Big Numbers and Mexico

by Saul Nassé, 24 July 2017
Saul Nassé reports back from Mexico, where Cambridge English are looking to support 40 million students and two million teachers in the government's ambition of turning the entire country bi-lingual. 

Saul Nasse LABCI 2017 blog Big Number cover imageOne of the uncompleted classics of British comics is Alan Moore’s Big Numbers (pictured left). It ran for only two editions in 1990, a gorgeous cocktail of contemporary Britain and the then emergent chaos theory. I absolutely loved it and was heartbroken when it disappeared without trace. I like to imagine the completed story is whirling around in a Mandelbrot set somewhere in the space-time continuum. 

Saul Nasse LABCI 2017 blog city imageI have been hanging in Mexico City this week, (the city, with the 'Angel statue' pictured right) which has something of the comic book to it with its epic size, gridlocked traffic and sizzling energy, and I was put in mind several times of Big Numbers. 

At the beginning of the week, our ace Regional Director of the Americas, Mercedes Muratorio, was a big part of the launch of the Mexican government’s ambitious plan to turn the country bi-lingual. We had a follow-up breakfast with several wings of government to brainstorm how Cambridge English can continue to help synthesise and implement that plan. And that’s where the numbers started getting big. The number of children at school in Mexico is nearly 40 million, twice the population of Chile. The number of teachers in Mexico is nearly 2 million, half the size of Uruguay. Finding a way to upskill those teachers who will in turn upskill those students is going to require imagination and commitment. I could certainly feel both of those in the room that morning, and I am really excited we’re part of the project. 

I was in Mexico City for the LABCI conference, which happens every two years and brings together English educators from across Latin America. I gave a keynote speech that was packed with Big Numbers. Getting ready for the speech put me in mind of my last big turn in Australia, as I was again wrangling a stupid amount of technology on stage. Luckily I had the brilliant Jess Swann (Pictured below with me and the rest of our team) to rehearse me and some top Mexican techies so we didn’t need to resort to digital sealing wax and virtual string this time around. 

Saul Nasse LABCI 2017 blog team image 
The speech was all about how we are using big data techniques at Cambridge English. Super-statistics to interrogate the half a billion marks we generate every year to check our exams are accurate, reliable and fair. Language insights generated from millions of answers to our new Test Your English site. Machine learning powered by tens of thousands of lines in the Cambridge Learner Corpus, created in partnership with Cambridge University Press, for our Write and Improve website. And two and a half years of English learning happening on our addictive new game, Quiz Your English. If you get a mo, have a read of the speech, (I'm pictured below delivering it) and have your mind boggled by the Big Numbers. 

Saul Nasse LABCI 2017 blog on stage image 
And finally the biggest Big Number of all. Meet the chicharrón (pictured below), a twelve inch wide pork scratching (for non-Mexicans and non-Brits, they’re both roasted pork rind). I managed to dip out at the end of the conference for one of my fave geeky combos, public transport plus food market. This time it was a trip on the Mexico City metro and a visit to the Mercado de St Juan. Apparently chicharrón is a marriage made in heaven with tequila, but the sun was not yet over the yard arm when I surveyed the butcher’s wares. I made do with an unaccompanied munch and merely contemplated the Big Number of shots that would be downed in cantinas across Mexico City that Saturday night. 

Saul Nasse LABCI 2017 blog pork sctratchings image 
P.S.: It was a mere corner of mega-scratching that made it into my big mouth. 

Saul Nassé 
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

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