Latin America is the only region in the world to have experienced a decline in average adult English skills since 2017.
This finding reflects the addition of Bolivia, Honduras, and Nicaragua to the index, all of which have scores below the regional average, but the main downward drivers are Mexico and Brazil, the two most populous countries in the region, which both registered declines in English proficiency. In the past decades, Latin America has made enormous progress in ensuring that all children have access to education, but the region still suffers from high levels of economic inequality, fragile democracies, and unacceptable levels of violence, all of which undermine the development of a skilled workforce.
Although children in some rural areas still lack access to education, the primary challenge for schools in Latin America is poor educational outcomes. UNESCO test results indicate that 50% of thirdgrade pupils in the region have not achieved a basic level of competency in mathematics, and 30% have not achieved basic competency in literacy. The latest PISA results found a similar pattern among secondary students. This skill deficit reflects broader problems within education systems that impact English language instruction as well. Overcrowded schools, low teacher wages, and inadequate teacher training are all contributing factors.
EF EPI score: 57.58
EF EPI score: 52.01
EF EPI score: 55.01
Costa Rica improved its English proficiency the most out of any country in the region since last year. Because of major reforms in teacher training and initial qualification, more than 95% of teachers in Costa Rica now hold a tertiary degree, and there is healthy competition for available jobs. Still, teacher assessments administered in 2015 showed that 40% of English teachers had not mastered the content of the curriculum that they were expected to teach. Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru have all also launched English teacher retraining programs in the past five years.
Latin America is in the midst of a skills crisis, and on-the-job training is weak. Only about 10% of workers in the region receive any training in a given year, compared with about half of workers in Europe. This is in part because of the high rates of employment in the informal sector, where small family businesses dominate the landscape. In Peru, 70% of the workforce was employed in the informal sector in 2013, and in the region as a whole, half of all workers work informally, according to the International Labor Organization. When adults don’t have access to professional training or opportunities for career growth, productivity and English proficiency can’t develop, the possibility for advancement diminishes, and existing inequalities are reinforced.
Inequality is perhaps the greatest challenge facing Latin America. Although both income and wage inequality declined throughout the 2000s in the region, according to the latest World Bank data (2016), eight of the world's 20 most unequal countries are in Latin America. Inequality is a multifaceted problem, but stronger education systems – including stronger English education – are part of the solution. English provides access to skills and global networks that can help drive social mobility.
Most programs to improve English proficiency in Latin America focus on funding either teacher training or student exchange to North America. This emphasis on training is well placed given the insufficient number of teachers in the region who are proficient in English. Additional innovative initiatives are also underway, including one program that uses technology to deliver high-quality English lessons taught remotely by teachers in other countries. This initiative offers a more scalable alternative to costly foreign teacher exchange programs.
Profiles of English learning initiativesView Initiatives
Latin American men and women both score significantly below global averages. In previous editions, we have found that Latin America was the only region without a gender gap in English proficiency. That is no longer true. Women in the region improved slightly while men declined, leaving a gap that is of comparable size to the one in Asia.
All age cohorts in Latin America perform below global averages, with adults over 30 reporting the widest skill deficiency compared to their peers abroad. The highest proficiency age group in the region has shifted from 18-20 to 21-25 this year, which may indicate improving higher education in the region. The slight decline in proficiency recorded among the youngest age cohort is, however, less promising.