Business Challenges and Implications of the English Learning Curve in Central America

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By Research Committee, Keiser International Language Institute

Companies have always required human capital with a vast knowledge in diverse fields and people with a plethora of skills, but these requirements have evolved and have become more complex throughout time. These needs present a high degree of correlation with the changes in technology, globalization, economy, and easiness of access to information, which makes them highly dynamic. Nevertheless, the ability to speak English and, more importantly, be proficient in the language, is a particular skill that has gained strength throughout years and has shaped businesses and economies in a subtle yet powerful way. In Central America, the importance of the English-speaking labor force deserves particular attention due to its critical role in the countries’ development and the challenges governments face to foster this development.

Not so long ago, English proficiency meant a considerable advancement at a personal and professional level that gave individuals a significant advantage over the rest of the job seekers.. In fact, it enabled them to have access to a wider array of employment opportunities. Moreover, it allowed them to obtain better positions with higher salary ranges in their home countries and abroad. However, the effect of English has evolved and now companies in all countries where English is not the native language have steeply increased their demand for a labor force that masters the language, making it an indispensable requirement for employment. Business leaders and policymakers are aware of the fact that English has become a lingua franca in many fields and a critical factor in the growth of their companies as well as for the economic development of their countries.

Different strands of research conclude  that there exists  a direct relationship between English skills  the population has developed and the economic growth of a country (McCormick). In countries  where English proficiency has improved , the income per capita has increased as well. The great importance of English derives mainly from two aspects: information and key players. English represents access to information vital to decision-making, strategy creation, and policy making.  Two cases worth mentioning  include academic and practitioner-oriented literature,  the vast majority of which and the most relevant ones are in English. Furthermore, English grants companies and countries access to key players necessary for their development, profitability, and growth. Countries with a large number of English-speakers combined with high levels of proficiency generate more negotiations and trade besides attracting more foreign investment.

The demand for people with specific language skills in a country and the companies within it directly relate to the number of countries and people outside it that speak its mother tongue. Moreover, demand for a particular language depends on the economic relevance of the countries with which  a nation engages in negotiations and trades that speak the language in question.

These factors help explain the development of the English skills people  in Central America develop. On the one hand, historically the trade of Central American countries has taken place with one another , which reduced the need of English in these countries. On the contrary, over the last decades, Central America has expanded its borders and has been increasingly trading with the U.S. and other developed countries.  In other words, these countries are now highly dependent on developed countries, and the most direct method to bridge them is English. This has created a radical increase in the demand in Central America for a labor force that masters English.

Even though English represents such a crucial tool for companies and economies, Central American countries has been unable to leverage and fully exploit it because  their respective populations  lack a strong base of English skills; as a result,   these nations face a shortage of workers who are highly proficient in English. . In its Globalization of English Report, McKinsey & Co., and Global English state that only 13 percent of graduates from emerging economies are suitable for employment in multinational corporations, and the number one  reason is the lack of English skills (2). The English Proficiency Index 2015, a global ranking of English skills per country, serves  as a useful indicator of the consequences  that may ensue as a result of the lack of English skills in the Central American workforce. In this index, Venezuela and El Salvador rank in the Very Low Proficiency range;  Costa Rica and Panama, in Low Proficiency, while Argentina ranks in High Proficiency, which correlates to their respective economic performances. Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras do not even appear in the ranking.

The core of the current state of English skills in Central America lies in the dynamics and difficulties the education systems in  most of the countries have experienced , which has left the region with significant challenges to overcome. To begin with, historical events such as wars and political distress in the XX Century hindered the economic development of countries and hence access to quality education, especially knowledge and skills  that went against the political priorities of the time. Even though countries have been able to overcome  these issues  at different levels and have implemented policies to promote education, they still lack sound strategies for the teaching of English; they face deficiencies in primary school, and they have scarce trainers regarding quantity and qualifications. Moreover, Central American countries have been unable to integrate adequately technologies in the teaching of English, which has hindered the effectiveness and reach of efforts in education of the language.

Furthermore, this type of Central American Dark Age left significant gaps in what has become today the top management of the most prominent companies. Only a small percentage of the generation of leading managers in most countries today can speak English, and a smaller percentage has an advanced level of proficiency. This means that organizations and economies are unable to achieve higher levels of growth and investment because they lack the human resources to get involved with the key players in the world economy and business world. Digging deeper it is possible to analyze some ramifications of the problem. Top management with insufficient English skills creates tension between themselves and the emerging graduates that up to some degree are entering the labor force with a higher level of English. At the same time, it is mostly the people with relatively high income who are capable of affording (quality) education in the language, which in the end widens socioeconomic gaps.

The lack of English skills raises another red flag for Central American countries as is the adequacy of English and technical skills or specific know-how and training. English helps individuals obtain better jobs within their scope of  study. This fact poses issues whether these individuals are the best fit for these posts or if they possess the knowledge to outperform those competitors that do not speak English. Hence, this evidences a necessary tradeoff between English skills and specialized training that jeopardizes companies’ profitability and growth and the need for training that addresses both aspects.

Business leaders, policy makers, and educational institutions are confront with the difficult mission to fill the gaps and improve the education of English in the Central American region.  By doing so, they will  be able to  achieve higher levels of development and investment. They should  provide a foundation for elementary education, create effective strategies for the teaching of English that ensure the number and quality of trainers, as well as the integration of technologies. Also, stakeholders need to create training programs that prepare the labor force with the technical knowledge in specialized areas and the English skills to accompany it.  This would mean a substantial enhancement of the labor force and, therefore, the development of the private and public sectors as well as the economy of the countries in the region.

References

Education First. “EF English Proficiency Index”. 2015. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

Global English. “The Globalization of English Report: Globalization Accelerates Need for Business English Communication Skills”. 2010. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

McCormick, Christopher. “Countries with Better English Have Better Economies”. Harvard Business Review, 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

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