NY Times Article: Learn English, Says Chile

"Learn English, Says Chile, Thinking Upwardly Global" by Larry Rohter (New York Times, 12/29/04)

In many parts of Latin America, resistance to cultural domination by the United States is often synonymous with a reluctance to learn or speak English. But here, where Salvador Allende was once a beacon for the left, the current Socialist-led national government has begun a sweeping effort to make this country bilingual.  Chile already has the most open, market-friendly economy in Latin America, and the language plan is seen as advancing that process. The government has negotiated free trade agreements with the United States, Canada, the European Union and South Korea in recent years, is in talks with New Zealand and Singapore, and this fall was host to the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, with President Bush among the leaders of 21 nations in attendance.
"We have some of the most advanced commercial accords in the world, but that is not enough," Sergio Bitar, the minister of education, said in an interview here. "We know our lives are linked more than ever to an international presence, and if you can't speak English, you can't sell and you can't learn." The initial phase of the 18-month-old program, officially known as "English Opens Doors," calls for all Chilean elementary and high school students to be able to pass a standardized listening and reading test a decade from now.But the more ambitious long-term goal is to make all 15 million of Chile's people fluent in English within a generation. "It took the Swedes 40 years" to get to that point, said Mr. Bitar, adding that he sees the Nordic countries and Southeast Asian nations like Malaysia as models for Chile. "It's going to take us decades too, but we're on the right track."

In any other Latin American country, a campaign to make English universal and obligatory would inevitably arouse protests about the destruction of the nation's sovereignty and cultural identity. In Brazil, for example, legislation has been proposed to prohibit the use of English in the names of stores or in advertisements and to create new Portuguese-language verbs to designate basic computer operations. Here, in contrast, what little criticism there is of the plan has focused on the argument that schools should teach children to speak Spanish better before they try to learn English. Only a very small number of groups have opposed the program on ideological grounds.

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Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: December 30, 2004