Type to search

Culture Focus

English, Colombia’s Double Edged Sword

Illustration Credit: Margot Whipps

Written by G. Neely and K. Messerman

In recent decades, countries around the world have begun to require that their populations learn English and with good reason. In 2013, the United Nation’s Education First (EF) English Proficiency Index found that out of 60 countries and territories, an increase in English proficiency corresponded to an increase in per capita income. Similarly, the World Economic Forum finds a connection between English proficiency and quality of life, with lower proficiency translating to poorer quality. Speaking English has become the Aladdin’s lamp of our time, promising economic success to those who can master it. This article looks at the example of one country’s quest for this magic power and asks what are the benefits and pitfalls of transitioning to English proficiency.

After World War II, the U.S. rose as an economic and political power. During the decades that followed, English transitioned into a global Lingua Franca used for commerce, trade, and international diplomacy.  Against this backdrop, in 2004, the Colombian Ministry of Education (MEN) launched a series of bilingual language policies intended to increase Colombia’s competitiveness in the global market. Originally, the policy considered the study of both Spanish and local indigenous languages, but in later versions it became clear that the term bilingual referred specifically to Spanish and English.  In 2006, the MEN stated that the policy’s purpose was to educate citizens who could communicate in “English” in order to meet “the demand of a globalized world.” Clearly, English proficiency is a goal worth pursuing, yet the implementation is not without problems.

Indigenous Language Loss

One area of concern is that in its drive to attain English proficiency, Colombia is leaving its Indigenous languages behind. Currently over 60 Indigenous languages are spoken in the country. Although the government is making some effort to support these languages, the educational budget must serve many needs. Colombia is not alone in this trend. According to linguists, the world loses one language every 14 days. It is estimated that half of the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of the century. 

We can look to linguists for aid. In 2016, Christiane Donahue proposed the idea of a Transnational-Translingual Norm that could be implemented into language classrooms (or any classroom for that matter).  Instead of relying on one language as the formatted system by which students must learn, multilingualism becomes a resource that diversifies and assists the classroom experience. Donahue argues that all linguistic resources available in a classroom, whether they be from the teacher, students or provided by the school should be intertwined into the curriculum.  By allowing students to use the language(s) that they already know, they become not only resources for themselves, but also for their classmates. In addition, the government has made attempts at conserving the native languages and cultures of Indigenous communities through programs such as, The Ethnoeducation Mother Tongue Project and the licensing of Indigenous radio stations in the rural countryside. Yet, the situation remains dire. Daniel Aguirre at the Center for the study of Aboriginal Languages, Bogota, predicts that only a few of Colombia’s Indigenous languages will survive by the end of the century. 

Employability a Limited Goal   

Economic opportunities are overwhelmingly touted as the primary reason for learning English in Colombia and other expanding circle countries (which Kachru defines as countries where English is taught as a ‘foreign language’ and do not have a history of colonization by an English speaking power.) Still, existing concerns about the purpose behind government language policies remain. Instead of studying English to enhance critical thinking and social development, some critics contend that English is being used primarily for utilitarian purposes to serve international corporations.  In defense of this criticism they cite the 2014 Ministry of Education’s language policy which states that one of the reasons behind the program was to create high school graduates “who can work in customer service of tourism and software companies, as well as business processing outsourcing.” English thus functions as the means for obtaining a better job in the international “knowledge economy.” The knowledge economy theory bases itself on the concept of acceleration in knowledge intensive activities bringing about greater logical and scientific advancements. Human capital allows individual to have economic value through their own knowledge and capabilities. However, human capital can lose its importance as certain industries become antiquated with the advances that stem from this type of economy. One example is call centers where experts predict that 85% of customer phone queries will be handled without a human agent in the near future.  Therefore, even some in the knowledge economy are in danger of being left out.  

 Implementation Outsourced

Another criticism involves the outsourcing of language experts. Countries often look outside their borders for English curriculum expertise. In Colombia, the implementation of the entire English language program was contracted to organizations outside of the country. The British Council, a powerhouse in language programs around the world, Mckinsey & Co. and Cambridge University Press were brought in to provide curriculum, material products, models and tests, and to assess standards.In 2009, the MEN adopted the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) as the national  standard. This top down approach ignored local expertise and was so controversial that many of the professionals at Colombia’s most prestigious universities decided to withdraw from participation. In addition, a provision in the policy required that each university have native speakers on staff. This requirement both increases costs and questions the language ideology of the MEN’s bilingual policy. Ideology here refers to what Lippi-Green has called, Standard Language Ideology, which creates a societal form of spoken language (usually that which is spoken by the upper-middle class) and enforces the ideology through standard bloc institutions like public educational systems. Related to this is the idea that native speakers of a language have superior accents and therefore are better suited to teach the language. A construct most linguists believe has no merit. At one time, the goal of the National Bilingual Project in Colombia was to have 70% of high school students achieve a B1 level in English (the minimum level considered bilingual by the  CEFR) by the end of this year.  


In 2017, 14.5 million Colombians lived in poverty (Colombia Report).  Again, considering the economic benefits that English can bring, it is understandable that Colombia, like many other countries, desires to educate their citizens in English.  In 2006 only 2% of Colombia was able to speak English and another language. Further, it was determined that less than half of the country’s teachers were able to speak English at a B1 level, the CEFR minimum level. This information required Colombia to do two things: train its teachers and hire from abroad. After years of civil war, with few financial resources and often a lack of infrastructure, Colombia’s rural areas have more difficulties in finding English teachers, and in some cases teachers in general. This leaves the rural populations at a decided disadvantage. Nestor Romano, a Unicolombo college student living in Cartagena states that, “there are children in rural areas who have never heard English spoken.”  

This brings up another problem which is that many students in rural areas lack English speakers with whom to practice. In Colombia, like so many places around the world, jobs and higher educational opportunities are increasingly centered in urban areas. Another regulation that emerged from the language program was a policy that allows private schools to receive tax dollars. This benefits the growth of private institutions and likely serves as an advantage to families who can afford the tuition. More and more, parents of means who want something better for their kids are turning to private education. Further, the requirement for native speakers and semesters abroad all add up to additional costs. These things, combined with the fees for testing, make it difficult for poorer families to provide their children with a quality English education. This causes concern among some that a two-track system is being created whereby children’s futures are being predetermined. Still, the government is trying to bridge the gap. Additionally, the international community through the Peace Corp and other NGOs is offering to help by providing English teachers in rural areas. 

Loss of Creativity

Colombia’s efforts to bring English language proficiency to its citizenry are being repeated around the globe. Yet,as English, the lingua franca and  the international language spread, we should ask ourselves, what might we be losing? In a New York Times Op Ed, Fareed Zakaria makes a passionate argument for why we should not favor STEM education to the detriment of the broad-based liberal arts education that made the U.S. the economic and innovative leader of the world. So, can we apply this to English and ask whether we might be pursuing it to the detriment of other languages in the struggle to get ahead? Some linguists posit that language shapes our thinking. It is the way in which we describe our reality. If this is true, we have a lot to lose if we don’t handle the spread of English in a responsible way. Certainly everyone deserves the opportunity for a better life, and it is clear that for millions of people that is exactly what English can deliver. But no one can tell us with certainty which jobs and languages will be needed in the distant future. It is clear that countries like Colombia can benefit from growing in English proficiency, but they should be aware of the risks and be careful not to draw their goals too narrowly.