Cuba has always had a complicated relationship with English, mirroring its political relationship with its neighbor to north. For many years after the triumph of the revolution, listening to English language music was seen as counterrevolutionary and taboo by society, as it was perceived as a tool of cultural imperialism which sought to replace traditional Cuban music. For much of the Cold War era, bands like the Beatles were practically banned in Cuba.
English in Cuba today
This panorama is starkly different from the one that exists today. Cuba is not at all a hermit island. Music from all over the world is shared and listened to in Cuba including many songs in English. The death of the taboo against English language music is best represented by existence of the John Lennon Park in Havana.
English language movies and TV shows have joined music in carving out a space for English in cultural life in Cuba. With subtitles being used almost exclusively instead of dubbing allowing for much exposure for not just English but other foreign languages, too. For many Cubans, the first step to learning English is consuming English language media. While in Cuba, I’ve often heard commentary from Cubans along the lines of, “I love American culture, just not your government.”
English language use in Cuba
Beyond the cultural sphere, proficiency in English has increasingly become an important economic resource for many Cubans. Starting in the early 2000s, the Cuban government declared learning English to be a national priority, a dramatic reversal of previous Cold War policy, but a very logical decision as Cuba began to gear it’s economy towards tourism after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuban university students, regardless of major, are all required to pass a standardized test in English in order to receive their degree and all media outlets, newspapers, radio and television programs are required to have English language versions typed out and published online.
Despite this effort to promote proficiency in English on a broad level throughout society, English is still perceived as the language of tourists. For this reason, when out in public it’s recommended to always try to speak Spanish, even when with other Americans. Speaking English out on the streets is basically asking for taxi drivers, restaurant promoters and street vendors to harass you into using their business/service.
On the other side of things, many of my Cuban friends have often criticized how taxis, restaurants, and other businesses geared towards tourism make an effort to accommodate and provide better service to tourists than Cubans in their own country, as tourists are believed to be wealthier than ordinary Cubans. This societal perception is satirized in one scene from the Cuban film, Adorables Mentiras, in which the two main characters pretend to speak English in order to get a better table at a fancy restaurant.
English tutoring program
Whether it’s used for getting through school, getting a job or getting “VIP” access in restaurants, knowing how to speak English in Cuba is considered a privilege and it’s one that IFSA in collaboration with Cuba Libro, Havana’s only English language book store, are making an effort to expand through a volunteer English tutoring program started by the five IFSA students who came to Cuba in the fall program in 2018.
I’ve had the opportunity to help this project continue into a new semester by participating as a tutor. Taking about three hours every week, tutoring English in Cuba serves as a fun interactive way to earn some volunteer hours. Also, it’s important to not miss out on the fact that Cuba Libro provides an open tab on coffee (and other beverages for those who are not fans of caffeine) as a way of saying thank you to the people participating.
Havana from the perspective of the locals, in English
In my opinion, the most important thing one can gain as a tutor is a chance to see Havana from the perspective of a local. The nature of the project focuses on improving conversational English and makes it easy for one to get a really in depth view of what it is really like to live in Cuba’s capital city. Furthermore, many of the tutees live and work in neighborhoods that tourists and even semester long study abroad students wouldn’t normally see. As a tutor you have a chance to explore a bit of those areas since meeting at Cuba Libro might not always be convenient for your tutee.
Being in such close contact with someone who knows Havana like the back their hand is also a good way to keep oneself up to date on some of the more low-key events happening in the city and get good recommendations on things to see and places to go. Whether it’s someone who works at La Fabrica, an aspiring independent journalist or a local musician, Cuba Libro’s English tutoring project can be your chance to get to know some interesting people during your semester in Havana.
From near illegality to national priority, the cultural and ideological perception of English across time showcases a society in motion. Although Cuba is often described as “frozen in time” with old classic cars, old colonial era buildings, and limited access to internet, that couldn’t be further from the truth when discussing Cuban society. With the U.S. being less than 90 km from Cuban shores, what goes on there has always been of great relevance both politically and economically to Cuba and the status of English in the country both now and in the past reflects that precisely.
Alan Hamill is an international studies major at University of Texas at Austin and studied abroad with IFSA at Universidad de La Habana in Havana, Cuba in spring 2019. He is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.