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Chileans love to toss in English words but they struggle to master the language. The government is trying to change that.
The older generation of Chileans grew up without English in the classrooms — students could opt to take French or German if they wanted, English wasn't offered. But today Chile has one of the most liberal and open economies in the region, and English is unavoidable for today's youth — making their lack of proficiency more worrying to the Chilean government.
The “English Opens Doors” program was set up in 2003, an initiative of then-Education Minister Sergio Bitar, himself a Harvard graduate. This year, the government expanded to $11 million what started in 2004 as a $1 million budget for the English program.
With support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the ministry created a program for native English speakers to serve as volunteers in the public school system to give students the chance to interact with them and improve their communications skills in English. Foreign volunteers take an initial crash-course in Spanish and then split class hours with a Chilean English teacher. The volunteers focus on developing listening and speaking skills, while the Chilean teacher instructs on English grammar.
During the program’s first year in 2004, there were 15 native English speakers volunteering in the northern city of Antofagasta. So far, some 2,000 volunteers — from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and Trinidad and Tobago — have joined the program, which is now being implemented nationwide. Almost 700 signed up just this year.
Eoin Barry, 26, a native of Ireland with a Master’s degree in human rights law, arrived in Chile in May. “I wanted to go somewhere interesting and learn a language, and I literally stumbled across the volunteer program in Chile on the internet. It looked good, so I applied,” Barry said.
Barry was finishing up coaching the English debate team at the all-girls public high school in downtown Santiago, Liceo 1. The five-student team was preparing for the regional finals of a nationwide debate tournament — also part of the English Opens Doors Program — in which they will have to argue in favor of euthanasia, all in English. Thousands of high school students are participating this year in the debate competition, with the national finals to be held in early October.
“I have learned much more English in debate than in classes, because it’s hard to learn a language when you have 45 other classmates. To have everyone in class participate and speak English is hard in those conditions, especially for those who are embarrassed to speak up in public. Understanding Eoin, who’s Irish, is already a feat in itself!” said 16-year-old Valeria Moyano, an 11th grader on the debate team.
Like most of her peers, Moyano has picked up the basics of English primarily in school and from watching a lot of television. She dreams of moving to Canada, “and the first thing I need to do to get there,” she said, “is learn English.”