A few days ago, I watched on television the Secretary of Education, Aurelio Nuño Mayer, state very confidently that in twenty years Mexico’s educational system will be entirely bilingual in Spanish and English: all teachers will be able and speak and teach in both languages, and students will graduate fully bilingual. At first glance, this seems like another hare-brained scheme that politicians in Mexico regularly concoct and which never go anywhere, but this one, strangely enough, might have a chance of being achieved.
For eight years, it has been mandated that all students in the Mexican education system learn English as a second language from the time they’re in grade school. I am regularly reminded of this policy whenever I receive emails from organizations that recruit students from American universities to come to Mexico to teach English. When students in my courses in California learn of this opportunity, they become very excited at the prospect of living and teaching English in Mexico, the country of many of their parents. I usually burst their bubble when I point out that the pay for such a job may be if they’re lucky, around $600 dollars a month, and they quickly discard the idea.
Obviously, the low pay has been an impediment for fulfilling the government’s goal of teaching English in every classroom; and since the normal schools that produce the teaching workforce in Mexico can hardly provide the much needed bilingual teachers, there’s a severe shortage of them throughout the educational system. With the New Education Model, Nuño Mayer asserts, this lack of teachers will be resolved. The solution es muy fácil: one of the goals of this new model—which by the way is pretty old in many parts of the world —will be to reinforce the teaching of English language in the normal schools, that will eventually generate an entire teaching force fully bilingual in twenty years. This will hopefully eliminate the recruitment emails that often appear in my inbox.
I wonder how is it that a country, such as the USA rich in educational resources, hasn’t been able to turn out even a majority of teachers fully bilingual; yet Mexico, a country where a good amount of its students attend schools that lack basic necessities like running water, bathrooms, and electricity, will find the resources needed to transform its entire educational system into a bilingual one in the span of a generation? This should make American educators ashamed, but I’m afraid the so-called New Education Model that Peña Nieto’s administration is heavily promoting will only give the Americans a hearty laugh. They shouldn’t laugh too hard though, for the plan may not be as far-fetched as it seems.
In a recent postcard, I noted how the presence of English is found in many spaces of Mexican society due mainly to the influence of American media, specifically, the entertainment industries and, lately, social media as well. For example, many people in Mexico love to hashtag their way through life but try to find a hashtag that is written in Spanish. It’ll be like finding the proverbial needle in a linguistic haystack. Another fact that confirms the frequent use of English in Mexican society is the naming of shows for television viewing: La Voz Kids, ¡Hey! Score Final; or other cultural and entertainment events: “90’s Pop Tour,” a concert by Mexican pop stars of that decade; “Dress to Give: Fashion Days San Miguel de Allende,” a fashion show that takes place in the famous American enclave. Also, today you’re an old-fashioned Mexican if you say, las cinco canciones más escuchadas or las diez películas más populares; instead, you must say el Top 5 or el Top 10. You can easily find many more examples of this linguistic encroachment that is happening throughout the country.
From an early age, Mexicans are constantly bombarded with English through all kinds of media. They massively consume American movies, television, and music in English to such a degree that they are in many ways predisposed to learn this foreign language. When I taught basic Spanish courses in the United States, I always encouraged my students to watch telenovelas, listen to music and view films in Spanish since I was sure it would improve their language skills. Hardly any of them ever followed my advice for various reasons. I also tried to optimize the use of the language lab to help students learn Spanish but with dismal results. In this sense, Mexico is an English language teacher’s dream. Mexican students are living in an English language lab 24/7. They receive linguistic input in most facets of their daily lives: at home on television and computers; in public on social media, but they are especially in contact with English at the many malls and movie complexes that dot urban areas as well at American restaurants, bars, and discos. In all of these media and social places, Mexicans routinely engage in activities in English. They are like children who constantly absorb vocabulary and unconsciously learn the grammatical rules. It’s only a matter of time before they begin to speak this language, which can easily be achieved with the help of well-prepared English instructor. At the present time, many from the middle and upper classes do provide this opportunity for their children: the former mainly by hiring private tutors and the latter by sending their children to private bilingual schools. The lower class students, on the other hand, find themselves relegated to being monolingual or minimally bilingual, since American culture reaches way down into their world also, mainly through cultural piracy. ¡Dile no a la piratería!
So the goal of having an educational system that is bilingual in twenty years is a very real possibility as long as American culture continues to dominate in Mexico. The so-called New Education Model will not be the catalyst of this linguistic transformation; this is already underway as young people from all social strata consume massive amounts of cultural products from the USA. If the right resources are allocated properly, the policy will only give the final impetus for Mexico to become a bilingual nation.
The victory will be bittersweet though since there will always be critics who will point out the irony of a country that claims to be inclusive and proud of its many indigenous cultures and languages, yet it has opted to teach all its children the language of globalization instead of one of our pre-Columbian heritage languages. Some may argue that it’s a practical move; a good command of English will attain employment opportunities with multinationals and in the booming tourist industry in a globalized world. Still, there is a sense of foreboding in the air. Forcing indigenous peoples to learn English will not create trilingual speakers. As it is, in many indigenous towns that have suffered heavy emigration, English is already encroaching on the native tongues because they now belong to transnational communities. So instead of saving these languages, the teaching of English under the New Education Model will more than likely hasten the demise of many of these ancient indigenous dialects and native tongues and, with them, their respective cultures.