Colombia falls in the lowest ranking group worldwide for it’s level of spoken English in a global ranking of cultural exchange organization Education First (EF).
Colombia ranks 44 out of 60 with a “very low” general level of English, in the EF ranking.
A Central Bank investigation from September 2013 found that 90 percent of secondary school students reach a maximum level of A1 – a very basic level- and that that only 6.5 percent of secondary education students finish with a B level, the minimum level that could be considered bi-lingual.
In 2004 the Colombia government outlined its plan for Bilingualism in Colombia, with its aims that by 2019 the majority of people leaving school would have a B level of spoken English, as a means of increasing employment opportunities and raising Colombia in the world of international business.
The bleak report from 2013 showed that only 2 percent of students leave school level education with B1 level of English, the basic level which gives the ability to understand and converse, but is by no means fluent.
Bi-lingual President Juan Manuel Santos said in his acceptance speech in 2010 that his vision for Colombia was that “every student has access to a personal computer and bilingual education”.
While Santos had the opportunity to gain a fluent level of spoken English after a university education and time spent working abroad in London, it would appear that the majority of Colombians are nowhere near bi-lingual, and have little chance of becoming so within the public education system.
A lack of quality teachers
The results of the Central Bank report shows that it is not only students who have a low level of English. A 2009 report by the ministry of Education showed that nearly fifty percent of English teachers in public schools did not have a B1 level of English, the basic level needed to communicate and understand the language.
“Of the eleven thousand we evaluated, some five thousand didn’t know how to speak English. The other six thousand had basic knowledge of how to speak English,” Education Minister Cecilia Maria Velez White told Caracol Radio.
The 2013 report showed a slight improvement with 25 percent of teachers in public education achieving a higher level than B, and 35 percent holding the most basic B1 level.
This still leaves a lot of room for improvement however, and 14.4 percent of teachers teaching English to students hold a level of A -, meaning that they have a minimal grasp of the language and would struggle to communicate or understand spoken or written English.
The last decade has seen an increase in the number of tourists visiting the country, but also in those wanting to live, work and study on a long term basis. While the government should be taking advantage of this influx of native speakers and the opportunity to employ quality native English language trainers, instead government legislation is making it more difficult for foreigners to live and work in Colombia legally.
Government tax reforms from 2012 have made it more difficult for schools to provide foreign teachers with work VISAS, thus limiting access to a wealth of learning opportunities.
Other options available
Students are therefore left with two options in Colombia. Leave school with a very basic level of English, or enrol in a private language academy.
Major Colombian cities such as Bogota and Medellin have schools run by British Council, the leading English language organisation worldwide, and other well-known and respected institutions such as Berlitz and Colombo Americano. While the option is available to students, courses in these private academies are not cheap, and will undoubtedly be unavailable to youngsters who are not from wealthy backgrounds.
Language academies generally offer courses which are split into levels lasting two to four months with each level costing between 300´000 to 700´000 pesos. To study English from a beginner level to fluent level would cost 2 and 6 million pesos not including the prices of textbooks and learning materials.
Another option available is to travel to another country to study English. This option provides the best chances of learning a language quickly and effectively due to total emersion in the English language and culture and the option to live with a host family, thus using English all day, not only when stuck in the classroom.
The new VISA changes which came about in 2013 give Colombians more free reign in where they can travel and study in the world, but the UK was not included in the countries which relaxed the travel restrictions.
While it is possible for Colombians to apply to study in the U.K or the United States, it requires a lengthy VISA process and is extremely expensive. As reported by Caracol, a Colombian student Tania Calderon paid in total roughly 30 million pesos (15´000 USD) for 6 months studying English in Bournemouth, England.
With an average yearly salary standing at 8´300 USD for most Colombians, it is obvious that travelling abroad to study is only available to the rich elite.