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English key to future, Chile says

In many parts of Latin America, resistance to cultural domination by the United States is often synonymous with a reluctance to learn or speak English. But here, where Salvador Allende was once a beacon for the left, the current Socialist-led national government has begun a sweeping effort to make this country bilingual.

Chile already has the most open, market-friendly economy in Latin America, and the language plan is seen as advancing that process. The government has negotiated free trade agreements with the United States, Canada, the European Union and South Korea in recent years, is in talks with New Zealand and Singapore, and this fall was host to the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, with President Bush among the leaders of 21 nations in attendance.

"We have some of the most advanced commercial accords in the world, but that is not enough," Sergio Bitar, the minister of education, said in an interview here. "We know our lives are linked more than ever to an international presence, and if you can't speak English, you can't sell and you can't learn."

The initial phase of the 18-month-old program, officially known as "English Opens Doors," calls for all Chilean elementary and high school students to be able to pass a standardized listening and reading test a decade from now. But the more ambitious long-term goal is to make all 15-million of Chile's people fluent in English within a generation.

"It took the Swedes 40 years" to get to that point, said Bitar, adding that he sees the Nordic countries and Southeast Asian nations like Malaysia as models for Chile. "It's going to take us decades too, but we're on the right track."

In any other Latin American country, a campaign to make English universal and obligatory would inevitably arouse protests about the destruction of the nation's sovereignty and cultural identity. In Brazil, for example, legislation has been proposed to prohibit the use of English in the names of stores or in advertisements and to create new Portuguese-language verbs to designate basic computer operations.

Here, what little criticism there is of the plan has focused on the argument that schools should teach children to speak Spanish better before they try to learn English. Only a very small number of groups have opposed the program on ideological grounds.

"We're quite worried about this because it takes an economic hegemony and translates it into a cultural hegemony," said Sara Larrain, a leader of the Chilean Social Forum, a coalition opposed to corporate-led globalization. "Chile's insertion ought to be into the world at large, not into the U.S. empire. These are not Roman times, when Latin was the universal language."

But the Chilean government has presented the English initiative as an eminently democratic measure, in Bitar's words "an instrument of equality, for all children" in Chile. That argument seems to resonate deeply with working-class families eager to see their children prosper in an increasingly competitive and demanding job market.

"This kind of program didn't exist when I was in school, which meant that only the rich kids in the private schools got to study English," said Fabiola Coli, whose daughter is now learning English at the Benjamin Vicuna MacKenna Elementary School here. "If you couldn't afford to pay, and I couldn't, you were left out. This is better because everyone can benefit."