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Costa Rica is embracing the challenge of mastering the loopy English language — digitally.
Photo caption: Cynthia Vargas will be among the English teachers to test out the new pilot program starting Monday, using laptops and learning software at more than 100 schools across Costa Rica. (Alex Leff/GlobalPost)
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — The melody sounded familiar, but not the lyrics. Entirely unconcerned about accuracy, a Costa Rican taxi driver was serenading his passenger with what he sensed could be the words — or at least sounds — to Elton John's "Sacrifice."
It could happen anywhere. Riddled with tricky phrasal verbs, unusual pronunciation, long lists of exceptions to rules and grammar even its native speakers struggle to grasp, English is one loopy language for foreigners to get their tongues around. Unlucky for many, it’s the world’s lingua franca.
Costa Rica is embracing the language challenge — digitally. Next week, when hundreds of seventh graders take their seats in English class, they will sit in front of a computer. A new pilot plan is lifting off, equipped with laptops, desktops and cutting-edge language software.
But the technology is not just geared toward pupils. A 2008 government-commissioned survey found that only about 62 percent of Costa Rica’s English teachers possessed the level necessary. Some 1,200 of the more than 3,000 English teachers scored at under-intermediate levels — only 13 percent got advanced grades — in a standardized exam.
Studies at that time also showed that just over one in 10 high school students had achieved an intermediate level or higher. While better than nothing, that speaks somewhat poorly of the instruction Tico youngsters have received in a school curriculum that in the mid-1990s began teaching English all the way from an early, primary school age.
Called the "Improving the Quality of the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language," the pilot scheme is part of a nationwide initiative to bring the country’s educators and learners up to par.
President Oscar Arias in March 2008 launched Costa Rica Multilingue, a program meant to fill English-language holes on multiple fronts. Since the program's inception, two-thirds of the nation’s English teachers have undergone training, according to program director Marta Blanco. For the students, the program aims for 100 percent of high school graduates to have reached an intermediate level or higher by 2017.