Chile and Japan share a rare contrast. The products of their export-driven economies traverse the globe, their entrepreneurs and government absorb and adapt best practices from other nations, and yet their peoples are culturally isolated compared with most other markets. As with Japan, Chile has a huge deficit of English speakers who are capable of representing its products and interests abroad. Contracts for Russian products sold in Hong Kong are negotiated in English. French investments in Brazil are conducted in English. To compete, Chile must be able to communicate in order to maximize the benefits of its solid export base.
Why are Chileans relatively isolated? Geography has played a major role. Chile is tucked away in a remote corner of the world. Flights from Chile to Miami, the closest city in the United States, take nearly nine hours. Flights to Asia and Europe take hours longer. The result: Compared with other countries that offer similar levels of economic freedom, Chile has experienced only minimal immigration from other parts of the world. Chile's four borders also isolate it even from its neighbors.
The country is over 4000 kilometers long and is only 200 kilometers wide. The eastern border is framed by the tall and wide Andes mountain chain. (Even today, not a single road through the Andes from Chile to Argentina is passable all year long.) To the west is the vast Pacific Ocean, where the closest major market is Australia located halfway around the globe.
To the north is the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world (and which has been a huge barrier to immigration in the past). To the south is Antarctica. Translation: The Spanish-speaking Chileans had little need for other languages or business globalization until their country evolved into an export powerhouse in the 1990s. How does a country with only a recent history of integration suddenly submerge its citizens in English? The Chilean solution is to take a long-term approach. Under a program entitled "English Opens Doors", the country is importing thousands of teachers to prepare elementary and high school students for a standardized listening and reading test a decade from now.
With what goal in mind? The Ministry of Education wants Chile's 15 million-person population to be fluent in English within a generation. The challenge is recruitment. Today, almost two years after "English Opens Doors" commenced, Chilean cities from Punta Arenas in the south to Arica in the far north have a severe lack of bilingual educators.
In fact, all types of language professionals, even Spanish translation experts, are still few and far between. Why is recruitment tough? Because while the Chilean government wants to open up, most foreigners do not feel welcome in the country. The cultural isolationist legacy means that Chileans have an overwhelming preference to hire and socialize with other Chileans. A random survey of foreigners in the country demonstrates that few have been able to integrate into a local community with local friends, but rather feel prejudiced against time and again.
Even Chileans, who are not inhospitable by any means, widely recognize this localization problem. Quality of life is key to successful foreign teacher recruitment and teachers are needed to resolve the country's language barrier. Until the Chilean culture is more open, even the best attempts to make the country truly bilingual could well fall short. It's a shame.
It's a great country that has advanced on so many fronts.
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