Spanish serves as an international language in Latin America
Latin America’s English proficiency is very low. In part this is explained by the importance of Spanish to the region. A shared language already allows for continental trade, diplomacy, and travel, lessening the motivation to learn English.
Weak public education hampers English proficiency
However, the poor quality of public schools across Latin America combined with unequal access to education provides a more convincing explanation for the region’s weakness in English. When Brazil administered tests to 2.3 million Grade 4 students (10 years old) in 2007, it found that 52% of students nationwide had low or very low levels of reading ability in Portuguese, the country’s main language. An enormous variation between regions was also found: 32% of children in the capital region, Brasilia, had low reading skills versus 74% in the lowest-scoring region. Across all regions, low levels of parental education and student ethnicity had strong impacts on reading skills. These results are in line with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA study in 2009, which found that across Latin America 48% of 15-year-olds cannot perform rudimentary tasks in reading and comprehension necessary to participate in society, while among low-income students that figure rose to 62%. Clearly, if literacy skills are lacking, English will fall by the wayside.
Understanding higher proficiency
Argentina is the only country in Latin America with moderate English proficiency. Literacy rates in the country are higher than average for the region (97% compared to 89.9%) and average years of schooling (15.1 years) are also well above the regional average (13.1 years). Argentina has had high rates of primary and secondary school enrollment since the 1970’s, when most of its neighbors still educated less than half of children through 6th grade (12 years old). However, Argentina’s economic instability has hampered its development and prevented investment in education from rising over time. In addition, unusually high repeat levels in both primary and secondary school as well as high levels of dropouts in secondary school prevent Argentina from attaining the levels of English found in comparably wealthy countries in Eastern Europe.