Cuba says ‘yes’ to English as tourism flourishes
4 January 2017
From the section Latin America & Caribbean
As Cuba slowly opens up its economy to the rest of the world, more and
more Cubans are learning English. The Cuban government has made
proficiency in English a requirement for all high school and university
students. As Will Grant reports from Havana, that approach differs from
the Cold War, when Russian was the preferred foreign language.
At the annual Havana Jazz Festival, the audience members, much like the
music, were a mix of international and Cuban.
Sitting on plastic chairs at the open-air venue, visitors from the
United States, Europe and China mingled with local jazz aficionados.
On stage, a saxophonist who lives in Denmark was reunited with some old
At such an international event, the common language is generally English.
Many Cubans are already learning the language themselves, and if not,
they are trying to make sure their children are.
‘Nyet’ to Russian
Morning assembly at Jesus Suarez Gayol Secondary School on the outskirts
of Havana begins with the school’s anthem.
The school is named after one of the guerrillas who fought alongside
Ernesto “Che” Guevara but these teenagers are growing up in an
increasingly different Cuba to the one Jesus Suarez did.
For a start, a certain proficiency in English is now a requirement for
all secondary school children and university graduates.
During the Cold War, students could choose between learning English and
Russian but Cuba’s educational authorities told the BBC they now
consider English a necessary skill for all of the nation’s youth.
“As an international language, English has always had a place in our
curriculum,” says Director of Secondary Education Zoe de la Red Iturria.
“But we are now rolling out new techniques to evolve our learning of the
English language,” she adds.
But language-teaching methods remain quite traditional, relying heavily
on textbooks, parrot-fashion repetition and with only very limited
Olga Perez, national adviser for English teaching in Cuba, says the
authorities are hoping to tackle that last issue.
“It would be very good for us if we had the internet in the schools. And
we hope that in the future, we’ll not only have the internet, we’re also
dreaming of installing language laboratories in every school.”
And it is not just in the classrooms that English can be heard more
frequently but on the streets of Havana, too.
In what was a record year for tourism to Cuba, many Cubans have tried to
teach themselves English without the help of any formal classes.
Darbis Luis sells second-hand books and posters to tourists. He says he
learnt English entirely through computer games, music videos and rock songs.
“I have to make conversation because I need to make money to eat,” he
says in easy-flowing, fast English.
“I have to learn how to speak with them and I have to get better and
better. I tell them a story because books aren’t so easy to sell. So you
have to make them believe in what you’re saying.”
Resources for Anglophiles and budding English-language students like
Darbis Luis are limited in Cuba.
One place they can go is Cuba Libro, the island’s only English-language
Nestled in the leafy Havana district of Vedado, it is the brainchild of
US healthcare journalist and long-time Havana resident Conner Gorry.
Ms Gorry says that after some initial misgivings, local residents
“welcomed us with open arms” once they saw “the free cultural
programming, high-quality literature and community outreach” on offer.
“Literature is not subversive,” she says. “A Cuban government-run
publishing house just published George Orwell’s 1984 and that’s
available in state-run bookstores.”
“With increased tourism and increased business connections to the wider
world, the Cubans are encouraging people to learn English. So we’ve
become a resource,” she adds.
In the past months, as well as the jazz festival, Havana has hosted the
annual film festival and the international ballet festival.
It is at events like these that the thaw in relations with the US seems
clearer than ever.
The decision by the Obama Administration and the Castro government to
rebuild their diplomatic ties has undeniably brought Cubans and
Americans closer together.
It has also brought about some potentially lasting collaboration in
science and the arts.
There are people on both sides who fear those steps could soon be
reversed, especially in light of comments made to that effect by
President-elect Donald Trump.
For now though, the young students at Jesus Suarez are just keen to keep
improving their ability to communicate with the rest of the world.
Source: Cuba says ‘yes’ to English as tourism flourishes – BBC News –