Latin America & Caribbean

Cuba says 'yes' to English as tourism flourishes

Pupils at the Jesus Suarez Gayol secondary school in Havana
Image caption Young Cubans are increasingly studying English

As Cuba slowly opens up its economy to the rest of the world, more and more Cubans are learning English. The Cuban government has made proficiency in English a requirement for all high school and university students. As Will Grant reports from Havana, that approach differs from the Cold War, when Russian was the preferred foreign language.

At the annual Havana Jazz Festival, the audience members, much like the music, were a mix of international and Cuban.

Sitting on plastic chairs at the open-air venue, visitors from the United States, Europe and China mingled with local jazz aficionados.

On stage, a saxophonist who lives in Denmark was reunited with some old Cuban friends.

At such an international event, the common language is generally English.

Many Cubans are already learning the language themselves, and if not, they are trying to make sure their children are.

'Nyet' to Russian

Morning assembly at Jesus Suarez Gayol Secondary School on the outskirts of Havana begins with the school's anthem.

Image caption Secondary school pupils are expected to reach a certain standard in English

The school is named after one of the guerrillas who fought alongside Ernesto "Che" Guevara but these teenagers are growing up in an increasingly different Cuba to the one Jesus Suarez did.

For a start, a certain proficiency in English is now a requirement for all secondary school children and university graduates.

During the Cold War, students could choose between learning English and Russian but Cuba's educational authorities told the BBC they now consider English a necessary skill for all of the nation's youth.

"As an international language, English has always had a place in our curriculum," says Director of Secondary Education Zoe de la Red Iturria.

"But we are now rolling out new techniques to evolve our learning of the English language," she adds.

Image caption Zoe de la Red Iturria wants to modernise English-language learning in Cuba

But language-teaching methods remain quite traditional, relying heavily on textbooks, parrot-fashion repetition and with only very limited Internet access.

Olga Perez, national adviser for English teaching in Cuba, says the authorities are hoping to tackle that last issue.

"It would be very good for us if we had the internet in the schools. And we hope that in the future, we'll not only have the internet, we're also dreaming of installing language laboratories in every school."

And it is not just in the classrooms that English can be heard more frequently but on the streets of Havana, too.

Making conversation

In what was a record year for tourism to Cuba, many Cubans have tried to teach themselves English without the help of any formal classes.

Darvis Luis sells second-hand books and posters to tourists. He says he learnt English entirely through computer games, music videos and rock songs.

"I have to make conversation because I need to make money to eat," he says in easy-flowing, fast English.

"I have to learn how to speak with them and I have to get better and better. I tell them a story because books aren't so easy to sell. So you have to make them believe in what you're saying."

Image caption Darvis Luis taught himself English to be able to better sells his second-hand books to tourists

Resources for Anglophiles and budding English-language students like Darvis Luis are limited in Cuba.

One place they can go is Cuba Libro, the island's only English-language bookstore.

Nestled in the leafy Havana district of Vedado, it is the brainchild of US healthcare journalist and long-time Havana resident Conner Gorry.

Ms Gorry says that after some initial misgivings, local residents "welcomed us with open arms" once they saw "the free cultural programming, high-quality literature and community outreach" on offer.

"Literature is not subversive," she says. "A Cuban government-run publishing house just published George Orwell's 1984 and that's available in state-run bookstores."

"With increased tourism and increased business connections to the wider world, the Cubans are encouraging people to learn English. So we've become a resource," she adds.

In the past months, as well as the jazz festival, Havana has hosted the annual film festival and the international ballet festival.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Latin American Film Festival has drawn Cubans and tourists to Havana

It is at events like these that the thaw in relations with the US seems clearer than ever.

The decision by the Obama Administration and the Castro government to rebuild their diplomatic ties has undeniably brought Cubans and Americans closer together.

It has also brought about some potentially lasting collaboration in science and the arts.

There are people on both sides who fear those steps could soon be reversed, especially in light of comments made to that effect by President-elect Donald Trump.

For now though, the young students at Jesus Suarez are just keen to keep improving their ability to communicate with the rest of the world.

Related Topics

More on this story