Havana: English for Everyone / Ivan Garcia

Britannia School, Havana

In a city of two and a half million inhabitants such as Havana — its streets riddled with potholes, its garbage cans overflowing, its hydraulic networks shattered and a layer of soot covering the facades of its homes and commercial buildings — it seems anachronistic to see language schools teaching British English.

At the corner of Graciela street and Santa Catalina, a four-lane avenue lined with Jacaranda trees in the Tenth of October district twenty-five minutes from the center of the capital, stands a privately-run English language school with courses of study developed by the UK’s prestigious Cambridge University.

It is headquartered in a large house with air-conditioned classrooms and flat screen TVs mounted to the walls. It offers courses for children 4 to 11 years old and adolescents up to age 18. It also offers specialized prep courses for international exams.

The faculty is first rate. And although it costs 20 CUC to register and another 10 CUC a month for tuition, the school is no longer accepting new students due to lack of capacity.

Adriana, a civil engineer, enrolled her eleven-year-old daughter in the school. “It’s quite expensive,” she says, “but thanks to help from the girl’s grandmother, who lives overseas, I can afford to pay for these English classes.”

It costs Osvaldo, a private-sector worker, a bit more. “I enrolled my two sons,” he says. “The sacrifice is worth it; they get a lot of personal attention and the teaching methods are excellent.”

Each student is given an 8-gigabyte flash drive with learning materials, textbooks, exercise books, pencils, pens and a light blue bag. Erasmus, who teaches classes for children, notes, “In the two years the school has been operating, the reception has been tremendous. Over 80 people attend the Monday and Friday evening classes. We guarantee students will learn both forms of English — the UK and the US versions — as well as idioms used in cities like New York and Miami.”

In a spacious porticoed house with a carefully tended rose garden half a mile from the  Britannia private school, Adela teaches English to children, adolescents and adults for 10 CUC per month.

“I give classes three times a week in two different time slots. On September 10 I had to stop enrolling students. In addition to the 10 CUC a month, the first month costs 8 CUC, which covers textbooks, specialized DVDs and other material,” explains Adela.

In Tenth of October alone — with 213,000 inhabitants, it is Havana’s most populous district — there are sixty private English language schools.

“In addition to these there are eleven or twelve state-run schools that offer language classes at night,” says Gregorio, a local high school English teacher. “In addition to price, the main difference between these and the private schools is quality. The classes taught at the private schools are much better than those at state schools.”

Havana probably has more English language classes per capita than any other city on the planet. This was not always the case. In the 1970s and 1980s there were a few state-run foreign language schools in English, German, French or Russian.

By the mid-1980s English language classes were being suppressed in Cuban schools. “It was crazy,” recalls Renato, a philologist. “Russian was adopted but it didn’t enjoy widespread acceptance in spite of the fact that Radio Rebelde broadcast Russian courses.”

But with the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, English language instruction returned to school curricula. With new regulations in 1994 providing greater options for self-employment, hundreds of teachers, interpreters and translators of the language of Shakespeare began giving classes as a way to earn money and improve their quality of life.

Twice a week, Marlén gives English lessons to about twenty students, all under the age of twelve. “I charge 5 CUC a month. I worked as part of a team translating books and articles for Fidel Castro. But I am retired and my 300 Cuban peso a month pension is not enough to live comfortably.”

You wil find that prices run the gamut in Havana, from 1 CUC per class, or 3 CUC a month, to 10 or 15 CUC a month in private academies or well-equipped homes.

According to Carlos, a sociologist, the demand for classes in English and other foreign languages for younger kids and adolescents is driven by the desire of many parents to prepare their children for emigration in the future.

“Not since before 1959, when there were schools throughout Havana offering free English language classes, have so many students of all ages been studying English in such a serious and in-depth way. It is taught in state schools but the classes are poor quality. Behind the high-demand is a desire to be prepared to work, study or live in the United States, Canada or some other English-speaking country. No self-respecting professional — whether he or she is an engineer, programmer or high-tech worker — can avoid the study of the English language. Knowing how to speak English is essential in today’s world.”

Juan Antonio, a Cuban-American living in Miami, knows firsthand the importance of English. “I spent four years working in low-paying jobs because I had not mastered the language. That’s why I send money to my nephews and nieces, so that they can learn English from an early age,” he says. “When it comes time to leave, they will have opportunities for better jobs.”

With the new winds blowing through the island, among the goals a bright young man like Jonathan has is to learn English well enough to attend an American university.

“Young Cubans are always preparing because we hope to get scholarships to study at American or European universities. A degree from any prestigious university is an advantage that will allow us to find good-paying jobs. It’s no longer enough just to emigrate. After arriving, I want to thrive,” says Jonathan.

Comfortable schools with modern teaching methods, such as Britannia in Havana’s Santa Catalina Avenue, offer the quality that those who see their future in an English-speaking country are looking for.

Iván García

Photo from Martí Noticias

23 October 2014