English Language Learning in Cuba

“Tom is a boy, Mary is a Girl”

By Beatrice Pignatelli

Young Cubans. Photo: Charlie Rosenberg
Young Cubans. Photo: Charlie Rosenberg

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.

  • Gordon Robinson

    Many Cubans in high end resorts speak five languages and earn tips of $ US 100.000 a day !!!!

    • larry

      have you no sense 100.000 really you must be cuban

    • Informed Consent

      Which is why the Cuban system is utterly broken. A Cuban doctor for example has no chance of earning that kind of money. That’s why you have doctoral level Cubans working the tourist industry as the only way to make money. Don’t you see it?

  • bjmack

    The kids in the photo look incredibly healthy and alert! I don’t see obesity or lack of interest. Just a sidenote to a great piece of info.

  • Donald Thureau

    What goes around, comes around. I learned english and spanish at the same time in Havana during the ’50s going to Cathedral School in the Vedado district. The school still exists, but it’s public now of course. The government needs to move quickly by providing english language classes as more and more Americans come to spend their dollars in Cuba. The investment will be well worth it.

  • Xanthe Carter

    How accessible are English teaching jobs for non-Cubans? I’ve always aspired to teach English in Cuba but assumed that as an Australian it would be very difficult to secure a working visa or equivalent of.

  • basarat ali

    Great job, I appreciate your effort. its very helpful for cubien people

    Best Regards
    Krmetinstitute | English Learning

  • Rebecca Borin Hughes

    Where in Cuba are you located? I have a cousin who would like to learn English. She lives in Santos Suarez. Thank you.

  • Doug1943

    It’s a shame that learning English on the side is limited to the upper middle class.

    So here’s an idea: there is lots of goodwill towards Cuba among liberal politically-minded American young people. (Most of their ideas, in the opinion of this old conservative, are foolish, but not all of them, and one cannot deny their desire to make a better world.)

    Why don’t Americans and Cubans co operate to start a kind of alternative net work of language ‘schools’ in Cuba?

    Americans could come to Cuba, live with a Cuban family, experience Cuban reality and perhaps learn or perfect their Spanish. In return, they would give language lessons in English.

    Teaching English as a Foreign Language is a skill, but not a difficult one to learn. There are tons of free resources available on the internet, and the people organizing this could have a test that potential teachers would have to pass.

    The Americans get an extended ‘holiday’ and the experience of a lifetime, the Cubans get English-language instruction at a very low price and thus available to Cubans who are not in on the ‘tourist economy’.

    Here is something for all the ‘Cuba Solidarity Commitees’ and similar types to do that would actually help the Cuban people. No danger of getting kidnapped for ransom or beheaded, either.

  • Jim

    The government is doing just the minimum to meet the requirements they perceive they will need to welcome US tourists. This article depicts cuba as a less wealthy but happy nation of cubans. How far from the truth that is. There are select jobs with select companies that require english speaking cubans. Not even close to making a tiny dent in the absolute poverty in Cuba. Some are encouraged to learn english in some private schools run for international companies. Cuban families get six eggs a week rationed. Food we send to cuba is re-crated and exported. The cuban people see none of it. Things are not getting better in Cuba. I don’t know where this article shows or why it implies that. Go to any public school and you won’t find english speaking people. Cuba is incredibly poor. Tourists go there and go look at the cool cars. Those are cars that were on the island before the revolution that brought this oppressive and violent government to power. That state run police are brutal in their enforcement of simple rules. Cubans are not allowed to have foreign currency and foreign visitors are issued non-cuban pesos at a prearranged exchange rate. This makes it almost impossible for them to mingle with real life day to day cubans. The press and world knows so little about the real cuba. And the US went over there and shoot hands with the brutal dictator that has killed so many cubans. Makes a person cry to see people saying anything positive about cuba because there is nothing positive about the real cuba. Until US citizens understand what is really going on nothing will happen.