Each year, the international education company Education First EF (EF) publishes its English Proficiency Index, which ranks more than 100 countries based on the English skills of their populations. Several leading organizations such as Statista constantly use and replicate this ranking. Even foreign investment attraction agencies around the world quote the index to strengthen the case in favor of the labor force in their respective markets.
The EF Index steadily ranks European countries like the Netherlands and Austria as global leaders in English skills. Nations in Africa and the Middle East, such as Yemen, Iraq and South Sudan, usually end up at the bottom.
Do you see your country on the list? Based on test data from over two million adults, these 10 countries scored the highest for #English language proficiency. See the full rankings in our 2021 EF English Proficiency Index report here: https://t.co/sk9IAESvk1 pic.twitter.com/bOkxhhunqy
— EF Education First (@EF) November 16, 2021
One has to wonder: what is the methodology for such a widely used ranking? How representative it can be of the actual capabilities of a particular population to speak English? How do Latin American countries perform in this ranking? And what is the actual situation of bilingualism in the region?
These questions are particularly relevant when Nearshore markets are experiencing a boom in activity. Today, record numbers of US and international companies look to hire and expand operations across Latin America and the Caribbean. In this context, English skills are essential for the prospects of growth in the region.
How the EF Index Works
The results of the EF Index are based on test data from millions of test takers. This means that the data is not based on representative samples. Even though the index has a threshold for the number of participants per country in order to consider a jurisdiction eligible for inclusion, these numbers remain unlikely to effectively capture a whole country’s English skills.
“I don’t like to rely on this type of rankings. They arrive to certain conclusions while extrapolating from inconsistent statistical basis,” said Mauricio A. Velásquez, Managing Director of Bogotá-based Velásquez & Company.
Nearshore Americas reached out to the EF Mexico office for comment, but didn’t receive a reply.
“If you’re going to rate English skills, you’ve got to rate people’s ability to function in a business setting. For the contact center industry, this is key”—Mauricio Velásquez, Managing Director at Velásquez & Company
Velásquez, who is an experienced outsourcing and technology executive advising companies on market entry and development strategies in Colombia, believes that it’s not only about the general methodology flaws of these lists but what kind of specific skills are being measured.
“From an industry perspective, it’s not just about having people that can maintain a pleasant conversation. If you’re going to rate English skills, you’ve got to rate people’s ability to function in a business setting,” said Velázquez. “For the contact center industry, this is key. The people that you put to work need to be able to satisfy the costumers’ needs when they get to the phone. These rankings are too generic.”
The point made by Velásquez is important. For Nearshore outsourcing, it’s all about industry-relevant skills. For example, according to the 2020 index, Argentina scored 566 out of a maximum of 800 points. That was the highest score among all Latin American countries included in the survey. Buenos Aires also received the highest English proficiency score among all the Latin American cities analyzed. Buenos Aires and Cordoba were the only cities in the region with a score in the “high proficiency” range (550-599 points).
“Looking at the ranking, you’ll notice that both Argentina and Peru score higher than Colombia when it comes to English language skills. But none of those countries have a bilingual BPO sector to the level of Colombia, which keeps adding bilingual positions in the industry,” said Velásquez.
Beyond Rankings: Elevating English Skills in the Nearshore
“For some time now, employers have been demanding substantial improvements to the English teaching programs,” said Miguel López, Managing Partner of the Costa Rica-based HR consultancy firm Recluta Talenthunter. “At this point, many companies find it necessary to implement their own strategies for teaching and improving English skills.”
The Costa Rican workforce has long been praised for its language skills. This is particularly true with regard to software professionals and knowledge economy workers in general. However, Lopez’s comments show an important trend in the Nearshore: industry-led efforts to upskill the workforce, including English skills.
“Many companies find it necessary to implement their own strategies for teaching and improving English skills”—Miguel López, Managing Partner at Recluta Talenthunter.
A couple of years ago, Sykes started hiring Costa Ricans it trained in English language skills as part of an agreement it reached with the Central American country’s Labor Ministry. In places like Colombia, programs such as Go Cali Bilingual City exemplify this push to improve English skills. In many countries, these efforts serve as a complement to the work of public institutions while, in some cases, private training programs occupy a central position.
“Improving language skills has not been a central public policy interest, or at least it hasn’t been widely perceived as an important component of the equation to encourage investment into the country,” said Mauricio Jaramillo Reyes, a partner at the Mexican law firm Cuenca Reyes Zavala & Asociados, who advises clients on issues of foreign direct investment.
It is not just about getting public institutions to focus on this issue, but also changing the way English learning is addressed. For Velásquez, even when many national and local governments are trying to solve this issue, their approach keeps getting the fundamentals wrong.
“Many Latin American countries are connected to American culture. Young people are constantly consuming English through music, films, gaming, you name it. And we have many Latin Americans returning home after spending time in the US, and even Americans moving to the region to work remotely. We have to use all of that to create a more fluid environment to teach English. We have to shift the educational model,” concluded Velásquez.