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