Status of the English Language in Venezuela: Current Curricular Implementation
Maricarmen B. Gamero M.
In Venezuela, English has played an important role as an international Lingua Franca for the commercial and economic development of the country. In 1950, owing to global changes on economy and technology, English was established as a compulsory subject in secondary and tertiary education. In 2013, the national government set up a plan (Plan de la Patria, 2013) for the development of the country, which states parameters for sustainability at a social, economic, educational and health system development. On this idea, there have been changes to the National Curriculum in relation to English language teaching. Some major decisions are to include this target language teaching from fourth grade of primary school. In spite of the new trends included, there seems to be resistance among teachers towards change of beliefs and methodologies. In fact, there is an enormous gap between what the national education authorities expect and what is actually happening in EFL classrooms.
Keywords: English, Venezuela, education, language policy, status
The status and role of the English language in Venezuela has been an ever-changing topic among academics, national educational authorities and teachers of English involved in the different levels of education, especially in the last nine years. This is because a curricular reform has been taking place since 2007. In spite of the innovations, there have been more questions than answers. A resistance towards change has risen, particularly regarding the way English is proposed to be taught. As a subject at the secondary level of education, English is part of a component called culture, communication and language, in which it continues holding the status of an instrumental language and it is related to the other subjects students take.
Thus, this essay mainly focuses on describing the current status and role of English in Venezuela, taking as a starting point the events and reasons that influenced the beginning of English language teaching, going through aspects related to languages spoken in the country, the education levels in which English is taught, the current curricular changes, and some challenges and issues faced during their implementation.
Status of English and Other Languages in Venezuela
Venezuela is a Latin American country, in which Spanish is recognized as the official language. According to the ninth article of the Venezuelan Constitution (Constitución de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela, 1999), there is also a recognition of indigenous languages as being official for specific ethnic groups considered part of the cultural heritage nationwide. According to the Ethnologue Website (2016), in Venezuela there are 35 known indigenous languages spoken by 355,606 people, while Spanish is spoken by 29,100,000 people as a mother tongue, and by 694,000 users as L2; in this case, among German, French, Arabian and Portuguese people who came to live in Venezuela during the last century. As a result of the majority of Spanish speakers as a mother tongue, this language is the medium of instruction, except in the region where indigenous languages are used.
Insertion of English into Venezuela’s Education System
Venezuela’s major economic activity is based on oil exportation to countries such as the United States of America, India, China, Singapore and Spain, among others. This dates back to the 1920s, when Venezuela became one of the world’s leading oil exporters during World War II, the time in which trading business relations were established with world leading powers. This kind of activity was unquestionably the reason why English became such an important communicative tool. In fact, this language has played an important role as an international Lingua Franca for the commercial and economic development of the country. The idea of the global use of English with specific purposes is underlined by Hutchinson and Waters (1987), who emphasized that the main cause for the emergence of this movement relies on the expansion gained by the United States of America in the area of commerce and technology in the post-war era, which made necessary using a language common to the interested parties when establishing business negotiations.
The events previously mentioned just underlined the relevance of mastering English as a foreign language for specific activities. However, in Venezuela, this language was first taught at the tertiary level of education during the last decades of the 1700s. Hernández (2012) points out that during that period, it was taught at the Real and Pontifical University of Caracas to the wealthy young men belonging to the ethnic group of Spanish Whites. It was not until 1912 that modern language teaching (English, French and Latin) started to be a matter of significance for current governments as part of public secondary level of education. In 1950 and owing to global changes on economy and technology, English started to gain major importance and it was established as a compulsory subject.
English Language Teaching in Venezuela
Traditionally, English has been taught at the secondary and tertiary level of education in Venezuela. However, university certified teachers of English are typically prepared to teach the language at the former level. They must take a four to five-year undergraduate Education program with a major in the target language, or study for a college degree in modern languages. In either case, all the specialized subjects are taught in English by non-native speakers. There is no other requirement necessary to get into the work field, since it is supposed that once trainees get a degree, they have developed all the communicative and didactic competence required to teach the language.
There is no English language teaching framework on which to assess or evaluate graduates; however, each university establishes their professional profile. Most of them require that an English language teacher must be able to maintain communication in different contexts, adapt their language to the communicative situation and interlocutor’s features, use the language taking into account communication maxims, consider their students’ needs, wants and lacks, plan lessons focused on learners, create, adapt and/or recycle teaching materials, and adjust the teaching and learning process to the audience level and age, among other aspects (Universidad Nacional Experimental “Francisco de Miranda”, 1995).
English teaching at the secondary level of education is aimed at developing language skills for general purposes; consequently, it focuses on using the language in different communicative situations; while at the tertiary level, the target language is taught for academic and occupational purposes (ESP), taking into account the tasks and use that learners will make of the language in their career field. Nowadays, most ESP courses are merely focused on reading comprehension since needs analysis research has not been carried out since 20 years ago.
Curricular Changes concerning English Language Teaching
In 2013, the national government set up a plan (Plan de la Patria, 2013) for the development of the country, corresponding to the years 2013-2019. This plan states parameters for sustainability at a social, economic, educational and health level; promoting inclusion, ethics, and a cooperative culture. Inside this plan, there is an area related to human development, in which education constitutes a strategy to solve national problems concerning instruction and research needs. Here, language (whether mother tongue or foreign) is seen as a teaching tool and a product, that helps to model critical thinkers and users of their own potentials.
On the idea of sustainability, there have been changes on the National Curriculum in relation to English language teaching. Some major decisions are to include this target language from fourth grade of primary school; to contextualize the instructional process on aspects related to the actual community needs where the learners belong; and to teach English in association with other subjects at the secondary level; for example, Spanish and Spanish Literature as part of a learning component called culture, communication and language (Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Educación, 2007).
In spite of the new trends included in the National Curriculum, Venezuela is not yet ready to implement the actions that will lead to a change of beliefs and methodologies. In fact, there is an enormous gap between what the national education authorities expect and what is actually happening in EFL classrooms. One reason could be that the decisions were made at the top hierarchical positions and not considering a bottom-up approach: this results in neglecting contextual features and teachers’ perspectives, which are the aspects that can guarantee curricular innovation success. To this aspect, Hyland and Wong (2012, p.2) mentioned that “not all teachers are ready for change and not all institutions are prepared to support it” which implies that curricular innovations should consider the sociocultural basis where the implementation will occur.
The inclusion of English from the fourth grade of primary education would contribute to Venezuelans’ better language mastery once they graduate from the formal system. However, at that level the teaching and learning process is led by only one classroom teacher who is in charge of all the subjects. As this is a new feature, those educators are still being prepared at universities with the pedagogical tools to guide the K-12 learning process, in relation to most subjects except English. This coincides with the idea of López de D’amico (2015), who states that universities have not adapted their degree syllabi to prepare teachers who respond to the new educational demands, mainly because they already have academic programs focused on preparing teachers with a Major in English or Modern Languages to work at a secondary or tertiary level of education. This situation shows similarities to what Murray & Christison (2012) refer to as segmentalist organizational culture, in which there is no communication among the agents of change from the different levels of the education system.
A new discussion has been raised concerning who should be teaching English at the primary level of education: the classroom teacher, who does not have any English language competence, or the teacher of English, who does not have the pedagogical tools to teach young learners. Whether the first or second option is selected, universities should carry out a curricular evaluation and assess the possibility of including subjects that respond to new education policies. The ideal decision to make should be similar to the one private schools apply, which is having a particular teacher to teach the language. The problem there, from a national perspective, would be the government budget issues since it is necessary to hire a large amount of English teachers to cover all primary schools in Venezuela.
Concerning secondary schools, tailoring English teaching to the community needs for learning the language and combining the learning process to other subjects into a learning component would help to increase the importance of the target language for learners and it would encourage meaningful learning through real-life situations. Henceforth, following those guidelines implies working hand in hand with teachers from other disciplines, promoting project-based learning in English classrooms and working with flexible and open-framed syllabus and lesson plans.
The concise explanation of steps and tools to convert educative national policies into reality, were not made explicit nor conveyed to either in-service teachers or pre-service ones. Owing to that, what has happened is that some institutions recreate what they think is requested and/or intended. Not having a fixed structure to follow actually makes teachers avoid trying something new and feeling fearful of failure. To this particular matter, Hayes (2012) suggests that when planning for success in English language education innovation, there should be adequate support during the process of implementation, since teachers are the ones who carry out change in their classrooms and add new revolutionary ideas to their daily practice.
Working with project-based learning and connecting subjects require teachers to manage other content from what they are used to teaching as part of their tasks in the English classroom. This demands more time from them to plan lessons and study other content. These struggles have caused many teachers to give up after their first attempt and return to their comfort zone using the traditional grammar translation method, which is the most common in public high schools in Venezuela. The main reason for this, as Cole (1998) and Yu (2001) suggest, may reside in the way it reduces anguish from the teacher and students, at the same time it constitutes a traditional and secure way to guarantee learning.
Grammar aspects still tend to be the major focus of English language teaching since it requires less paper use and it could make the large number of students more manageable for teachers to deal with. High school English teachers sometimes face issues related to timing, supervision, assessment, material and resources. This is evidenced in a research carried out by Castillo, Gamero and Sivira (2015), who pointed out that there are a specific number of assessment procedures to survey students’ language achievements that teachers must apply, considering some requirements from the head of school or local education authorities. Similarly, assessment must be done and accomplished during some pre-established period of time, which is characterized by excessive workload and not enough academic hours to modify learning outcomes, neither to focus on a linguistic competence that needs more practice, nor to use more motivating strategies. Hence, English language teaching in secondary education aims at obtaining more quantitative results than on the teaching and learning process. In fact, it is more focused on the teacher, environment and time, than on the learners. Moreover, there is a common trend to use chalk or acrylic boards during class sessions, due to the lack of materials and resources in most public high schools.
In sum, the role of English in Venezuela has been marked by global demands related to economic and technological trends that impact the different policies of the country. It means that the use of the target language continues having an underlying purpose linked to the socio-economic development of the country and its part in leading to a world of progress. Therefore, English is used as a communication instrument for international relations, which makes it a requirement for employees in several industries. A very clear example of this is how Venezuelan chemical engineers working in the oil industry need English to communicate with international experts to exchange techniques on oil treatment. In this sense, the use of English as a foreign language (EFL) also provides the opportunity to many professionals to receive up-to-date information about their field of expertise.
There are several labels that can be used to identify the role of English: a language for progress, a language for opportunities, a language for science, among others, and they all represent the direction that English teaching and learning in Venezuela leads to. This idea is similar to what Crystal (2003) suggests as the reasons of English language use worldwide: better job possibilities, the growth of the country in the different areas of human development and academic improvement. Hence, the possibility that English could change its status from foreign language to second language in Venezuela is very low in the near future, mainly because of the slight contact established with native English speakers, the current political situation that curtails diplomatic relations with English speaking countries, and the emphasis that the government has made in the national policies concerning the official language and the national indigenous dialects spoken at the northwestern and southern regions of the country.
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Maricarmen B. Gamero M. has been an English teacher educator for eight years at Francisco de Miranda University (UNEFM). She has taught subjects like phonetics, ESP methodology, conversational English to English teacher trainees. Besides, she has also taught ESP courses to civil engineers and gerontologists. Before coming to England she was the manager of a Teaching Program to Assistant Professors from varied disciplines at UNEFM. She has earned a Master’s Degree on Educational Research and on E-Learning. She is a 2016 Hornby Scholar.