Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Asia tops Latin America in English fluency

If you only speak English and are planning to travel abroad, you are likely to have an easier time finding English speakers in South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and China than in most Latin American countries.

It seems weird, among other things, because Asian countries have a different alphabet, and — unlike Mexico — don’t share a border with the United States. But according to a new ranking of English-speaking proficiency in 63 countries around the world, Latin American countries — including Mexico — are at the bottom of the list.

The Education First English Proficiency Index 2014 Ranking says that while European countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden top the list of proficiency in English as a second language, almost all countries in Latin America “have low or very low English proficiency.”

Only Argentina and the Dominican Republic, which rank 15 and 23, respectively, are higher on the list than South Korea (ranked 24th), Japan (26th) and Vietnam (33rd). Most other Latin American countries are ranked below China (37th), including Brazil (38th), Mexico (39th), Uruguay (40th), Chile (41st), Colombia (42nd) and Venezuela (50th).

It’s a surprising ranking. Considering the millions of U.S. tourists who travel to Mexico and other Latin American countries, and the influence of U.S. music, movies and other media in Latin America, one could have speculated that there is a greater fluency of English in Latin America than, say, in China.

But a separate study by Mexicanos Primero, a Mexican independent organization that pushes for quality education, confirms that English proficiency in Mexico is far below what most people believe.

The study found that an astounding 97 percent of Mexico’s 15-year-olds in public schools don’t have the basic English skills required by Mexico’s public school system. Only 3 percent meet Mexico’s education curriculum’s minimum English fluency requirements, it says. English is an obligatory subject in Mexico’s public schools since 1926.

“When I first saw the results, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” says Claudio X. Gonzalez, Mexicanos Primero’s president. “Our public education system is cheating us. It allows students to pass their grades without having the minimum skills to do so.”

Much of the problem is due to low budgets and lack of good English teachers. Only one of every 10 Mexican elementary schools have an English teacher. And only 48 percent of English teachers tested by Mexicanos Primero had the English fluency levels required for their students, the Mexicanos Primero study found.

Asked what should be done, Gonzalez says there should be a national offensive to improve English teaching, much like several Asian countries have done in recent years. There are more English students in China today than in the United States, Great Britain and Canada combined, he noted.

“English is today’s world lingua franca,” Gonzalez said. “Ninety percent of scientific publications are written in English. It’s a language that not only allow Mexicans to communicate with English-speaking countries, but with the Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians and people from all over the world.”

He concluded, “We can’t allow our youths to be isolated from the rest of the world. If we want to insert ourselves in the global economy, we need to speak the world’s lingua franca.”

My opinion: I agree. If China, a communist country, could break its ideological taboos more than a decade ago and embark on a national crusade to teach English in public schools starting in third grade, there is no reason why Latin American countries could not do the same.

Lack of basic English skills is already hurting many Latin American countries in very concrete ways. One of the biggest problems of Brazil’s Science Without Borders plan to send 100,000 science and engineering students to the world’s best universities is that relatively few Brazilian students can pass the required English tests.

There are many ways of teaching English. When I once asked a Finnish official how does Finland manage to have so many good English speakers, he told me, “Very simple: we don’t dub our cartoons on TV. We watch cartoons in English since we are born.”

But as U.S. and Latin American presidents prepare to meet at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April, they should roll out plans to create massive online English courses with accredited exams, and dramatically increase existing programs that send U.S. and Canadian English teachers to Latin America. The alternative for Latin America is greater isolation and greater backwardness.