To address this need, in 2012, the Colombian Government introduced a cultural exchange programme for Asian tour guides and graduate and undergraduate students, providing them with the opportunity to come to Colombia to learn Spanish as a second language. The Colombian embassies in each country, as well as those of the participating countries and universities involved, are the main partners for recruiting interested students.
This initiative strengthens cultural exchange and international cooperation between Colombia and Asia2 by teaching Spanish as a foreign language and promoting Colombia’s linguistic, cultural and touristic values. It is also important for Asian tour guides to strengthen their interaction with Spanish-speaking tourists and offers Colombia a great opportunity to establish itself as a major destination to learn Spanish. The programme seeks to contribute to the achievement of SDG 8 as these exchanges create greater and better employment opportunities when tour guides return to their countries in Asia, which in turn generates greater economic growth for the tourism and hotel sector in the region.
The programme is developed in Colombian universities recognized as offering high- quality Spanish instruction. They offer a language course that lasts one academic semester (four months), with 15 hours of instruction per week. To provide beneficiaries with internationally recognized certification of their language proficiency, the International Service for the Evaluation of the Spanish Language (SIELE) exam is administered at the end of the course.
In addition to these academic activities, volunteer activities are promoted among Asian students, including volunteering 10 hours/week in community projects, which provides them a deeper understanding of Colombian society. This helps to achieve SDG 4 as the exchange students learn Spanish in high-quality educational institutions and also acquire valuable knowledge about social and political conditions in a Latin American country as complex as Colombia. This is highly innovative, since it is a new way to strengthen cooperation between two regions such as Eastern Asia and Latin America, characterized by developing countries with similar and complementary economic dynamics.
Due to the success of this initiative, interest in applying to the course is growing among Asian tour guides and students. Consequently, in 2017, the ELE Asia + initiative was created in order to extend the benefits of the ELE Focalae programme to other countries in the region, such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
Additionally, and as a complement to these two projects, the Colombian Government decided to incorporate the ELE in ASIA Competition, in which teachers from universities and learning centres that welcome scholars from the ELE Focalae and ELE Asia + initiatives can apply to teach a short Spanish course at a university in China, Indonesia, Thailand, or Viet Nam, thus strengthening their professional skills and knowledge of Asian culture. Moreover, cooperation agreements can be signed with their counterpart Asian universities.
Since 2013, a total of 223 tourist guides, journalists who specialize in tourism, and undergraduate and graduate students from East Asia have benefitted
from the initiative, which opens the door to cultural and commercial exchange and growth in tourism from Asia to Colombia. In addition, it contributes to the internationalization of Colombian educational institutions and consolidates the country’s range of Spanish language teaching programmes.
During these five years, nearly 1,128 people have participated in the initiative and applications increased by more than 74 per cent from 2013 to 2017, which reflects the growing interest in Latin America in Asian countries. In 2018, the Government of Colombia decided to continue this initiative, offering 60 new scholarships.
It is important to highlight that this good practice has benefitted all the countries that are part of the FOCALAE forum. The development of similar projects is important because good practices like this one can benefit not just two, but many countries. To replicate this project, the host country must have universities certified to teach Spanish so that they can offer quality courses.