Texas A&M University researcher and bilingual education professor Rafael Lara-Alecio believes in the power of language — particularly one as widely used as English.

“English is a very powerful language, especially for speakers of other languages,” he says. “Speaking English can open a door here or there for such individuals.

“My overall goal is to find, through technology, the best approach or approaches that can aid students and teachers in acquiring English as a second language,” he adds.

Lara-Alecio, who is working with the Costa Rican Ministry of Public Education and the Costa Rica Multilingual Foundation at the Casa Presidencial, heads the English as a Second or Foreign Language Project (Project EILE).

A total of 162 teachers and 4,860 third- and seventh-grade students from urban and rural schools across Costa Rica are participating in the project, which tests the efficacy of different types of instructional software designed to teach English as a second language. The research team uses research coordinators to make classroom observations and take field notes.

Two bilingual education majors from the Undergraduate Research Scholars program, Enrika Olivarez and Annabelle Nelson, are also participating. They are responsible for sending out the tests, organizing results and helping with translation.

“It’s great to be able to help English language learners — not just here in our own classrooms — but also internationally,” Olivarez says.

Lara-Alecio notes that the need for individuals with English skills is growing in Costa Rica, but there are not enough English teachers to meet the demand.

“Costa Rica, as is true for many countries, has a tremendous shortage of English language teachers,” he says. “When you look at Costa Rica’s rural areas, the need is even greater. Software developers claim they have quality instruction through technology. We are determined to test that claim under controlled conditions.”

If the project is successful, researchers are hoping to extend the concept of technology-based English language development across Costa Rica and then Latin America.

“Day by day, Costa Rica is having more and more demand for individuals with better qualifications to be very active and productive in the global market,” Lara-Alecio says. “They think that through the acquisition of English, they will be better able to move in that direction.”

The Inter-American Development Bank and the Costa Rica-United States of America Foundation support Project EILE with funds totaling approximately $2.5 million. Lara-Alecio’s research collaborators include Fuhui Tong, bilingual education assistant professor; Beverly Irby of Sam Houston State University; Marta Blanco of Costa Rica Multilingual Foundation; and Horacio Alvarez-Marinelli of the Inter-American Development Bank.