SANTIAGO, Chile — Popular myth has it that in the port city of Valparaiso, a woman had a fleeting romance with a U.S. Marine and ended up pregnant. When her beau left Chile, she named the baby in honor of his ship. The baby was christened "Usnavy."

Chileans love to name their children after their idols or anything that sounds exotic enough. There are hundreds of Scarleth, Jhonatan, Lizbeth, Brayantan (Brian+Jonathan), Dayana (Diana), and Maikl, Maikel or Maicols (Michael) signed up at the civil registry.

Chile’s posh business and academic elite pepper their conversations with terms in English that have perfectly good equivalents in Spanish: “marketing,” “break,” “performance,” “accountability,” “offshoring,” “holding,” “leasing,” “clusters” and “joint venture” are regularly thrown around at business meetings.

Common in everyday language is a long list of anglicisms, among them: smog, camping, living (for living room), closet, parking, spot (as in TV ad), “walking closet” (as in walk-in closet). The most popular: “water” (from water-closet, to refer to the toilet). More recently, they have incorporated “bullying,” “grooming” and “making off” (yes, with double “f”), as in movies.

While “shopping” at a “mall,” they will come across flashy signs announcing a “Sale.” The problem is that in Spanish, “sale” means “get out.” So what are Chilean consumers to do? Go in and buy something cheap, or make their way out the door? Chileans really want to appear to be the “British of America” — as goes another popular myth — but most just can’t get it right.

In a country whose fate is so tied to foreign markets, learning English has become vital — yet well into high school, many students can barely get beyond naming the colors and conjugating the verb “to be.”

There is no precise data on how many Chileans actually command the English language, but, according to Rodrigo Fabrega, director of the Education Ministry’s “English Opens Doors” program, only about 5 percent of public high school graduates have good levels of English.

A few years ago, the government made English mandatory for fifth-graders and up in public schools (most private schools start teaching English from kindergarten). The ministry has been promoting scholarships for teachers and students to study abroad and a foreign volunteer program to assist local English teachers in class. It has launched a free online English learning program for children called “Mingoville,” as well as a week-long intensive "English Camp" for high-schoolers.

“Chile is a small country with an open economy, and its participation in the global economy requires learning English as a second language. English is a tool that opens work or business opportunities, increases access to state of the art technologies, expands and improves the use of internet, allows Chileans to study abroad and improves comprehension of information published in English,” Fabrega said.

The older generation of Chileans grew up without English in the classrooms — students could opt to take French or German if they wanted, English wasn't offered. But today Chile has one of the most liberal and open economies in the region, and English is unavoidable for today's youth — making their lack of proficiency more worrying to the Chilean government.

The “English Opens Doors” program was set up in 2003, an initiative of then-Education Minister Sergio Bitar, himself a Harvard graduate. This year, the government expanded to $11 million what started in 2004 as a $1 million budget for the English program.

With support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the ministry created a program for native English speakers to serve as volunteers in the public school system to give students the chance to interact with them and improve their communications skills in English. Foreign volunteers take an initial crash-course in Spanish and then split class hours with a Chilean English teacher. The volunteers focus on developing listening and speaking skills, while the Chilean teacher instructs on English grammar.

During the program’s first year in 2004, there were 15 native English speakers volunteering in the northern city of Antofagasta. So far, some 2,000 volunteers — from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and Trinidad and Tobago — have joined the program, which is now being implemented nationwide. Almost 700 signed up just this year.

Eoin Barry, 26, a native of Ireland with a Master’s degree in human rights law, arrived in Chile in May. “I wanted to go somewhere interesting and learn a language, and I literally stumbled across the volunteer program in Chile on the internet. It looked good, so I applied,” Barry said.

Barry was finishing up coaching the English debate team at the all-girls public high school in downtown Santiago, Liceo 1. The five-student team was preparing for the regional finals of a nationwide debate tournament — also part of the English Opens Doors Program — in which they will have to argue in favor of euthanasia, all in English. Thousands of high school students are participating this year in the debate competition, with the national finals to be held in early October.

“I have learned much more English in debate than in classes, because it’s hard to learn a language when you have 45 other classmates. To have everyone in class participate and speak English is hard in those conditions, especially for those who are embarrassed to speak up in public. Understanding Eoin, who’s Irish, is already a feat in itself!” said 16-year-old Valeria Moyano, an 11th grader on the debate team.

Like most of her peers, Moyano has picked up the basics of English primarily in school and from watching a lot of television. She dreams of moving to Canada, “and the first thing I need to do to get there,” she said, “is learn English.”

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