CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico — "What animal live in dee snow and ice?" asked the teacher in heavily accented English.
"Polar bear!" shouted the Mexican fifth-graders, who were rewarded with an approving "very goot!"
It may not be the Queen's English, but for public school students in the border state of Tamaulipas, this class offers a coveted chance to learn the language.
Currently, most Mexican students — except those in private bilingual schools — start learning English in the seventh grade. But in 2001, the Tamaulipas state government began introducing the language in fourth-grade classrooms. By the next school year, they expect the program to reach all first- through sixth-graders in the state's public school system.
The program is at the center of Governor Eugenio Hernandez's ambitious push to make Tamaulipas the country's first bilingual state.
"It's incredible. My students already know more English than I do," said Soraya Galan, a first-grade homeroom teacher in Ciudad Victoria, the state capital. She listened from her desk as the English instructor, Venezia Revilla, ran through the names for clothing.
"Shorts? Is that for winter?" asked Revilla, smiling as she held up a pair of shiny track shorts next to a list of the seasons.
"Noooo!" responded the students, erupting in giggles.
"When I was in school, knowing English wasn't that important," said Galan, who currently earns $700 a month after 20 years of teaching in the state's public school system. "Today, it's essential if you want to get a decent job."
An additional 20 Mexican states, out of a total of 31, are in the process of introducing English at the elementary school level. But Tamaulipas' program is by far the most extensive and well-funded.
"Society was demanding that our kids learn English, due to our proximity to the United States, globalization and the competition in the labor force," said Alicia Zarate, the program's director and a veteran English teacher.
Zarate argued that the language was particularly useful in Tamaulipas, which shares a 230-mile (370-kilometer) border with Texas and accounts for half of all Mexico-U.S. border trade. The state government is shouldering the entire $11 million annual cost of the program, a rare state investment in a country where education is largely funded by the federal government.
Supporters, including the state's industrial chamber and parents, argue that it is money well spent.
Students "need English to get ahead, because life is very hard," said Agustin Murillo, a farmer in Ejido La Aurora, a dusty agricultural hamlet 20 miles north of the state capital. The $9 Murillo makes every day picking oranges is barely enough to feed his three sons, who attend the village's tiny elementary school.
"Now they're learning English and they're not going to have to struggle to survive," said Murillo, 42, who wore cracked sandals and a torn windbreaker on a recent icy morning.
He and other parents said learning English would allow their children to negotiate directly with orange buyers in the U.S., instead of paying a hefty cut to a middleman. The language could also help them land jobs as managers in the hundreds of maquiladoras, or export factories, scattered along the U.S. border.
Jose Rivas, a scrawny 10-year-old with mud-caked shoes, had a different idea. "I can use English to get a job in the United States," he said, as he wolfed down quesadillas under the orange grove that serves as the school's cafeteria. "You can't get a job if you don't understand."
Perhaps ironically, state officials hope that by teaching children English, they will encourage them to stay home.
"If they speak English, a whole world opens up to them here," said Zarate, the program director.
But Zarate acknowledged that the shortage of qualified instructors posed a major challenge to the education effort.
The English teachers earn $90 a month per class and often have to shuttle among several different schools. The program is currently short 200 teachers.
As a result, the state government is paying for 1,200 instructors — out of a total of 1,800 — to get online college degrees in teaching English as a second language.
The future of the economy may depend on it, said Zarate, as factory jobs increasingly migrate to China and other countries where low wages are the norm.
"Mexico must be able not only to produce cheap labor, but also to create professionals of international caliber," Zarate said. "English is an essential part of that goal."