Country reported to be lagging in English language proficiency

In a global landscape where English dominates every setting from business meetings to social messaging, Costa Ricans are lagging behind the pack. The country’s residents, along with the rest of Latin Americans, seem stuck in neutral when learning and speaking English, according to Education First’s English Proficiency Index, which classifies the nation as one with low proficiency.

Ranking 37th out of the 60 qualifying countries, Costa Rican officials like Jorge Rodríguez from the Ministry of Economía, Industria, and Comercio have expressed concern.  Rodríguez, the director of international cooperation, stressed how vital understanding English is for the economy’s future standing in the global marketplace.

“A high level of English can make a great difference in our economy,” he said. “Our country needs experts highly skilled in this area.”

Philip Johnson, the head of Education First, joined Rodríguez at the Crowne Plaza Corobicí to discuss the index ranking in front of local professors and students. Johnson has worked with the company for 20 years and said there is undoubtedly a correlation between a country’s capability in English comprehension and it’s competitiveness economically. Although Costa Rica ranks highest among Central American nations, it is performing below average internationally.

“For Costa Rica there is no bad news in the EPI,” Johnson said. “But there is a need for better news in the future.”

Since the first edition of the test in 2007, aspiring English speakers have failed to make much improvement, only raising the EPI score by 1.08 points to 50.23. Much of the problem begins and ends with the secondary schools and universities, according to Johnson and Rodríguez. “We’re at a moment in which we can start addressing it better in schools or else get left behind,” Rodríguez said.

The index is calculated from two online tests, creating an impact on the results of countries with low or unreliable Internet usage. Also, as Education First admits, the voluntary test takers are most probably those wanting to learn English or those curious about how they compare to the standard. However, there is little incentive to cheat as the test is not standard and thus cannot apply to anything but the survey. Also, the range of test takers is so diverse in each country that it does provide an approximate measurement, Johnson said.

“But it’s a very broad spectrum of students of all ages and backgrounds that are in the database,” he said. “We realized that inadvertently we had a big range of test scores that we could look at in terms of trying to bring some light to an international index.”

School administrators and students voiced their concerns over the infrastructure of secondary schools and universities, saying that there are limited opportunities of access into English for many of the students, especially those in public schools. Others commented that officials must demand more from the curriculum, instilling greater levels of analysis and applicable in students.

“In spite of the limitations and problems, it is possible to strengthen this area,” said Marisol Rojas of the Universidad Técnica Nacional. “We should invest in more research and different methodologies that translate to the business field, in society, and at the university.”

Though difficulties lay ahead for Costa Ricans when it comes to mastering the universal language, Rodrígues said that the people should look forward to the challenge:

“People say, ‘This is a problem.’ And I say, ‘No this is an opportunity.’”

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