Is learning English a must for Nicaraguans?

And are people learning it for the right reasons?


I was in a bar in León on a Friday night where foreigners and Nicaraguans were practicing their salsa on one another, while others watched from cramped tables or leaning against the bar.

As I was watching some friends dance, I became distracted and started talking with a Nicaraguan guy who said he needed to practice his English. For the past few weeks, he had taken the opportunity with any foreigner he could corner in conversation.

I, too, am eager to practice my Spanish, so it was winners-all-round.

Both of us were drunk—he more than I—so we took seats at his table to begin our impromptu language exchange. With several more empty bottles of Victoria added to the table, we approached the heady- heights of lingual capacity that comes with alcohol; a special mixture of indifference to mistakes and false confidence in language ability.

Spanish was rolling quickly off my tongue, like the crescendo of an incoming tide; and my friend’s English was improving rapidly. With each glass of beer he seemed to add 10 new words to his vocabulary.

According to my new drinking partner, he began studying English to make more money in his profession. As a lawyer, he was conscious of the growing demand for English-speaking Nicaraguans needed to help foreigners navigate the country’s treacherous legal system.

“More and more foreigners are buying houses and do not speak Spanish. They have lots of money,” he told me. “I want a piece of that pie,” he added, proud of his use of idiom.

There is also the chance of a lawyer finding a place for himself in the business world of import and export. My friend was not the only one in his profession to see the ripple of dollars bills and the droves of Spanish-stricken foreigners who need help decoding contracts inked in a foreign tongue. Others had already discovered this market need long before he did, and now he is scrambling to achieve English-language proficiency before getting pulled under the wave of foreign clients flooding to Nicaragua.

In order to accelerate his English, he was attending a school in Managua for intensive training. At the end of each week, the group was given a language test. If the students fail twice, they are kicked out of the program without so much as a goodbye or a refund for the remaining weeks. My friend had already failed once.

I asked him how much he could make in this economy by mastering English. Necking back a full glass of beer, he said that his wife would be able to afford all the shoes she wanted.

But the plateau was approaching that high water mark of drunkenness where fluidity becomes stutters and repeated sentences.

The staff of the bar was trying in vain to usher everyone outside for closing, so he concluded our chat by telling me he was only out tonight because his wife had spent too much money on shoes. They had argued, and when they argued he went out to get sloshed.

On the way home, I couldn’t help but think about our conversation and about some other Nicaraguans I have met who were learning English as part of their tourism university degree. Was their desire to learn English positive or not?

Surely, for my friend, it is a good thing; his paychecks will presumably get bigger and his wife will be able to afford more shoes. But I have heard many Nicaraguans, and Guatemalans when I lived there years ago, speak quite polemically about the subject.

According to one viewpoint, it is endemic of the spread of North American culture across Central America, which works to destabilize traditions and communities. On the other hand, learning English is constructive since it opens up job opportunities and can be a rewarding experience in itself.

It seems to me that the rationale behind learning a foreign language can be instead split this way: economical and intellectual. The desire to learn English in Nicaragua, from what I have seen, lies almost completely with the former. People are learning the language in order to find a job or increase their wages in their current jobs.

Indeed, one editorial in the daily El Nuevo Diario commented: “If there is one thing today in the world that can get the citizens of an emerging economy out of poverty with a single blow it is learning to speak English.” According to the article, an individual working in a Nicaraguan call center could go from a wage of C$ 3,000 per month to C$ 11,000 per month, just by speaking English.

It is also estimated that in 2011 there were only 4,000 bilingual professionals in the entire country. Furthermore, demand has been growing faster than supply.

The reason for this was placed upon the education system with its strict adherence to traditional forms of teaching English, which conflicts with the less-formal desires of businesses. For example, businesses prefer a verbal and written competency, rather than a precision of grammar and syntax.

Another article, this time appearing in the newspaper La Voz Del Sandinismo, stated that the Nicaraguan government does not only want to see a drive towards English proficiency, but also in a range of other languages. Although English is the most necessary at the moment.

According to the piece, “English will be required to meet demands that are beginning to be felt, as in the case of tourism, the continuous increase in direct investments and the extent of our international trade.”

Special attention was paid to the anticipated megaprojects, especially the Grand Canal of Nicaragua that will require much international dialogue between Nicaraguan officials, Chinese financial-backers and foreign engineering companies.

It also stated that an agreement was signed this year between the Nicaraguan government and the Inter-American Development Bank for more funding of foreign languages in the country.

Doing their part, the U.S. embassy announced that they will organize and fund a week-long training camp next January for 60 university students studying English.

Whether or not you agree, it is a fact that in the coming years and decades Nicaragua will experience a surge in tourism and foreign investment, as it has begun to witness in the past few years; and when foreign travelers and businessmen step off the planes in Augusto Sandino International Airport, they will need to be greeted by English-speakers in order to keep their wallets on Nicaraguan soil.

Indeed, in the name of economic progress, it seems that Nicaraguans are motivated to learn English not to better themselves intellectually, but to make themselves more attractive commodities in a changing job market.

David Hutt is a freelance writer from London, UK, who will be on the trail of Latin America during the next year and will be working as a tour guide in León, Nicaragua. Follow his travels and misadventures on his blog, and follow him on twitter @davidhutt1990


  • Jorge Greco Rodriguez

    The world is globalizing and who ever speaks one language will fall short

    • Mike

      Right on! I could have not said it better myself!

  • Nicagringo

    Economic development of Nicaragua is dependent on the value of the people to the global economy. This can come in several ways, for the time being English is the easiest way and a great way to build a foundation for learning other skills that are valuable to the global economy. Other wealthy nations have recognized this and this is why English is the most universally spoken language globally.

    This doesn’t mean Nicaragua will lose its identity…just be better equipped to communicate the great culture and unique value of the country to the global community.

  • John Shepard

    English is the international business language, just as English is the international aviation language. Chinese businessmen speak English, as do Germans, French, Dutch.

    I still feel it’s important for any ex-pat to master the language of his chosen country. It’s a sign of respect.

    That being said, the young ladies at the FDC kiosk at MGA, and the young man overseeing the nice cigar room at the large duty free across from the FDC kiosk would sell a lot more product if they spoke some English.

  • Raffles

    I run a business in Canada which has developed infrastructure and population base much larger than Nicaragua. Even so I’d close my doors tomorrow if I lost my sales to USA based customers. Their market is so large and diverse (10 times Canada) that it’s essential if you sell a ‘niche’ product or service.

    Fortunately we use the same English (with a bit different spelling) but if I was in Quebec you can bet I’d be using English there for most of my business.

    Nicaragua is well situated for smaller enterprises to sell into the US Market and yes there is a good sized Spanish speaking market in the USA. However being able to speak and email in English as well as building an English Web Site is essential. A lot of Chinese businesses have at least one person able to correspond in English, not good English but enough to make a sale.

  • mnelson

    Many of my Nicaraguan friends are learning English. They know, for their themselves and their children, this is the passport out of low paying jobs … or no work at all. Some are learning English to work for the many Nicaraguan firms popping up to provide back room services for small North American companies like accounting and book keeping services, etc. This is not an excuse, however, for us expats to not try to learn as much Español as we can … it shows respect for our hosts.

  • Ken

    I share the writer’s ambivalence. On one hand, the demand for English is a sign of cultural imperialism, but on the other hand it is a real post-imperialist world where those with English skills do a lot better. I can respect the Nicas who refuse to learn English as a resistance to cultural imperialism, but can’t fault those who choose to learn it for their own financial betterment. I suppose that many conquered by the Romans were equally conflicted about learning Latin.

    I’ll add though two opinionated thoughts. One is that those promoting English learning need to grapple with the issue of failure. I have no data, but I’m fairly certain that the vast majority of Nicas who try to learn English never achieve a level of proficiency sufficient to make them more marketable. As Ivan Illich argued long ago, a little bit of schooling in the Third World can actually be harmful, since it essentially teaches the students that they are life-long failures in the global economy. I think too many English-language programs and teachers are ill-equipped to nurture students through to proficiency (in the example used in the article students who don’t cut the mustard are even expelled) which strikes me as possibly doing more harm than good.

    My second opinion is that I have difficulties with the attitude of some English teachers who seem to smugly believe that theirs is a noble calling. Well, it’s not ignoble, but to my mind it isn’t a slam-dunk good deed. In addition to the issue of creating failures, English instruction is also typically addressed to those who are already of a higher class (a lawyer in this article), so insofar as it takes, English skills can increase the gap between the classes. Then too, if the objective is to impart marketable skills, I see no reason to conclude that teaching English is superior to teaching say welding, auto repair, or a hundred other skills. (In fact, at one point not long ago, a call center was recruiting Nicas who could speak Mexican Spanish, so it could be argued that teaching Mexican accent-enhancement is a good deed too.)

    I guess I feel that some English teachers have a holier-than-thou attitude, when to my mind the enterprise deserves a more mixed assessment.

    • Rebecca Ore

      One of the issues, which is the same issue in reverse in the US, is having people taught by native speakers, not people who themselves are not fluent. I had Spanish in high school in the US and it was not sufficient for anything remotely close to fluency, or even what I call Market Spanish (as in buying groceries).

      Also, will the US and/or the Nicaraguan government do more to bring students to the US so they can do the same sorts of immersion for a year or so that those of us who move here do.

    • Daddy-yo

      Cultural imperialism isn’t as one sided as you’d make it. The meek masses have a way of turning empires inside out. (I suppose the Goths got fed up with studying Latin and decided to stomp Rome, eh?)

      Ken, as to your first opinion, I say, let them fail. Coddle not, unless they’re children/babies. Learning is work. Knowledge, not rote, is gained by experimentation. Most good experiments fail. Learning still happens. A culture of coddlers is doomed to become stagnant (although pretty proficient at killing remotely by drones).

      Teaching IS a noble profession. A good teacher remembers her/his (I hate English for these pronouns) learning process, which is necessarily humbling. Your complaint applies to more than English teachers. It’s endemic in schools today worldwide. The big, knowledgeable person standing in front of the ignorant, little students naturally feels superior. Unfortunately Socrates died a couple millennia ago.

  • Mike

    People who do things mainly for the money mainly do the wrong thing. If the nature of the work is not in itself appealing, the job can’t pay enough to pay for what it will cost you.

  • Daddy-yo

    Little wonder booze helps before it deludes. Another language isn’t merely a different way of expressing one’s thoughts, of communicating, it’s a different way of thinking, of interpreting one’s environment and one’s place in the world (identity). (I’d advise desirous Nicas to rearrange their synapses with a fine bourbon, American corn whiskey. Stop before visualizing the Great Corn Spirit.)

    Visiting gringos would do well to learn Nicaraguan Spanish & customs to escape the stereotype that associates dollars with ugly foreignness. But after all that’s why tourists pay a premium – to isolate themselves from the excessive strangeness of another language/culture. Yes, money talks. The first Nicaraguans (Spaniards really) learn some Nahuatl to find the gold of Nuevo Segovia. Imagine Guatemalans learning Mayan in schools alongside Spanish today? It’d bring lasting peace, but where is their economic motive?

    Languages change. English (techno-mechanical, cold-heartedly logical & mercenary) will merge with Spanish (soulful, musical, lovingly passionate & caring; full of blood) into a great American tongue. Meanwhile many poor Nicas are being advised to give the devil his due “in the name of economic progress”. May God have mercy on their souls.

    Speaking of English, how can you say, “it is a fact that in the coming years and decades Nicaragua will experience a surge in tourism and foreign investment”? It may be true (sadly & tragically IMO), but how is it you can foresee this future as ‘fact’? Madison Avenue wording?

  • LauraSoto

    As a Nicaraguan I strongly believe that nowadays for any country it is important to know at least two more languages. I do not remember having a saturday off after a turn 5 years old because my mom always though learning english was really important and that was back in the early 90’s. That should tell you that she had a vision of the world being as it is right now. I speak 4 fluent languages and I am in the process of learning my 5th. I will always be thankful I had parents that had allow me to open my eyes to the culture of the world. So, if English is not a must I think it should be.

  • Sree

    We should have knowledge of speaking and writing English.I came from a place where english is not a native language.As i know english is a universal language i started learning english Learning different languages is very useful.