The Struggle in Cuba to Learn English

Irina Pino

A book by Tom Miller that covers the subject of this article.

HAVANA TIMES — Looking back over all of the years I’ve spent studying English, I’ve realized that the teaching methods used in schools haven’t been effective. The classes have too much theory and zero conversational practice. The thing is that we don’t learn it like we should: with daily feedback.

There is now a boom in learning the universal language, as all private businesses and jobs in the Cuban tourism industry generally require English skills. Without this language skill, your chances of getting the job are very low.

On the other hand, private classes are at least 5 CUC, twice a week. There are more expensive places, with intensive courses, but they’ll cost you an eye. So, you have to have a pocket full of CUC.

There are also “teachers” out there ripping people off, mixing methodologies, giving classes without the right training.

For poor people, there are state schools. Twenty years ago, the teaching in these schools was really bad, people used to leave just as they had entered: without being able to speak anything.

In the ‘80s, Russian was taught. I remember my sister’s stories of her junior high years in a rural boarding school where she suffered trying to understand Pushkin’s language. All of the students there rejected it, it didn’t sink into their heads. They took the exams pulling out cheat cards. 

Right now, in pre-university (senior high) courses, kids don’t even know where they are. They pass the subject a lot of the time by bribing teachers and others barely get by. They don’t leave with the skills they need to even hold a basic conversation.

On the street, you quickly realize that the people who directly interact with foreigners are the ones who speak English quite well. We hear tourist guides and even jineteros (hustlers) talking fluently with foreigners.

Ever since we were little, our ears have been attuned to listening to English, as movies and cartoons were shown on TV and even the music we listened to at home was in English.

When I was a girl, I used to constantly listen to the Beatles and would go nuts to understand what the lyrics of their songs meant. In my teenage years, Anglosaxon music was mostly played at neighborhood parties: Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Barry Manilow, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd and other artists. Music in Spanish would be played after 11 PM.

We have been penetrated, over 90% of what we watch at home are US serials and movies; via the Weekly Package or those played on national TV.

Sometimes, we ask ourselves about the ease children have to pick up any language just like that. And it’s because they are more receptive in terms of their games, their actions and their friendships. This all contributes to the same learning process. They have this natural feedback that we lose in communication in our older years.

In spite of our poor English, we dive right in and try to speak it when we run into foreigners. We have learned some key phrases after hearing them so many times. To say things like: Where are you from? May I go to the bathroom? Are you staying near here?

2 thoughts on “The Struggle in Cuba to Learn English

  • I think your English is very good and I always enjoy your articles at HT.

    I personally speak 3 languages and learning Spanish as my 4th. Just want you to know that the traditional way of teaching any language in most part of the world, (I spent time in schools in Asia, Europe and North America) are all the same – “Too much theories and too little practice”. That is why I never did well while I was in school but always did better while by myself.

    It just happens that some educators of the newer generation, start to be aware of these problem and many of them are joining the movement of re-thinking and re-designing our language education…

    It also makes me very happy that I recently found a SmartPhone App. from China where it can pretty much translate anything you say into a different language and play it out from your phone to the person who listens…

    Maybe we won’t need to learn any languages 20 years from now…

  • Diving right in is the way to go.
    I regret that when I was in university I was too timid to join the German conversation group. I could have become fluent. I think the timidity can be traced to a fear of being reduced to the status of a child, struggling with words.
    In the meantime, in my little town on Vancouver Island, I take part in a Spanish conversation group. We watch the Destinos telenovela and write little reports on things of interest to us.
    Also, every day, I try to spend a few minutes with Duolingo, the on-line teaching program.

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