Latin Americans Learn to Speak English

In the Oppenheimer Report in the Miami Herald, Andres Oppenheimer wrote:

The gap between the Latin American countries that are focusing on the future and those that keep dwelling on the past may soon grow a little wider.

That was my first thought when Chile's education minister, Sergio Bitar, told me in a telephone interview last week that the first issue on the agenda of Thursday's meeting of 21 education ministers from Pacific Rim countries in Santiago, Chile, will not be the battle against illiteracy but the adoption of English as a second language.

In what may be one of the world's most significant cultural phenomena, most of the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group (APEC) -- a group that includes China, South Korea, Singapore, Chile, Mexico and Peru -- are making impressive gains in teaching English to their schoolchildren.

Asian countries are way ahead of the game, which may help explain their impressive economic success over the past decade.

... it's a sobering sign that few Latin American countries are even discussing this issue. Unless they move beyond the political scandal of the day and start talking about the real issues that can help their competitiveness, they will continue living in the past -- and lagging behind Asians.

We will now look at some survey data from the 2003 TGI Latina study.  This is a survey of 54,692 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old conducted in eight Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela).  Within this survey, 5.7% of the survey respondents said that they can speak English 'very well' and 21.5% said that they can speak 'some' English.

It is a common myth that children learn languages faster than adults.  This may be based upon the anecdotal observation that immigrant children often have to translate for their parents who never seem to learn the language.  Furthermore, some adults do not seem to be able to get rid of their foreign accents.  This is the so called 'critical period' hypothesis, which states that the cortex of children are more adaptable than those of adults.  The physiological evidence for the 'critical period' hypothesis (also known as the 'frozen brain' hypothesis for adults) is lacking, and the observed differentials between adults and children are just as easily accommodated by psychological and social explanations.  Thus, children are more likely to find themselves in situations (such as schools and playgrounds) in which they are forced to use English.

In terms of the project to adopt English as a second language, it is clear that much will depend on the needs and opportunities for people.  Some adults will not see the need for them to learn English, since their job situations do not require this particular skill.  For children, it is a lot easier since English can be introduced into the school curricula.  In the next chart, we show English speaking ability by individual ages.  We remind the reader that these are cross-sectional data presented at a single moment in time.

In the cited Oppenheimer report, he mentioned that whereas Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand begin English instruction for first-grade school children, the most advanced Latin American country Chile begin English language instructions at fifth grade.  Thus, we see that the ability to speak English increases from age 12 upwards until around age 18-20.  The decline thereafter do not reflect the ability to learn.  Rather, as our previous discussion points out, it has to do with the needs and opportunities to learn English for these people at this time.  In twenty years' time, as the 20-year-olds of today reach 40, one would expect that the incidence would be more than 35% instead of the 25% of today's 40-year-olds.

(Source:  2003 TGI Latina)

But in Latin America, everything has to be filtered by the prism of socio-economic class.  In the next chart, we show the breakdown by four socio-economic levels (A = top 10%, B = next 20%, C = next 30% and D = bottom 40%).  If there are economic benefits that accrue from mastery of the English language, they will fall to the elite again.

(Source:  2003 TGI Latina)

(posted by Roland Soong, 6/5/2004)

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