should start from elementary school and with a program appropriate to the reality of the country, not trying to impose and much less imitate to continue failing.
    Finally I can not agree more with you “If only the Brits had colonized the place instead of those plundering Spanish, eh ?, with the good Canadian eh?

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