Tech workers in Latin America want to make Spanish the primary language of programming6 min read
Primitivo Román Montero has always been drawn to coding. When he attended the Superior Technological Institute of Tepeaca in Mexico, though, he struggled to learn programming languages because of their reliance on English. The logic of most prominent programming languages, such as Python, is based on English vocabulary and syntax — using terms like “while” or “if not” to trigger certain actions — which makes it that much more difficult to learn for non-native speakers. Furthermore, many of the most popular educational resources for learning to code, including Stack Exchange, are also in English.
“When I started, everything was in English,” he told Rest of World. “It was very difficult to have to constantly translate and understand it in my language.”
Román graduated in 2007 and worked in different programming jobs for clients including the government of the state of Puebla. He also took on jobs where he had to communicate in English. But he never felt comfortable, even though he had some command of the English language.
In 2015, Román decided to start a project that would help future programmers. He began to work on what would become Lenguaje Latino, an open-source programming language based on Spanish rather than English. The idea was simple: make it easier for Spanish speakers to learn the mechanics of coding before moving on to other languages. “This was something that could contribute to society — a tool for students that are starting out and want to get hooked on programming,” he said.
However, the English language remains the predominant foundation for coding and an in-demand skill required by tech companies in the region, creating a major barrier to bringing more people into the industry. According to a recent study by the Spain-based IT services firm Everis, 55% of companies in Latin America said that finding the right employee was difficult, while experts estimate that the region will see 10 million new IT job openings by 2025.
As the region sees a torrent of venture funding and interest from tech companies, there is a growing momentum to address the labor shortage among the region’s tech community by empowering workers to operate in Spanish. Software developers like Román, coding bootcamps, and meetup organizations have started their own initiatives, from providing translations of educational materials to the creation of a programming language based on Spanish.
Today, the language developed by Román is used in university programs such as at the Instituto Tecnológico de Zitácuaro in Mexico and the Catholic University of Salta in Argentina, he said, although it still functions as more of a learning program than something that companies can actually use. He’s working with volunteers to make it work faster, which he believes will allow it to compete with other programming languages such as Python.
The fact that Lenguaje Latino can’t replace common programming languages reflects the challenges of creating a Spanish-based work environment for Spanish-speaking tech workers. Marian Villa Roldán is a Colombian programmer and the co-founder of Pionerasdev, a Medellín-based nonprofit that helps women learn how to code. She agrees that one of the main barriers for Spanish speakers is the lack of a Spanish programming language and a lack of coding resources in Spanish. She’s heard of Lenguaje Latino, but she doesn’t believe it is ready to replace English-based programming languages in Latin America.
“English is a necessity [to become a programmer],” she said.
Pionerasdev holds workshops, bootcamps, and meetups dedicated to helping with programming education. The organization translates as much content into Spanish as it can, but for the most part, it focuses on helping people learn coding languages without necessarily having to become proficient in English. “We have technical people who understand the implementation, but they don’t feel very comfortable having a conversation in English,” she told Rest of World.
Laboratoria, an organization founded in Peru with offices across Latin America, that helps women learn to code and land jobs in technology, takes a similar approach. Gabriela Rocha, the company’s co-founder and COO, said Laboratoria has experimented with teaching English as part of its curriculum, but it still holds its entire six-month intensive bootcamp in Spanish. Only 14% of its students have an advanced level of English, with 50% holding an intermediate level and 36% a beginner level, she said.
Like PionerasDev, Laboratoria operates under the idea that students need to know just enough English to learn how to code and access educational documentation, but not necessarily to attain a level beyond that. “Latin America is a region accustomed to [English] and how to work around it,” Rocha said. “The great majority of opportunities for our students are still within Latin America and don’t require English.” More than 75% of the jobs Laboratoria students land don’t use English as a primary language.
Rocha pointed to the region’s banking sector, which is undergoing a technological transformation and needs software engineers to help build new products and services — all jobs that don’t require English. The same is true for many of the outsourcing software agencies that hire Laboratoria’s students, such as Accenture and Globant.
“Those roles, at least now, are not necessarily English-dependent, which is great because I think we need to create our own ecosystem where Spanish becomes just as relevant,” Rocha told Rest of World. But, despite the growing number of Spanish-language programming opportunities, she admitted that many of the best jobs still require English — what she described as the “high-tech” sector, such as Google and Uber. “That’s where I think English is still very important, and that’s what I think we’re still lacking in Latin America.”
While the arrival of these types of jobs to the region will stimulate the local ecosystem, she also had a warning. “”We’ll likely start to see a bigger gap between what sorts of [job] opportunities people get based on the need for them to speak English, and that will undoubtedly have negative consequences for talent, the labor market, innovation, and the competitiveness of companies,” she said.
Elias Torres is co-founder and CTO of Drift, a U.S.-based marketing and sales platform that became a unicorn — valued at $1 billion — in 2021. Torres, who grew up in Nicaragua and moved to the United States when he was 17, has recently focused on building ties between the U.S. and Latin American tech ecosystems. One of those initiatives is hiring Drift employees in Guadalajara and bringing those type of “high-tech” jobs to Mexico.
“I interview everybody in Spanish, and I don’t know anything about their English [skills],” he told Rest of World in a recent interview.
Even so, when Drift recently hired a vice president from super app Rappi, one discussion revolved around whether the company would require new employees to speak English. The leadership team decided that it would be necessary. “The truth is that in software engineering … everything is in English,” he said. “In order to be a good software engineer … you have to have a level of fluency.”
As Latin America pushes to build a self-reliant, robust tech sector, the language barrier will remain a major obstacle, especially for high-quality positions. To establish autonomy from the U.S. tech ecosystem, Román said that the region’s tech companies will have to change their mindset.
“We don’t have a Silicon Valley here, and we need people developing hardware or our own Latin American databases,” he said. “We’re always consumers.”