“Tom is a boy, Mary is a Girl”
By Beatrice Pignatelli
HAVANA TIMES – For the past 6 months I have been working in Havana as an English teacher. Students of all ages and walks of life have passed through my bedroom-converted-to-classroom, attracted by the novelty of being taught by a native speaker and curious to hear an authentic British accent.
I begin by asking my students about any previous experience studying English and their motivations to learn. “All I can remember from the English taught at school is: Tom is a Boy, Mary is a Girl,” jokes one student in our first lesson. She has started private classes every day in hopes to secure her job in a mixed Cuban-international export company. While extremely driven to learn, she is under enormous amounts of pressure. If she doesn’t reach a reasonable level of English in two months, her contract will not be renewed and she will lose out on a salary 10 times greater than what she was earning for the state.
Daniel, a self-employed electronic engineer began learning English primarily to read instruction manuals and academic journals. “I went to school in the 80s” he says. “Back then learning English was not encouraged as it was seen as supporting the Americans.” Daniel and many others of his generation were, instead, taught Russian at school and can still recite a few words and phrases.
Although the past decade has witnessed a positive change in the government’s attitude towards learning English, a cloud of historical amnesia continues to linger over the current challenges and solutions that arise for (not) speaking English.
As one student once stated: “it’s ironic, really. In the 70s and 80s, listening to a Beatles song or any music in English was enough to lose your job. Now you can lose out on a job for not speaking English. It is considered by both state and private businesses as a necessary skill.”
So now that the interest to learn English is greater than ever, how accessible is English language learning on the island?
The drive to learn English coupled by the failure of English language learning in schools has brought much business to private teachers and language schools. Concentrated in the wealthiest areas of Havana, such as Vedado and Miramar, they offer a range of courses for all ages with prices varying from tens to hundreds of CUC per month. Considering the majority of state salaries still range from the equivalent of 15-25 CUC a month, clientele is limited to a very slim sector of society.
Marielys, who graduated in accounting, has her sights set on immigrating to Canada and is now dedicating herself to learning English full-time. She warns that although private tuition is the only viable option (if you really want to learn) high prices will not always guarantee a good quality of teaching. As she explains: “I have had many private teachers and some have been better than others. One was charging me 70 dollars a month for two lessons a week and he didn’t have a good methodology and was very unreliable. I didn’t really learn anything. There is just not always a connection between quality and price.”
There is a great urgency to rethink and restructure the role of English and other foreign languages in Cuba’s national curriculum in order to insure equality of access to the opportunities that speaking foreign languages provides. With the island’s focus now on improving commerce, migration and international diplomacy with their English-speaking neighbor, the necessity to learn English will only continue to increase. It remains to be seen whether Cuba’s educational system will be able to catch up with its increasingly vital role in society.