Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why English is Everything

Carlos Cano discussing Colombian socioeconomics.
When I first signed up for this gig, I knew I was coming down here to do something important—but the more time I spend in Colombia, the more I am realizing just how important that something is.

To quote one of my Colombian friends: “In Colombia, English is everything.”

Wait just a darn minute… isn’t Colombia a Spanish-speaking country?

Well, duh—I’m reminded of this every time I attempt to order an empanada at the local tienda.

So if everyone speaks Spanish here, then why is learning English so important?

During my second week in Colombia, the other WorldTeach volunteers and I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation by Carlos Cano, one of Colombia’s top economic advisors—more or less, Colombia’s Alan Greenspan—at the Colombian Central Bank.

Countries where English is an official language.
Mr. Cano told us that English is still the language of knowledge—more books, scientific papers and other important research documents are written in English than in any other language. In other words, a lack of English roughly equates to a lack of knowledge.

English is also still the international language for business—without at least a working knowledge of English, conducting international business is nearly impossible. Naturally, those who know English get better jobs than those who don’t. In other words—if you know English, you will have money and if you don’t, you will be poor.

Do these kids deserve a life of poverty? I think not.
It is also virtually impossible to get into college in Colombia without at least a basic understanding of the English language. Every prospective Colombian college student must take the ICFES—essentially Colombia’s SAT—to even be considered for admission. As you may have already guessed, one of the most crucial sections of this test is English.

Therefore, in Colombia if you don’t know English, you aren’t going to college.

Colombia’s wealthy elite have the resources to send their children to expensive prep schools where they can learn English from fluent and sometimes native speakers, guaranteeing that by the time they take the ICFES, they will be prepared to do well. Meanwhile, although Colombia guarantees every child a public education (which is more than most countries in the developing world can say), most public schools lack quality English teachers. More often than not, the public school English teachers don’t even speak the language themselves—so how can they expect to effectively teach it?  

Me... coming in.
This is where I come in.

As a native speaker teaching at a public school in one of the poorest areas of Bogotá, I can help to level the playing field. For children who would likely otherwise never even meet a native English speaker, the chance to learn from one every day should create a huge impact in their lives. Although I will likely never see the fruits of my labor—most of my students will not take the ICFES for many years—I am doing my best to plant the seeds of knowledge today so that when my students grow up, they will have a shot at a better life.

Every day when I enter Nueva Esperanza’s gates and am greeted by packs of children way too excited to see me, I cannot help but feel a sense of anger towards the adults of this world who have created a system so disgustingly unfair that these children—these little human beings—are more often than not destined to fail before they even get a chance to shine.

They've got what it takes to shine if we would only let them.
I don’t profess to have the power to correct capitalism’s inherent inequalities nor to purge poverty from the face of the Earth—but in teaching these children English, maybe—just maybe— I can help them reclaim the chance for a better life they were denied.   

1 comment:

  1. Wow that photo of the children is really good, did you take it?

    I was born in Bogotá but now live in Washington DC as a US Citizen. Really love your blog.