Last weekend marked the U.S. release of “Guten Tag, Ramon” (Good day, Ramon), a film by Mexican director Jorge Ramirez-Suarez. The movie was an unexpected hit in Mexico; more than 1 million people saw it during a surprisingly long run in Mexican theaters last year.
The film tells the story of Ramon, a wide-eyed kid from northern Mexico who, after a series of failed attempts at crossing the U.S. border, decides to take his chances migrating to Europe.
A friend tells him to stay with his aunt in Germany. But when Ramon arrives, the aunt is nowhere to be found. With no fallback plan, Ramon is left to wander the frozen streets of Germany, with barely any money in his pockets, isolated and unable to speak the language.
Ramon’s situation quickly turns dangerous, until he meets a Good Samaritan who offers him room and board. By the end of the film, Ramon has learned basic German and charmed everyone around him with his love of music, dance and contagious charisma.
It’s a compelling story and —sadly—it’s also believable. Left to their own devices, many Mexican teenagers would face similar isolation in a European country. That’s because a surprising number of young Mexicans, similar to Ramon, don’t know how to speak English, much less German.
Let’s imagine the same storyline but with a Mexican protagonist who speaks English as a second language. After failing to find his errant aunt, it would have taken Ramon perhaps five minutes to meet someone in Germany who could speak English. Indeed, 60 percent of Germans says they speak English fluently. So even if Ramon spoke a basic “conversational English,” he still could have explained his dilemma to a friendly passerby.
Unfortunately, the story of Ramon is a case of fiction imitating the reality. Perhaps unwittingly, Ramírez-Suárez has uncovered one of the nastiest problems with Mexico’s public education— it’s not teaching Mexicans how to speak English.
Just how bad is the crisis? A few days ago, Mexicanos Primeros, a nonprofit that routinely exposes the many shortcomings of the country’s education system (corruption, unqualified teachers, etc.), shared the first results of its most recent study, focusing on English as a second language. Although the group won’t publish the full report until next month, the initial findings are depressing enough.
Over the past five years, Mexico has spent more than $3 billion trying to teach English to school-age youths. The vast majority of that budget has gone towards paying the salaries of 50,000 teachers. That’s a big investment, with a terrible return. Through a set of independent tests, Mexicanos Primero found that 97 percent of students failed to reach the minimum level of proficiency in middle school. And 79 percent of English students had what the organization calls “absolute ignorance” of the language. That means they had almost zero comprehension and couldn’t answer even the most basic questions.
Worse yet, 53 percent of students who fell into the “absolute ignorance” category still got an “A” on their report cards. That’s what you call grading on the curve.
For Mexico, this utter lack of proficiency in English suggests an enormous wasted opportunity. Mexico’s proximity to the United States offers vast possibilities that remain inaccessible to those without English-language skills (70 percent of companies presently expanding have English proficiency as a basic requisite).
The lack of English-comprehension skills also limits Mexicans’ access to information. Mexicanos Primero reports that 56 percent of all online content and 90 percent of all scientific publications are written in English.
The country’s education system is failing to prepare youth for a global world, sentencing them to social paralysis. In other words, it’s producing whole generations of “Ramones” — kids facing a world they don’t understand and which doesn’t understand them. Talk about a tear-jerker!
Leon Krauze is a Mexican journalist and author. He's the main anchor for Univision's KMEX in Los Angeles. @Leon_Krauze
A Mexican journalist and author. He's the main anchor for Univision's KMEX in Los Angeles.