English Teaching in Chile: A Failing GradeBy By Julian Dowling
Tourists in Chile often express surprise at the inability of most taxi drivers, waiters and shop assistants to speak even a few words of English. Indeed, for a country striving to attract more tourists, the fact that less than 2% of working adults speak a moderate level of English is worrying. And it is also threatening the country’s ability to attract investment. Foreign companies drawn to Chile by its economic and political stability find they have to teach their employees English or look elsewhere. “We’re losing opportunities… there are foreign companies that come here looking for professionals but have to leave because they can’t find employees with English-speaking skills,” says Michael Grasty, chair of AmCham’s education committee. As president of the Chilean operation of U.S.-based software company Oracle, Grasty has experienced this problem at first hand. Oracle, which is setting up a sales center to provide technical support to customers back in the U.S., needs 400 engineers who speak English, but has only found 25. The lack of English speakers is hindering the diversification of Chile’s natural resource-based economy, says Grasty. “We need to reinvent ourselves to be competitive in the services industry, but one of our big handicaps is that we don’t speak English.” The problem starts in schools. In 2004, a diagnostic test carried out by the Education Ministry, in conjunction with the UK’s Cambridge University, found that only a tiny fraction of Chilean school leavers had a more than basic command of English. But why do so few people speak English in a country that boasts a large network of free trade agreements and close economic and political ties with countries like the United States, Canada and Great Britain? The answer is a lack of interest, a shortage of qualified teachers and too few opportunities for students to practice English, suggests Sergio Bitar who, as Chile’s education minister from 2003 to 2005, led efforts to promote English at all levels of education. “People don’t see English as something that is necessary in their own lives... we have to make more of an effort to generate the conviction that learning English will lead to a better life,” he says. At the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, regional English language officer Joelle Uzarski - who is also responsible for Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay - echoes this view. “I don’t see parents and employees calling out for English like they do in Uruguay or Brazil,” she says. This is particularly hard to explain, she adds, given that “the English proficiency level in Chile is by far the lowest of the countries I work in.”
But, starting in schools, efforts are being made to improve the situation. In 2004, the Education Ministry launched the Inglés Abre Puertas (English Opens Doors) program to provide diagnostic testing, professional development for English teachers and on-site support for schools. The program’s annual budget has risen fivefold from US$1 million in 2004 to US$5 million today and is doubled by contributions from the government’s Fund for Competitiveness (US$3 million) and US$2 million from grants and donations, reports Rodrigo Fábrega, the program’s director. The program emphasizes the use of modern technology including online courses and interactive software, which is motivating for students, says Tony Adams, head of international relations at the Chilean-British University. But it “still tends to consider English as a school subject rather than as a living language for communication purposes,” he adds. The program does, indeed, focus on the classroom as the most cost-effective method of teaching English but is evolving. In 2008, it will be expanded to the municipality level, offering a planning course for 60 heads of education from different municipalities to travel to Finland, Norway, Poland and Austria where English-language teaching has been successfully implemented. However, it is still early days to assess the program’s results. The students who participated in the 2004 Cambridge University test won’t, for example, reach school-leaving age until next year, when they will probably be tested again. But, measured in terms of the percentage of Chileans who are interested in learning English and the number of university students studying to become English teachers, the program has been successful, says Fábrega. Chileans are increasingly realizing that, without English, their opportunities are limited, he explains. In one sign of the growing interest, he cites the increasing popularity of a debating competition in English for high schools. “Last year, 600 students participated and, this year, we have up to 2,000,” he reports. And the Education Ministry is prepared to help those who want to learn. Students who show the most potential will be invited to attend summer courses in conjunction with the Catholic University. “Thanks to this model, we’ll be able to triple the number of class-hours that a high school student usually has,” says Fábrega.
Teaching the teachers
But it’s not only students who need to improve. English teaching in state schools tends to be “very bad with crowded classrooms and teachers who are not qualified to teach English,” says Gordon Cronister, testing officer at the non-profit Chilean-North American Institute of Culture. In 2005, the Institute tested 50 state school teachers from Santiago and they scored an average 30-40%. “Their level was very poor, which is indicative of the country as a whole,” says Cronister. Part of the reason is that, in the past, it was considered acceptable for teachers to teach English in Spanish. “But now we’ve shown them that this scenario has changed and that they must teach English in English,” says Fábrega. To help teachers improve their English, the Ministry offers a number of programs such as ‘English Summer Town’ - a week-long immersion program for teachers held in January in conjunction with the U.S. Embassy. Chileans training to become English teachers can also apply for scholarships to spend an academic semester studying English abroad and, under a new agreement between the Chilean and U.S. governments, will be able to spend part of their penultimate or junior year acquiring practical experience in the U.S. In addition, the Fulbright Commission brings U.S. teaching assistants to Chilean universities. Teachers also have the onsite support of English-speaking volunteers so they can practice their English and can learn from their peers through local teachers’ networks and workshops. But overworked and underpaid teachers have resisted training programs because they take time and, in many cases, expose their lack of English, says Cronister. Part of the solution would be to increase the salaries of qualified teachers and offer them incentives to improve their English, he suggests. “If qualified English teachers are scarce, they should be paid more.” Of course, that would cost money. What to do with the windfall from Chile’s copper mining royalty has been heatedly debated in recent months, but some of the money should be used for English language programs, argues Bitar. “There is no money problem, there is a lack of ideas and imagination… the best use of the mining royalty is in education and training,” he insists. The state school system also has to solve its internal problems, with more resources and more training for teachers, agrees Cronister, but this is a long-term task. And, in the short term, more and more Chileans are turning to private institutes.
English to go
According to government estimates, some US$15 million is paid out in Chile each year for English courses, financed either by individuals, their employers or through the National Training and Employment Service (SENCE), which allows companies to set part of their training expenses against taxes. And, in response, hundreds of private English institutes of varying quality have sprung up. When Chileans need English for work, travel or studies, they tend to improvise. “I have had literally thousands of requests from people who want classes for a journey, a paper, or a presentation that they need ‘next week’ or ‘by the end of the month’,” says Adams. And students take a risk when they sign up for classes. Some fly-by-night institutes only last a few months while others employ backpackers as teachers. But the institutes that offer qualified teachers and small classes do not have the capacity to teach all the students who want classes, says Cronister. For example, the North American Institute’s 104 classrooms are full on Saturdays with students, over 90% of whom are young people sent by their parents, he reports. “It’s good business for us but we need more classrooms, there’s not enough space.” What is also needed, according to Bitar, is an accreditation system for institutes, which would ensure quality control and give students more confidence in registering for courses. Still, English is so important that teaching it should not be left to the private sector alone, urges Bitar. He suggests the government should create a foundation that would pay for immersion courses for workers in certain industries such as tourism. But students have to be willing to learn in the first place. And a major challenge for teachers is overcoming Chileans’ shy nature which makes it hard for them to learn a new language for fear of appearing unworthy in front of colleagues or friends. “To learn a new language you have to speak out and make mistakes,” points out Cronister. One program designed to help Chileans overcome their fear of public speaking and practice English at the same time is a debating competition for companies launched in 2004. AmCham is one of the organizers of this event, known as The Great Corporate Debate, in which employees receive English classes and then participate in competitive debates against other companies. “It’s lots of fun but also very instructive for the participants… we hope those that have learned enough English will find a job that allows them to continue speaking English,” says Grasty. In a further bid to promote the use of English, AmCham is also acting as national coordinator of the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition, a debating tournament that originated at Harvard University in the 1960s but now attracts competitors from around the world. Following the local round of the competition last year, two Chilean students traveled to Washington D.C. in March to take part in the grand final, and others are expected to follow next year.
The United States and other countries have a vested interest in getting Chileans to speak English. Not only will it help Chile’s economy to develop, but foreign companies like Oracle will be able to find more English-speaking employees. That is one reason why the U.S. opened its regional language office in Santiago last year, headed by Joelle Uzarski. It acts in an “advisory role” providing support to universities and English teachers throughout the country, not just in capital city Santiago. In addition to organizing workshops and seminars for teachers, Uzarski helps to promote scholarships for talented Chileans from outside Santiago to study in the U.S. But with an annual budget of US$100,000 for the region of which 40% goes to Chile, “there is not enough funding for all of the programs and exchanges we would like to do,” she says. In addition, a scholarship program, announced during U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ recent visit to Chile, will allow 100 Chilean PhD candidates to study in the United States without necessarily having to know English first. The winners will receive up to one year of English classes, either in Chile or the United States. The idea of the program is to give an opportunity to bright students who, perhaps because of their background and schooling, did not have a chance to become proficient in English. But, in Chile, many are critical of the fact that, with the state school system still failing to produce an adequate level of English proficiency, the task is falling to private institutes and foreign governments. Shouldn’t Chile be spending more on a problem that is key to its long-term growth prospects? In a country with other pressing social problems - overcrowded public transport and rising crime rates to name two - it is, of course, debatable how much it should be spending on English teaching. But even more than financial resources, increased proficiency calls for a strong commitment by teachers, students, parents, universities and employers. The Ministry’s programs are helping to improve the quality of English taught in state schools and Rodrigo Fábrega projects that, by 2019, high school leavers will have the level of fluency known as ‘autonomous’. “We shouldn’t strive for anything less,” he says. But businesses want answers now. As one business leader told Fábrega, “the future may be taken care of, but the problem is now; what do we do now, given the opportunities we’re losing and could lose?” Certainly a difficult question to answer, but an important one for Chile to remain competitive in the coming years.
Julian Dowling is a freelance journalist based in Santiago.