The “Tom is a boy” man

To speak English…

In recent days, the Cuban educational authorities declared themselves in favour of the extension and in-depth teaching of English in our universities. For the majority of those who heard these statements it hasn’t been difficult to understand that with the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States possibilities are being opened not just in the field of tourism, but also in academic, artistic or sports exchange, and Cubans are required to pay greater attention to the neighbour’s language, a bit neglected in recent years.

Until the end of the 19th century the mayor part of the Cuban population seemed opposed to the learning of that language. Not even the brief occupation of Havana by the British during the previous century, or the intense commercial exchange of the capital’s port with the northern nation, were sufficient reasons for this. The learned persons professed they spoke French, beyond the Latin that was still obligatory for scientists and lawyers. Only a few intellectuals, who had studied in the land of Lincoln or found refuge in it due to the colonial repression, had dominated the English language. A privileged case is that of José Martí who was not only able to speak and write articles in that language but also was a respected translator of North American literature and texts published for Appleton publishing house. His translation of the novel Misterio by Hugo Conway today is still considered an authentic model in its genre. Something similar occurred with Enrique José Varona or with Nicolás Heredia, but the language of the Anglo-Saxons continued being a barbaric dialect for the majority of Cuba’s inhabitants.


This situation changed starting in 1898. The presence of U.S. troops on the island and, above all, the accelerated U.S, investment in lands, railroads, sugar factories, confirmed the need to know the language of the occupation forces. Ads in English soon started being inserted in newspapers, promoting the sale of lands as well as the leasing of properties or a variety of services. Many establishments changed their traditional names for others with a Saxon flavour and an extensive number of unemployed and go-getters started hanging around the occupation forces’ barracks and recreation sites to serve as guides and interpreters for the troops. It was in good taste to place in a hotel’s reception or in a café the sign that said: English spoken.


The educational reform that the interventionist government entrusted to a commission headed by the pedagogue Alexis Frye introduced, as was to be expected, English in the study programmes. What’s interesting is that in that group the subject was taken care of not by someone from the United States, but rather by a Cuban intellectual called Leonardo Sorzano Jorrín (Paris 1878 – Havana 1950). The grandson of Cuban jurist and reformist politician José Silverio Jorrín, he had lived all his adolescence and part of his youth in the United States where he studied elementary and secondary education in New England and Washington, before obtaining the title of Bachelor in Arts in the Jesuit University of Georgetown.


On his return to the island after the end of Spanish domination, when he still hadn’t graduated from the Law School of the University, he could already collaborate with the interventionist commission in the implementation of the school programmes for the teaching of English. It was not difficult for him to understand that the texts brought over from the United States for this were not appropriate for the culture and idiosyncrasy of Cubans, therefore in the following decade not only did he work as a lawyer and notary, but from the chair of that language, obtained by taking a competitive examination in the Institute of Havana, he produced original textbooks to be used in Cuba. In 1917 La Moderna Poesía bookshop was able to bring to light his first English Book, which would be followed by a second Book in 1919 and third Book in 1925.


In many ways Sorzano was a precursor: he chose the direct method of teaching the language, the newest at the time, as if it were a question of the mother tongue of the students and reduced to a minimum speaking in Spanish during the lessons; he introduced the use of phonetics to work in the students pronunciation when it was not very well-known in the major part of the world, which earned him being the first member and later part of the Executive Council of the International Phonetic Association. Moreover, he complemented the texts with what we would call today “teaching means,” and in addition to a guide book for the professors, he created posters that pictured an imaginary family, the Blakes, which would facilitate the dialogues, compositions, substitution exercises and other practices.


For at least three decades, between 1920 and 1950, the Jorrín method, as it was popularly known, was unrivalled in Cuba. It was adopted as an obligatory text for intermediate education and was also used in night schools and private academies. A great many private professors would go to their students’ homes carrying the textbook and a large rolled poster of the Blake family.


That explains why when many years later an international commission applied a diagnostic test to a certain number of Cubans to evaluate their knowledge of English they were surprised that even those who affirmed they did not totally know the language could repeat two complete sentences: “Tom is a boy, Mary is a girl,” which were precisely the first that a student learned in the book of Don Leonardo and which earned for common Cubans the traits of the ABC of the language.


No one was able to challenge Jorrín the appropriateness of his method up until his death. However, starting 1950 Cuban society was not the same as that of 1900 or even of 1917. The ties with the United States had been strengthened, not only was there a greater number of islanders who went to study or to seek work in that nation, but also the presence of U.S. firms in Cuba had multiplied and to obtain a post of secretary, accountant, publicist in them it was necessary to demonstrate a basic use of the language. Many homes exhibited with pride the diploma proving that the daughter was qualified as a “bilingual shorthand typist” and several academies were opened that taught English with professors from the North. The very exclusive Catholic schools found rivals in the centres opened by some Protestant confessions like the Progressive School of Cárdenas, one of whose marks of glory was the rigor in the teaching of English.


This variety of possibilities did away with the exclusivity of Sorzano’s method even though it was conserved by public education and by some private professors and academies. More modern methods were rapidly being imported from the North but they were introduced without any adaptation to the local culture. In addition, the pragmatic idea started being imposed that it was possible to individually and rapidly study the language and the market was invaded by those small cases that contained some pamphlets and vinyl records with which a person could learn “English in twenty lessons.” There was much less science and rather a great deal of cultural colonisation in these procedures.


With the triumph of the Revolution, though Jorrín’s texts abandoned the arena, English remained in general education and even increased with the opening of language night schools in the country’s principal cities, in addition to the creation in Havana of the famous Gorky School for the formation of the corresponding professors and the design in the capital’s University of the career of English Language and Literature.


However, these efforts went through the vicissitudes of the political crisis between Cuba and the United States. Many bet that the short-term teaching of Emerson’s language would be displaced by that of Tolstoy. The students who very diligent in the study of English became suspicious of wanting to leave the country or of listening to radio stations in that language, all of them considered enemies, even that “QQ” that kept the young people informed about the march of rock ’n’roll in the world in the 1970s. It looked like the only acceptable reason to know English was to consult the technical bibliography that was inaccessible in Spanish.


Even though some Cuban professors conceived books and pamphlets for the teaching of that language, the tendency in the long run was to use the British bibliography, supposedly in search of an original pureness, but actually to de-North Americanise the contents. In this way there was a generation that studied through the Alexander method, before another had to unravel the Spectrum pamphlets.


When the educational authorities speak of a search for a technological support for the accelerated learning of English in our universities I suppose that in the end they are referring to modern labs but also to individual possibilities based on the method in fashion: the Rosetta Stone. It’s not a bad idea, but even in these times of globalisation, someone would have to remember Don Leonardo Sorzano Jorrín and try out a method appropriate to our local features. It would be the most timely and dignified thing to do. (2015)

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