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EL Latin America 2016: Colombia’s bilingual plan

Andrea Pérez asks Jermaine S. McDougald from the Universidad de La Sabana about the country’s English language learning policy

Colombia is investing effort and resources to improve its citizens’ English proficiency. Interest in English culture and the English language are growing, with the language set to become highly valued, according to the latest British Council report on Colombia. The ambitious Colombia Bilingüe project, run by the Ministry of Education (MEN), with a huge investment of $1.75 billion announced for the education sector, suggests that the country is set for a considerable expansion of ELT.

Can you explain how Colombia Bilingüe, the government’s ELT policy, works?

It’s a governmental strategy aimed at improving the quality of teaching English and provides Colombian citizens with better tools to be part of the globalized world. The main objective of the strategy is to develop communicative competence in Colombian citizens. For starters, the MEN has three strategic areas that they are working on to ensure that the bilingual policy for 2014–18 will be successful: teachers, materials and follow-up and evaluation.

Other elements of this policy include standards for English competence, evaluation of teaching licensing programmes in ELT and the inclusion of IT into teaching and learning processes. Colombia Bilingüe also looks to support teaching and learning in English, using the model of co-teaching (Colombian licensed EFL teachers plus foreign English-native-speaker teachers) to improve English for both students and teachers, via a much more dynamic pedagogy that fosters the use of English at school.

Colombia has invested a lot of resources to strengthen the use of English so as to help the country play a more active role in globalization in several fields: academic, cultural and economic. The main issue is probably one of attitude, affected by isolation. Colombia is a deeply introverted country, and many people simply don’t realize the advantages of access to opportunities that learning another language can bring. Many Colombians see learning a second language as an arbitrary obstacle imposed on them. Another reason why ELT in Colombia has not been as successful as it should be is the huge differences between public and private education. Despite great advances in public education, ELT remains rudimentary. There’s also a lack of resources and few hours of instruction. There is no uniformity on the number of hours devoted to English instruction in public schools. In some cases, there is only one hour a week – but in private bilingual schools much more, 50 per cent or more of the curriculum is in English.

A British Council report mentioned a ‘lack of teacher training, resources and funding, large class sizes and unenforced standards’. Is the government addressing this issue?

 I am not sure the government is genuinely doing very much that has much real value to face this issue. There is some support for re-training existing teachers who – certainly in the language teaching area – are often very badly prepared for their roles. I see more value coming out of current pre-service teacher training, but it’s difficult for me to estimate how much MEN is involved. MEN has made fair attempts to face the issue through funding training at postgraduate levels. The lack of resources and high student numbers in each intake remain problems. There have also been noticeable efforts to update teachers in foreign language through immersion courses in Colombia and abroad. MEN has also implemented an assistantship programme, which allows teachers and students to interact with English speakers from various countries (see the April 2016 Gazette).

Many tertiary education institutions require students to take an international exam (Toefl, Ielts, FCE) to graduate. They’ve created their own English courses to help students reach B2 level. To strengthen the use of the language, more and more Clil-type classes are being implemented in higher educational institutions. Lots of research has been carried out, mainly at higher education institutions, by practitioners to identify new strategies to improve the way English is taught in Colombia.

Jermaine S. McDougald is director of ELT masters  programmes at the Universidad de La Sabana in Chia, Colombia and managing editor of the Latin American Journal of Content & Language Integrated Learning