“We started the Peace Corps TEFL program in 2010,” said Kevin R. Brown, an associate director for the Peace Corps Costa Rica. “But this year has been the most exciting.”
While “TEFL” stands for “Teaching English as a Foreign Language,” it means different things to different people. For native English speakers, TEFL is a passport to teach and live nearly anywhere on the planet. For Costa Ricans, especially low-income students, learning English unlocks myriad opportunities. For the U.S. Peace Corps, the four-year-old TEFL program is a massive collaboration with the Ministry of Public Education, and this year, that program took great strides.
“When I came here, and we started this project, we didn’t have a framework,” said Brown during a recent conversation with The Tico Times. Since that time, Brown has helped import 119 Peace Corps Volunteers who have established or strengthened TEFL education in 27 distinct regions across Costa Rica. Brown added, “I’m thrilled as to where we are. Currently I am documenting everything, so that the legacy can continue when I’m gone.”
For outsiders, it is difficult to bring these achievements into focus. Instead of a united front, TEFL initiatives are a loose confederacy of educators, administrators, and volunteers, many of whom perform their tasks in isolation. Countless organizations are involved in the effort, from the U.S. Embassy to the Costa Rica Multilingüe Foundation. Hard data are scattered and hard to generalize.
Still, evidence of success is increasingly visible. One recent example was “English Day,” a linguistic celebration for Heredia students that took place on the National University (UNA) campus on Nov. 27, overlapping with the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving. Dozens of students presented short scenes and dialogues for their families and teachers at the Clodomiro Picado Auditorium, along with musicians and other performers.
One typical example of an English skit: Four children took the stage, along with a basic arsenal of props. Two girls pretended to be U.S. tourists planning a visit to Costa Rica. They “called” a “hotelier” and confirmed their reservation. They “arrived” at the airport and took a “taxi” to their accommodations. At one point, the taxista asked, “Do you speak Spanish?”
“Spanish?” said the girls simultaneously. “Yes! Puuuura viiiiida!”
A wave of laughter rolled over the audience.
Taking advantage of the beautiful weather, families enjoyed an outdoor lunch of tamales, empanadas, and agua dulce. When they returned to the auditorium, they watched a violinist and pianist play duets of “Greensleeves” and the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
“The students have been learning English, and I thought they should practice their language,” said Andrés Mendoza Gutiérrez, Pedagogic English Advisor for the Heredia Regional Office of Education, of his role in leading the regional celebrations, one of several English Day events that Education Ministry leaders organize around the country near the end of the year.
Contrary to foreign belief, Costa Rica is not a country where “everyone speaks English,” and while Ticos can live perfectly happy lives without speaking the so-called international language, the benefits of learning English can be enormous. In order to make the instruction useful, the Peace Corps program is increasingly using “Readers’ Theater” competitions, where participants are given scripted conversations and then read the scenes aloud. Unlike the skits of English Day, students receive their scripts the day of the tournament, so that all performances are cold readings. They are judged on intonation and demonstrated understanding of the text they are reading.
“We’re trying to engage students with what we call authentic language,” said Brown. “We want them to do something with the English they learn.”
“It is difficult because of the environment,” opined Marcela Núñez, an English teacher in Heredia. “The students go home and forget everything, because no one in their family speaks English.”
The swelling interest in English came to a head for the Peace Corps on Nov. 20, when volunteers teamed up with the Education Ministry to hold the third annual National Spelling Bee in Liberia, Guanacaste. The Bee has garnered massive popularity, and the November event took an entire day. Brown arrived at the Hotel Boyeros at 7 a.m., and it was not until 8 p.m. that the final round took place.
“I think everyone was pretty tired by that point,” recalled Brown.
But suspense reigned during the final round.
One of the competitors was a young student named Mainor Andres Ortíz, a Talamanca resident and member of the Bribri indigenous community. According to Brown, Ortíz has had a longtime affection for Bob Marley, and his English skills are prodigious despite the fact his region’s students must often learn Spanish as a second language before tackling English, and face some of the most limited access to English instruction in the country. When Brown met Ortíz in 2011, his community didn’t yet have electricity. The young student has taken full advantage of all opportunities that have come his way, including volunteering to help younger students learn English at a Peace Corps-led JumpStart Costa Rica camp. When Ortíz prevailed at a regional spelling bee, he and some peers rode a bus 14 hours to Liberia to compete in the national event.
After hours of eliminations, five students made the final round, including Ortíz. Four students were eliminated right away, and Ortíz spelled his first word correctly, but the rules stipulated that he must correctly spell two words in order to win.
Here is a video of the nail-biting conclusion:
Ortíz’s victory has become something of a legend in the past month, a point of pride for both the TEFL initiatives and the Talamanca community.
“Our region was in tears,” said Peace Corps Volunteer Anna Ferris, who teaches at a Talamanca high school and knows Ortíz well. She added that Limón has seen significantly more participation in English-language events, including a regional spelling bee. In her own high school, participants jumped from five students to 20. “In the Caribbean this year it was a lot more developed than it was last year.”
In the future, Brown and his colleagues hope for a “National English Fair,” which would attract students and teachers from all over the country. Such an event could incorporate spelling bees, readers’ theater competitions, and regular skits, among countless other activities. As in the Heredia English Day, they hope to involve visual and performing arts.
“What we want to determine is, how do we generate excitement about learning English?” he said. “We’re looking at what went well and what could be improved for 2015.”
Brown grew up in Owensboro, Ky., but his mother is a native of El Salvador. He spent some time educating overseas before taking the associate director position in Costa Rica. His passion for the Peace Corps has been nearly lifelong.
“Coming from the States, I watched the commercials as a child, and it was something I always dreamed of,” said Brown. “I watched the [Central American] wars all through the 80s. We were affected by that, and it colors how you want to participate.”
According to Peace Corps regulations, an associate director may only retain the position for five years. In August of 2015, Brown will have to step down and leave the reins to another. He expects that slowly but surely, his successors will embellish and strengthen the initiatives that he helped create.
“I would stay if I could,” he said.