San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

English Speakers in Demand

It’s the open secret of the year: Costa Rica does not have enough English speakers to fill the demand presented by the country’s rapidly growing service industry.

“The number of jobs that require a relatively sophisticated use of English (surpasses) our ability as a country to produce qualified professionals,” Education Minister Leonardo Garnier said.

The Costa Rican Investment Promotion Agency (CINDE) figures that the service industry will need another 7,000 English speakers by next year, whether or not the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) passes in the upcoming referendum.

The projected demand is in addition to the 15,000 already working in call centers, office outsourcing and other businesses that offer services abroad.

So far, the prospects don’t look good. “What (our members) tell us is that of every 10 people they interview, eight lose the opportunity because of their (poor) English,” said Andrea Centeno, a CINDE spokeswoman.

The problem stems in part from inferior English-language education in the public schools. Only 3% of public high schools – the “bilingual schools” – graduate bilingual students, said Anabelle Venegas, who runs the foreign language program at the Education Ministry.

“The biggest bottleneck that we have found is in teacher training,” Garnier said.“No one can teach English well if they don’t speak English well.”

Meanwhile, the private sector and individual Ticos are taking their own actions. At least one service sector company – Sykes Enterprises – has launched its own English academy, and private English schools are booming.

Sykes Enterprises, which runs call centers employing 2,500 bilingual employees, has come up with its own novel solution to the scarcity by launching a nonprofit English academy.

Sykes job applicants who meet all the other requirements but whose English could use some “polishing” are offered three weeks of intensive training for ¢10,000 (about $20) a week.

Once the classes are over, if the students’ English has improved enough, they’re offered jobs. If they take the job, they’re also offered a refund of student fees.

The academy plans to train 60 students per month.

Language centers are also seeing a jump in their popularity. Karl Schmack, executive director of the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center, said enrollment has been growing by about 25% annually.

The center now teaches 6,000 students, and, Schmack said, the growth they’re experiencing is not unusual these days.

“What we’re seeing is that our competitors or other institutes like us are also growing,” Schmack said. “Generally, the pie is growing.”

Especially popular are the center’s programs for children – Schmack said more parents are scrambling to get their kids learning English early.

Meanwhile, he said, public schools simply lack the resources for running good English-language programs.

Teachers Get Failing Grade

Public high schools in Costa Rica have offered English since the 1800s, and the language became part of many primary school curriculums in the mid-1990s.

But a teacher scarcity has left 20% of primary schools and 86% of preschools without English classes, Venegas said.

Of the English teachers the system has managed to hire, many are ill equipped. Only 55% of public school English teachers this year got the required grade of “high-intermediate” on a hiring exam testing their English-language skills.

The rest tested as low-intermediate or intermediate.

Quantity of class time is a problem as well. Primary schools are often unable to offer five 40-minute lessons a week, as required by the Superior Education Council (CONESUP).

And while high schools do have enough English teachers to give the required classes to the vast majority of students who choose to learn English over French, Venegas said the required class time is not enough.

Students in seventh through ninth grades take three 40-minute lessons a week, and  students in 10th and 11th grades take five weekly lessons. (Traditional public school high schools have no 12th grade.)

English teacher Elizabeth Alfaro said teaching conditions at San Luis Gonzaga High School in Cartago, east of San José, have prevented her students from truly learning English.

Alfaro has no tape recordings or movies so students can hear native speakers; she works exclusively from a textbook. Large class sizes – between 35 and 38 students –keep students from practicing their oral skills. In any case, Alfaro conducts about half her classes in Spanish.

There is little incentive to learn more than

reading and writing: The national English test

students must take to get a high school degree

does not include an oral section.

In contrast, “bilingual” public high schools – 3% of the nation’s total – offer about 10 weekly English classes and incorporate the language into other subjects.

“These are the high schools that are truly graduating the bilingual students,” Venegas said.

While a plan to improve English teaching in public schools is in the works – sponsored jointly by the National Training Institute (INA), Planning Ministry and Ministry of Public Education – details have yet to be announced.

Even if the learning of English in Costa Rica has stalled, the demand for English speakers from new and expanding service sector companies continues to grow tremendously.

Another 7,000 service sector jobs will need to be filled next year, CINDE says, and large outsourcing companies like Hewlett Packard have announced plans to add thousands of jobs in Costa Rica in the near future.

Faced with the labor shortage, the government has taken up some initiatives in the past to improve the English of the country’s workforce, including a technical English program launched last year by INA and a student loan program through the National Commission of Educational Loans (CONAPE).

In an e-mail, CINDE director Gabriela Llobet sounded a positive note: “It’s worth pointing out that while it’s recognized that more people who (speak) a second language need to be trained… the companies haven’t stopped growing and adding to their payrolls.”


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