From Tue Oct 29 10:30:07 2002
Date: Mon, 28 Oct 2002 10:06:14 -0600 (CST)
From: Eric Jackson <>
Subject: Why Panama's debate over English should concern folks in the
Article: 146496
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Why Panama's debate over English should concern folks in the [U.S.]

By Eric Jackson, 28 October 2002

After many decades of US occupations of parts of the Isthmus of Panama, the troops are gone and the canal administration has been transferred to Panama, and sectors of the dependent ruling elite that the Americans cultivated are suffering various withdrawal symptoms.

We have one group that's petitioning the United States to re-establish military bases here. We have US Plan Colombia mercenaries working out of Panama, and an administration that has been implicated in the smuggling of arms to the AUC death squads.

And then we have this drive to raise the status of English in Panama, which is a Spanish-speaking country with an English-speaking minority.

My personal economic interests, as editor and publisher of the English-language paper The Panama News (, is that English does become more widely used down here. But then I don't think that it helps matters to force it on anyone, and if I believe that at all levels of education people should be taught at least two languages, I also think that the most important step toward this is to provide the funds to do so in meaningful way.

But anyway, at the moment the primary justification for promoting English is to promote the growth of the calling center industry, and thinking as a former Ypsilanti, Michigan city council member, I find the part of this that's already operational alarming.

Cities and counties in the US are avoiding the hiring of Spanish-speaking 911 operators by transferring emergency calls from Spanish-speaking persons to call centers in Panama. It's a way to outsource from American union-scale wages to Third World pay scales, but more to the point, it's downright dangerous. Think about the different dialects of Spanish, the variants of Spanglish, the different ways of urban navigation that prevail in the US and Panama, and a person taking an emergency call with directions in a city to which he or she has never been.

I append a couple of articles, one from the current issue and one from a few issues back, discussing the English debate.

Eric Jackson

Arazz has new English bill in Legislative Assembly

By Eric Jackson, The Panama News, v8, Oct. 27–Nov. 9, 2002:

After being forced by constitutional and nationalistic objections to withdraw a proposal to make English Panama's official second language in the previous Legislative Assembly session, deputy Arturo Arazz (Liberal Nacional-Panama Oeste) has proposed new legislation to promote the English language in Panama. Arazz, who does not himself speak English, explained his new proposal before an audience of English students and teachers at the Universidad Interamericana on October 23.

The basic point, according to Arazz, is to teach English at all schools in the Republic of Panama.

In Panama, there is this perception that we are a country that speaks English, but this is not so, Arazz explained. Thus, he argued, the government's attempt to promote international call centers has not been too successful. This legislation has an indispensable element, workers who speak English.

The call centers are designed for companies and institutions in the developing countries to cut costs by paying Third World wages. For example, one project is designed to save US cities and counties the expense of hiring Spanish-speaking 911 operators by transferring emergency calls to people in Panama, who must be able to understand the Mexican or Puerto Rican or other Spanish dialect used by the emergency caller and then translate the information into English that an emergency dispatcher in the United States can understand. (That a person used to giving and understanding directions by the Panamanian system might be required to give directions in a city where he or she has never been and in a culture where urban navigation is done on a different basis seems to be a point that is ignored, a factor that ought to be alarming in North American cities that are outsourcing their 911 services to Panama, but the legislature here isn't concerned with that.)

Another proposed call center function is for banks to transfer their customer relations to phone banks in low-wage countries. HSBC considered Panama for this, but eventually decided to go to Malaysia, a former British colony that uses English as a common official language that unites its large Malay, Chinese and Tamil-speaking populations as a lingua franca. It was HSBC's complaint that Panama has too few English-speaking people for it to locate a call center here that led to Arazz's first proposal to promote English.

In the course of that debate and the present one, it was estimated that three to five percent of Panamanians speak English. Actually, more than 10 percent of Panamanians are West Indians who speak English as a first or second language, and these people were employed in large numbers at the former US military bases and by the former American canal administration. Moreover, a significant part of Panama's wealthy elite is educated in English. However, Panamanian banks don't hire blacks and rabiblancos don't take low-wage phone answering jobs.

Arazz also noted that English is the dominant language on the Internet and in computer science, saying that future trends are hard to quantify but likely to retain English as an important language in those high-tech fields. He called English an economic resource that Panama lacks, and argued that if Panama had adopted policies to promote English 10 or 15 years agon and were more English-speaking now, our present economic woes would not be so severe now.

A person can't participate in the world economy without a second language, Arazz said, calling English the universal language that lets us share ideas.

His proposal mandates things that cost money, but the way that the Panamanian political system works, the actual funding must originate in the budget submitted by the president.

Some of the provisions in the Arazz proposal are:

Official status for English is a bad idea

By Eric Jackson, The Panama News, Opinion section, v8 #10, May 26–June 15, 2002

I edit The Panama News, Panamas English-language newspaper since 1994, which appears regularly on the Internet and from time to time in special print editions. I think that its fair to say that I have done more to promote the learning of the English language in Panama than has any member of the Legislative Assembly. Its also fair to say that I have a special economic interest in the more widespread learning and use of English in this country.

Yet, both as one who uses English as my native tongue and as Panamanian citizen number 3-721-1318, I must strongly disagree with the proposed legislation to make English Panamas official second language. This proposal would not truly promote the learning of second and third languages by the Panamanian people. It would, however, bring back failed coercive policies from the old Canal Zone, policies that caused deep resentments that harmed Panamas English-speaking peoples.

I remember the posters found at so many Canal Zone workplaces: Advance in your job and prosper by speaking English. I also remember how quickly most of them were defaced with the English-language slogan Yankee go home. Now, after generations of struggles, after people sacrificed their lives to make this country master of its own house, the Panama Canal runs very well in Spanish.

Of course the canal needs people who speak English. Also, people who speak French, Mandarin, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese, Arabic, Greek and many other tongues. Is Panama to live up to its potential as The Crossroads of the World? Then we must encourage the learning of many foreign languages, not just English.

While we are discussing the theme of Panamanians learning second and third languages, we should also not ignore our own indigenous languages. It really should be this countrys public policy to preserve the languages and cultures of our original nations, by offering Kuna, Embera, Ngobe and other non-Spanish Panamanian languages to students in our public schools.

Legislator Arauz proposes to make English an official language, but his proposal contains not one nickel to pay for improvements in the teaching of that or any other non-Spanish language in the public schools. It offers no money to help our English teachers and certified interpreters and translators improve their skills.

Whats more, the proposal doesnt even recognize what is needed to make people who speak English imperfectly become more fluent. Classroom learning is fine, but at a certain point its a good idea for people to live in an English-speaking country for at least several months. Panamas biggest English-speaking community traces its ancestry through the West Indies, but our foreign policy is to deny that we are a Caribbean country. That hurts the cause of English instruction in Panama, because the United States is not going to issue visas to 100,000 or more Panamanians who want to visit for a few months every year to improve their English, while the various English-speaking Caribbean nations are likely to be much more welcoming. We cant elevate the status of English in Panama without improving our relations with the entire English-speaking world, which the proposal before the legislature does not seek to do.

What the Arauz proposal would do, however, is not in the Panamanian peoples interest.

It would enable unscrupulous businesses to force people who do not understand English to sign English-language form contracts with unfavorable terms, and then enforce those provisions as if the signers had agreed to them.

It would serve as an excuse for the mass firings of public employees, no doubt to be replaced with the least worthy of those privileged Panamanian youth who have been educated in English.

It would put many of our interpreters and translators out of work.

It would take away the incentives for those Panamanian citizens whose first language is English from improving our Spanish, as most of us ought to do.

The current proposal should be rejected, and Panama should instead begin a more intelligent debate about improving its entire educational system, including instruction in languages.