Still unsure about this new language, a handful of first graders in Ms. Hernández’ class followed the movements of their classmates as they mouthed the words of a popular English song under their breath.
“Head, shoulders, knees and toes,” they whispered timidly, as they reached to touch their feet, hoping their words would drown in the voices of their peers.
From the front of the class at San José’s Escuela Ricardo Jiménez, Marjorie Hernández encouraged them with nods and smiles.
Syllable by syllable, word by word, she is working to build confidence and fluency in her students so that these six year olds are prepared to face an increasingly globalized world, in which English is the lingua franca.
Understanding that she is on the front lines of the battle to train her students, Hernández enrolled in English classes this year – under President Oscar Arias’ National English Plan – so that she was better prepared to help her students.
“From all points of view, this is a very positive program,” said Hernández, who joins other English teachers two times a week for five-hour training sessions. “We’ve been able to improve our pronunciation and understanding of the language, which – in turn – helps our students.”
This teacher training program is just one part of a multifaceted approach to improve English language instruction in the country.
Costa Rica Multilingual, which also is known as the National English Plan, was introduced in March of 2008 as a 10-year plan. It celebrated its one-year anniversary earlier this month to recognize its accomplishments thus far, including increased enrollment and refined curricula.
“Thanks to the work of multiple actors and strategic partners in Costa Rica, our program is in a good position to continue generating opportunities for learning English,” said Marta Blanco, executive director of Multilingual, in a statement. “The achievements that we celebrate today are a result of not just a government plan, or a sector plan, but a plan for our country to effectively confront the challenges of improving our language and cultural knowledge.”
Combining teacher training, enhanced university instruction, volunteerism among foreign residents and public-private school exchanges, the plan seeks to graduate each high school student in the country with 100 percent English proficiency and reach 35,000 residents in the next year, among other goals. But it faces steep challenges.
Forty percent of the teachers in the country’s public schools have only basic competency in English. A lack of material and sustained interest also has stunted English language learning in the past.
The program combines resources from dozens of sources to make learning the English language possible, including donations from organizations and embassies, government funding, existing infrastructure and volunteer hours from foreign residents.
Yet English teacher Gerardo Barboza, who directs the Center for International Education, is not so sure that the plan is being launched effectively, as subsidized programs lack oversight and teaching specifically tailored to Costa Ricans’ learning styles.
“In its desperate effort to validate the unfounded National English Plan, the government is neglecting once again the quality of education,” he said. “…My critique goes to a government that –with no scientific criteria, uninformed about language teaching, learning and evaluation – simply implements the same formulas (both administrative and academic) that have not worked for the last 18 years.”
He clarified that his criticism is not directed toward free programs like the Resident Volunteer Program, established to encourage conversational English among native speakers and Costa Ricans.
“I have nothing against native English speakers helping us with conversational practice and interesting discussions about cultural differences,” he said.
Shirley Yeh, a recent college graduate from Ohio, is one of those volunteers. She arrived in January to help the English program at a high school in Guanacaste. Residing with a host family and acting as an assistant in English classes, she’s been able to improve English instruction for dozens of students at Colegio Guardia and has polished a curriculum for many to come.
“For me, it’s been a very rewarding experience. I do feel like I make a difference,” she said. And it’s not just grammar and pronunciation she’s sharing with them, it’s also her culture.
“I am an Asian American and the first day I was here, students thought I was there to teach them Chinese,” she said. “I had to explain to them that the United States is really a melting pot of different cultures.”
Through Yeh’s efforts and those of others, Costa Rica is stitching together a knowledge base, preparing Costa Rica to play a leading role in the international economy.
“With globalization and the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. (CAFTA), it is very important that we improve our English. We need more fluency among Costa Ricans,” said Hernández, as she turned to clean up after her last class of 10 year olds.
Although bilingualism may seem a far cry away for her students, who are just now piecing together the English language, they’ve unknowingly become part of a movement that will shape their lives in years to come.
For a copy of the Costa Rica Multilingual Annual Report in Spanish, visit: www.ticotimes.net