31 March 2011

Cult of English? Neocolonialism? Phrasebooks?

The lightbulb in my bathroom is out. I'm sitting with my back against the radiator in my room, stressing out over how one says, Lightbulb" in Spanish, and how one asks about changing it, and how one buys a lightbulb here and where. So complicated! And yet, the realization dawns on me...I know how to ask about it. I know where to buy one. And anyway I have a dictionary and as soon as I summon the will to move across my room, I will know the word. 

My Spanish is improving sneakily, without me even realizing it is happening. Reading and understanding are still easier than writing and speaking, but I spend a significant portion of each day concentrating on reading Spanish and attempting to spell words correctly when I translate something for my students (My speling en Español eez aboot lyke thes, end it maykes my stoodents laff). 

One of my daily attempts at constant practice of Spanish is to read the newspapers that hang in the windows of many of the stores on Baquedano street, the main drag in Puerto Natales' centro. The news in this region usually consists of a monor protest here, a school test result there, and many, many car accidents. I have made myself the promise that I will always wear my seatbelt if it is humanly possible. 

As I was reading the news in the window today, a green opinion piece caught my eye. It was written by a local sociologist in tight, academic Castellano. He was angry. He was skeptical. He was writing about English in Chilean schools. 

About a week ago, the Ministry of Education released the results of a standardized test for English in Chilean Schools...the SIMCE. As far as I've been told, students take the test to assess their English abilities at the end of 8th and 12th grade. All students in these grades in Chile are required to take the test, because English classes are required in all schools nationwide as part of an effort to make Chile into a bilingual country (like Germany, Holland, Sweden, or Singapore) in 15-20 years. 

Out of the students who took the test last year, only 11% passed. Passed. Not with flying colors. Passed. In Puerto Natales, the numbers are a little worse. Out of 214 students who took the test, only 12 passed. None from my school, mind you. 

The sociologist castigated the MINEDUC and the Chilean government for promoting English so vigorously in schools. He warned that Chile should not become a country with a Cult of English, as he (maybe correctly...never been so I don't know) assured his readers that Korea, Thailand, and Singapore have. He ripped into the MINEDUC for promoting English and not Asiatic languages like Mandarin because those are of emerging economies. Strangely, he argued that students in Puerto Natales would not see the point of speaking English because so many tourists come here with phrasebook in hand, which spells out Spanish "even to the point of how to ask for a kilo of bread."

He accused the whole initiative of promoting Neocolonialism. 

Reading this after my classes, I felt extremely conflicted. On the one hand, I understand where he is coming from. He doesn't want students to lose themselves in the use of English instead of the use of their mother tongue or those of their ancestors. He doesn't want the promotion of English to take the place of other important languages and other important emerging economies. He doesn't want Anglophone culture to replace Chileno culture. 

I felt like a big, fat, Gringa stomping around in my boots and squashing Chilean culture under my Anglophone feet, indoctrinating my innocent students to believe they were somehow inferior if they couldn't speak English.

As someone who holds a B.A. In Anthropology, I would like to think that I am sensitive to cultural phenomena and especially Neocolonialism and Neoimperialism. My professors drilled into our brains over and over that a balance between cultural relativism ("Eh, it's just their culture to commit infanticide...who am I to judge?") and Neocolonialism ("DO...YOU...SPEAK...ENGLISH? Why is everything is Chile so disorganized, things are so much better in the States. Yu need to change to be like us..."). 

My purpose here is to expose my students to what a native speaker of English sounds like, as much as possible. Just to have them be able to communicate basically at some point in their lives...probably not now, but maybe in a few years they will remember how to introduce themselves. Basta. 

More than that, I disagree with the Natalino sociologist. For better or for worse English is an intercontinental lingua franca used in diplomacy, economics, education, tourism, and much more. More than 150 countries have a significant number of English speakers. And yes, the emerging economies of the world such as the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) all have their own languages, but in each of them English is often used for business or government or other things. English is just one of many languages and dialects in some countries and even if it originally came from the influence of the British Empire or expansionism on the part of culture from the United States, the language is perhaps more varied than any other because of the differences between countries, accents, individuals, and cultures. 

I don't believe that speaking English and retaining one's culture are necessarily mutually exclusive. I see culture and language working together as an additive process, not one where the new must replace the old. When I learn new languages, my mind expands and I find new ways of thinking about situations, often in ways that are untranslatale from one to the other. I hold more possibilites to communicate, to share, and to think. Like any language, English may replace another to the detriment of the original (i.e. Ireland) or be more additive (i.e. Hindi, which incorporates many English words into daily speech). 

Despite that, I reailze that the possibility for English to be a form of cultural capital (a la Pierre Bourdieu) is real and for the and also that those who speak it in some countries might form a culture of elitism. It is also possible to have an English Cult, and that kind of mentality is not helpful to anyone. 

Am I just a cog in the English Cult Machine here in Chile? Maybe. 

But more likely there are other issues than student disinterest or nonusefulness of English in the world that are getting in the way. 

In chile there appear to be many more systemic problems than just English initiatives in the education system. Lack of materials, lack or resources, lack of teachers...it is not too uncommon that some students make it through 13 years of school and are barely able to read and do basic math. Many more drop out early. Barely any go to college. At last I understand why people in town keep asking me if I know how to read. 

Can Chile become bilingual in 15-20 years? Maybe. And maybe I am playing some small part in the play. But I know that I can only do my best, try to learn as much as possible, and act as a cultural ambassador and not a cultural conqueror. 

Awareness is the first step.

Edit: Today's newspaper showed the results of the standardized test that teachers take as well. Only 52% were able to obtain a passing grades, across all subjects and levels. Indeed, the problems with the education system in Chile are systemic and not just limited to English classes.

A related side note: I am now helping the local high school music teacher with lessons on history of music in the United States. If you want an example of Cultural Imperialism...there you go.


  1. I love the part about what other languages do to expand your thought process!

  2. "I don't believe that speaking English and retaining one's culture are necessarily mutually exclusive." I'd be happier with that statement if you replaced English with Esperanto. English is, whether you like it or not, tied to the United States and Britain. Esperantyo, on the other hand, has almost no nastive speakers. Esperanto was designed for international communication. English was not.

    I wish you well;!

  3. @champan- It's a matter of idealism and practice. English is, for better or for worse, a lingua franca in the world at this point in history. Esperanto is a designed language that is not currently being used as a lingua franca or as an official language in over 150 countries.

    The point is that I am in Chile to teach English, and that the global backdrop of Neocolonialism and Cults of English may (or may not) be manifesting in my classroom. And that speaking a language as a mothertongue and another as a lingua franca does not necessarily mean that one has lost anything.

    Thank you for the well wishes.

  4. So well written and thought out! You should send this to some of your CU professors and see if they have suggestions on other places to publish work like this. It's very high quality, even if I am your Dad!