English teacher's helper

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.

The pilot scheme, a pioneer in the region, is hoping to turn Multilingue (“multilingual”) up a notch. Funding for the equipment came from the Inter-American Development Bank, the Central American Economic Integration Bank, the CRUSA Foundation, local institutions and computer chip giant Intel. The plan is to test out a number of software programs — including globally recognized programs Imagine Learning, Dyned, Edusoft and Tell Me More as well as locally designed Cyberl@b — to see which one is the right fit for Costa Ricans.

Cynthia Vargas teaches about 350 seventh graders (ages 12 to 14) at the Liceo Julio Fonseca school in the northwestern San Jose district of La Uruca. She could use the extra help of a computer, she said.

“We don’t even have a CD player,” Vargas said, seated behind her desk after a long school day. Her fill-in-the-blanks vocabulary exercises were still up on the whiteboard. With the new program, she expects to spend less time at the board and more time as a facilitator for dynamic group exercises and multimedia activities. There'll also be “fewer photocopies, paid for by the teacher because there’s no budget.”

She acknowledged that the level of some of the country’s English teachers is sub-par, as teachers become “rusty” after university and go long periods without practicing with fluent speakers. She complained that, until now, the teaching model has relied too heavily on writing and textbooks. The programs will allow students to use multimedia programs to hear native English speakers.

“The Multilingue project model aims to give us a way for the teacher to interact more with the students, so it’s not just a class where they write, but talk and talk and talk — and listen,” Vargas added.

Blanco, the program director, said Costa Rica’s teaching level suffered when it tacked on English classes in the 1990s.

“The science teacher who knew a little bit of English, for example, applied and got the job — because we needed it. It was a price that the country paid at the time,” she said.

The program will include packed full inner-city schools all the way to one-room schoolhouses in the countryside. “Our one requirement was they had to have electricity,” said Blanco, adding that one school in an indigenous village needed a couple of extra solar panels to keep the computers on.

Behind the push for English is the understanding that English-speaking visitors and investors are a driving force in Costa Rica's economy. In trade, although China is gaining on it, the U.S. is Costa Rica's chief importer. And no nationality comes close to the number of Americans who holiday or retire here. Furthermore, as Costa Ricans move from garment and other factory work to becoming a prime outsourcing destination, Blanco said, knowledge of English is increasingly a must on any resume.

The Multilingue organization is hopeful the next government, taking office in May, will take on the technology plan and make it a nationwide initiative.

When asked about other languages, Blanco didn’t rule out the possibility of plugging them into the high-tech curriculum. However, she said, “right now the priority for Costa Rica is definitely English and we have to make sure that works.”