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EL Latin America 2016: Struggling against the odds

Andrea Pérez talks to consultant Isora Enriquez and Professor Eduardo Garbey after their Iatefl presentation on Cuban language education

The thaw in the relationship between Cuba and the US means that the English language is now a top priority in Cuba. English as a foreign language has been considered important in the Cuban pedagogical tradition since the 19th century. It has consistently been the most studied foreign language in Cuba. Even in the 1960s and ’70s, when Russian was popular in Cuba, due to the close relations with the former Soviet Union, 80 per cent of students were taught English and only 20 per cent were taught Russian, which indicates that English has always been prioritised.

Fidel Castro referred to the importance of the English language for the cultural formation of the people since the early years of the revolution. English lessons are available and accessible to children and adults throughout the country through television.

What is the main government English language learning policy?

Communicating in English is viewed as an essential constituent of people’s culture and one of the key elements of citizenship education – it has been given priority at all levels of education, including graduate programmes. The main goal of education is to foster the comprehensive development of the learners’ personalities as human and social beings, including citizenship education. English language education obviously shares the same goal. At present the school curriculum is under renovation, and the reformulation of the main curriculum objectives is oriented to the formation of an intercultural speaker and a more autonomous learner by encouraging the development of learning strategies.

What are the main issues affecting English language teachers in Cuba and what are the minimum qualifications to teach the language in the state sector?

To teach at any educational level teachers need to be certified by teacher training programme supported by pedagogical universities (teacher training colleges) or faculties. So, most teachers have been certified with a bachelors degree granted by one of these programmes. They have a CEFR B2 level and basic pedagogical and didactic skills. Visiting educators and international ELT experts from the US or UK have praised the language proficiency level of Cuban EFL teachers, in a country where less than 2 per cent have had the opportunity to study overseas, never mind improve their pedagogical skills. This has been the result of Cuban teacher training programmes with few resources – which speaks highly of the quality of the programme. In spite of that, our most pressing challenge is to match the quality in teacher education with better results in the teaching-learning process of English in the entire educational system. Then there are the few opportunities teachers have for systematic contact with natural and authentic English either in Cuba or overseas. So a great effort in continuous professional development is required to improve teachers’ abilities in English.

Eduardo Garbey

What are the largest barriers to learning English?

One is the limited exposure to foreign languages in genuine and authentic communicative situations. Although not impossible, it is very challenging to attain a good level of English solely in the public schools. We need to increase the quality of the teachers, the lessons delivered and the materials provided, boost the number of class hours per week and exposure to English, and reduce the number of students per class. But we are optimistic because the process of curriculum renovation and reform is taking most of these aspects into account. 

How would you describe the level of ELT in higher education?

The best, if compared with other educational levels. It’s where more qualified EFL teachers work, several with masters and PhD degrees. At university level all English language teachers have a bachelors degree, and a significant number hold a masters in education or linguistics. In most university language departments there are also a growing number who hold a PhD or are already in a PhD programme. The Ministry of Higher Education has established new national guidelines and standards aimed at producing better results in English language learning. The idea, advanced by Dr Dolores Corona, ELT advisor in higher education for more than 25 years, is to turn universities into English language learning communities to provide more exposure to English and a variety of learning opportunities in all university spheres.

PIC CAP: MOVING FORWARD Eduardo Garbey at Iatelf’s 2016 conference. Copyright Matt Salusbury