Where Is The Teaching And Learning Of English In Chile Going? Quo Vadis?

Nowadays (2019), the teacher of English in Chile, is a language teaching professional. I say that frankly and sincerely, based on my personal participation and observations of the past 18 years, as a teacher trainer, educator, and English Language Teaching (ELT) author.

Chilean teachers of English have shed their amateur status. The years 2001-2014 were years of slow but steady growth towards the development and consolidation of a highly trained, competent,confident professional English teacher who understands what it takes to successfully teach the English language to Chilean students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

I know there are many, nonetheless, who would point out to me that there is a contradiction, in reality, with what I’m saying. The results of the Chilean National English Test, testing only reading comprehension and listening comprehension (excluding speaking and writing), have never been good. Never.Ever.

Every time there is any kind of national test, the global results, on a combined, national scale, are frustrating. Again and again, disaggregation of test results reveal a socioeconomic performance gap. Students from high socioeconomic groups, and thus high cultural capital, perform extremely well. Conversely, students from low socioeconomic status groups perform poorly.

In this sense, the obvious “solution” is to do the same things with the disadvantaged students (poor) as you are doing with the advantaged students (rich). This suggests to me an experiment. Swap out (exchange) the teachers. Send the teachers from the disadvantaged schools to the advantaged schools, and vice versa.

Yes, of course such an experiment is immoral, unethical, and impractical. Therefore, that leaves me with only speculation as an option in this exercise. My speculation is that nothing would change. In other words, even the best teachers would not be able to overcome the effects of poverty in poor students. On the other hand, even the worst teachers would not have a negative effect on socioeconomically advantaged students.

Where am I going with this?

Yes, I’m saying that Chilean English teachers, regardless of their teaching and learning context, are highly competent, well-trained, and knowledgeable about what works. It follows, logically (if I am correct), that teachers are NOT the problem.

Indulge me please. For now, accept that I am correct. Teachers are not the problem. They are professionals, both in terms of pedagogy and the discipline of English Language Teaching (ELT).

So, let’s ask two questions:

1. What is it about being “poor” that works against successful language learning?

2. What is it about being “rich” that promotes successful language learning?

I’ve asked two questions. The man who can answer both questions is Pierre Bourdieu:


I know. Bourdieu speaks French, and the subtitles were in Spanish. So allow me to be Bourdieu’s English translator:


“The transmission of capital (wealth)… The rich father can give money to his child to start a business, for example, if his child is not successful as a business student at a university (where all of his children study at). Because of the father’s financial support, his children will do well in life. In this way, the socioeconomic status of the father will reproduce itself in his child, because they will not become simply, a common wage “worker”.

Bourdieu continues: “Another kind of “capital” is cultural capital. This is harder to define, so what is it? First of all, cultural capital is how well you can speak your mother language (“good French”, “good Spanish”, “good English”). Anybody can speak a language, even immigrants after living in a country for a year. But in a school, that everyday, conversational language means absolutely nothing. If you speak that way in school, you get failing marks.”

Bourdieu continues: “It is not only the language that matters, but also everything else that the language conveys. It is everything that you acquire in a family that has culture. For example, listening to the father tell stories, reading books, including fairy tales and children’s stories. All of this is capital, and it is a very valuable resource.

Some have more than others, and this unequal distribution provides incredible benefits. If everybody had the same amount of cultural capital, everybody would speak perfect French (perfect Spanish, perfect English, etc.). If this were so, there would be no benefit to speaking your mother language perfectly. These differences that exist allows you to benefit from your ability to speak your mother language better than someone else.”

Bourdieu continues: “A study by an American sociologist shows that middle class children know how to respond to the teacher appropriately, to give the teacher the answer s/he is looking for. Why? Because they are both (teacher and student) from the same social class.

The teacher says, “My treasure, “my darling”, “my precious” “my dear”. The children’s mother speaks to them in the same way at home. As a result, the students are content, happy, and they can learn better. Their teacher has shown them that she likes her students. So, the children then get good marks and they are happy, content students.

Bourdieu continues: “We can say there are “stages prior to knowledge” (pre-learning), even before the children go to school. These are important things for children to know, such as how to behave, not to throw your book bag on the floor, keep your books clean, neat, and tidy.

Also, connected to this idea of cultural capital is the “good disposition” (buena voluntad), called “docility”. “Docility” comes from the Latin, which means, “you allow someone to teach you” (se deja instruir).”

Bourdieu explains: “We can see this by observing the different levels of success between boys and girls in elementary school. Girls are better students than boys. Girls have better results than boys in elementary school. This continues right through until the last years of high school.

“Why? Girls are more docile than boys. Girls let the teacher teach them. That is not to say that docility is the nature of girls. Not at all. What happens is that girls have been “trained” (socialized) to NOT be aggressive, disruptive, confrontational, or to cause conflicts. This is NOT the case with boys!”

Bourdieu: “We can say that girls are “prepared” to give schools what the school requires from them, namely, a good disposition (buena voluntad), to look at the teacher as if they are seeing someone who is a dear friend who they have not seen in a long time (como si la profesora se hace falta). This behaviour is rewarded with good grades. The good grades initiates a virtuous cycle, the behaviour is repeated again and again and again.”

Bourdieu: “I’ve explained a few factors, but it is much more complicated than this. I don’t want to say more because it would be hard to believe me. It is enough to say that nowadays, in all contemporary societies, (developed and undeveloped), the reproduction of inequality happens as a result of the transmission of cultural capital.

Even in the United States what I’ve just told you about cultural capital is true. You hear people say things like “social mobility”, “self-made man”, etc. to refer to the USA. But studies in the USA, inspired by the work I’ve done in France, show the same results. The transmission (reproduction) of cultural capital matters. Inequality in the USA (because of cultural capital) is even greater than in France!

Bourdieu: “In the USA, access to university is doubly controlled by cultural capital in two ways: 1. economics, because a university education in the USA is extremely expensive, and 2. because of the cultural capital that is acquired in the family. Japan is the same way.

For example, one of my students did a study about the children of samurai in Japan. Inequality perpetuates itself. This is not automatic, but here is my question:

Is inequality good for anything?

Fundamentally, it is a problem. That’s the way I see it.

A colleague and friend of mine, Mary Douglas, studied an archaic (old) society in which there was a very low level of inequality. The society functioned quite well…”


Dear reader, are you still with me? If so, now is the time for me to conclude. What I have done here with Pierre Bourdieu is try to make the case that teachers of English in Chile are competent, well-trained professionals.

I am saying that Chilean ELT teachers know what they are doing, as the debate video below clearly exemplifies…

The problem with the teaching and learning of English in Chile is not teachers, wouldn’t you agree?

The problem is inequality as a result of the transmission (reproduction) of cultural capital.

According to the OECD (2018): “Chile’s income inequality gap is also more than 65% wider than the OECD average, with one of the highest ratios between the average income of the wealthiest 10% of its population and that of the poorest 10%.” Click here to read the full report.

Clearly, inequality is so high in Chile that it hinders the growth potential of the entire country. The OECD recommendation in the report is to “further increase social spending to reduce inequalities.” Inequality, there’s that word again.

To conclude, I fundamentally believe that Chile has some of the best-trained English teachers in the world. The knowledge, skills, and abilities of Chilean English teachers are world-class, by any standard you choose to use. Wouldn’t you agree, based on the video above?

That said, everyone needs to understand that teachers are not politicians. Teachers do not have their hands on the levers of power that influence inequality in Chile. Let us not forget that in 2016, Chile, Mexico, and the USA had the highest rate of inequality of all 34 countries in the OECD. In 2019, very little has changed…

So, where is English Language Teaching going in Chile? If inequality does not improve in this country, the results for the most vulnerable, the poorest students, will not improve.

The day Chile solves its basic problem of inequality, it will also solve its English Language Learning problem. Again, Chile already has a world-class teaching force of highly trained, competent English Language Teachers.

Quo Vadis, Chile?

About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, EFL, Politics, Reflections, Research and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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