English and Guatemala

Through the impact of British colonialism in the 18th century and globalization in the 21st century, English has become without a doubt the world’s lingua franca. In 2004, English was reported as “the official or dominant language for two billion people in 75 countries” (Global Vision). The roughly 750 million non-native speakers of English now exceed those who speak it as their native tongue by more than two to one.  It is the official language for more than 70 countries. English is now the dominant language for informing the world community about scientific discoveries, technological advances, academic research and international commerce.  Furthermore, English is the most studied language in the world. “There are more students studying English in China than are studying English in the United States and more speakers of English in India than in Britain” (Altbach). It is predicted that in the next six years, two billion people, a third of the world population, will be learning English (Graddol qtd. in Ives).
—Dr. Jillian Haeseler

A revolution in English instruction coming to Guatemala’s Del Valle University Altiplano

English is recognized as a co-official language even in Guatemala, where it is the first tongue of many inhabitants of Izabal Department. But a movement is afoot to make it the second tongue of all educated Guatemalans.

A private college, Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (UVG) Altiplano, is a local vanguard of reform in English instruction. The goal, says Helga Knapp Baranyai, dean of the school’s Centro de Idiomas (CEI), is to turn out graduates who are truly conversant, rather than people who have merely studied English for years.

Freshmen, who are typically 13, will be required to study English from day one. As básico university students, they differ from diversificado-level students, who go on to become bookkeepers, nurse’s aides, teachers and the like. University básico compares more to junior high school. We have básico (middle school), bachillerato (high school) and especialidades (first two years of college).

When students are 17 or 18, they may be graduated from bachillerato or enter an especialidades (professional career) major in tourism or agroforestery. Either way, says Knapp, they must by then be conversant in English and pass the ELASH test, a complex 200-point examination, scoring 141 or better when they finish studying at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala Altiplano.

American professor of English, Dr. Jillian S. Haeseler working at the UVG Altiplano as a Fulbright, presented her new model for English instruction at UVG’s Sololá campus in May.

“The instruction,” Haeseler explained, “must do more than ‘teach to the test’. We not only want students to have access to better opportunities, but for them to also feel good about themselves, both as Guatemalans and as global citizens. Studying English should not be self-defeating or deflating, but rather a new means of self-expression.

Dr. Jillian Haeseler during the presentation of the new curriculum at the Universidad Del Valle Guatemala in Guatemala City

Dr. Jillian Haeseler during the presentation of the new curriculum

“Attitude is another factor in success. So we will teach English in a way that students positively identify with and use in their own search for identity. We won’t push it as an elitist language or one having higher status than Spanish and the Mayan tongues. We see English in purely utilitarian terms.” Haeseler surmises that students of English have two “literacies,” what she calls the “in-school one” and “out-school one.” They are, she says, often attuned to American and British culture and feed on pop music songs, YouTube videos and MTV. “Consequently, we will integrate these into classroom instruction as ways to make learning meaningful and relevant. Adolescents engage better when they see how learning English will make them more insightful about a culture they are already interested in. And Guatemalan youth, like all young people today, are drawn to technology and multimedia. So we intend to assimilate these into our language instruction.”

The old, static curriculum has been shelved in favor of those promoting what Haeseler calls “communicative competence.” The new curriculum incorporates role playing, interviewing, group projects and problem solving—all in English. But it does not stop there.

The traditional acquisition skills—reading, writing, speaking and listening—are still emphasized. To become literate in each, students will practice vocabulary holistically, that is, in all four domains. Toward this end, they will read a range of authentic material in periodicals, textbooks and on websites. They will learn to preview, predict, infer, paraphrase and summarize.

“Reading materials will be age-appropriate,” Haeseler says. “Research shows that good readers become good writers if they study reading and writing simultaneously. Thus we will promote such writing processes as brainstorming, outlining, revising and proofreading.”

Finally, since students will practice social situations, they will attain insights into socio-cultural norms in areas like social register and polite speech.

Students finishing bachillerato at UVG-Sololá select a major among agro-forestry, horticulture and tourism. Each will include relevant materials; agro-forestry students, for instance, will read English material in geology classes.

To better teach such “thematically linked content,” CEI staffers themselves took classes in March to learn an instruction model called Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP).

In preparing a SIOP lesson on, say, Lake Atitlan’s volcanoes, the English teacher will address language issues beforehand and consider what background knowledge students already have. Graphic organizers will help students read and discuss scientific texts. Lessons will be student-centered; there will be minimal teacher orientation, but extended student discussion. Students may not give one-word responses to inquiries; they will be asked “Why do you think so?” or “Can you give examples?” Before class ends, the teacher reviews the main concepts and vocabulary under study that day.

At the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala Altiplano, we offer also classes with the same concept to people in the area and they can take the ELASH exam at the end of the English course.

“We have an excellent staff, and we are always seeking trainable teachers,” Dean Knapp says.

For more information contact Helga Knapp Baranyai (CEI), tel: 7762-4154, ext. 139.


  • Please do not overestimate the position of English as the World’s lingua franca.

    I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

    An interesting video can be seen at Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

    A glimpse of the global language, Esperanto, can be seen at Lernu.net

  • Angiee Najarro

    My name is Angiee Najarro. I am studying Licenciatura en Educación in UVG (South Campus). I am helding and investigation about the English level in Guatemala and methods teachers use. I studied PEM in English and I would like to know if you have relevant information that You can share. Any kind of document will be helpful for this investigation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.