Cuba is a Caribbean Island located between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. Located about 90 miles (145 km) south of Key West, Florida, the country is situated between the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, to the west of Haiti, and east of Mexico, and northwest of Jamaica.
The exact percentage of English speakers in Cuba’s population is unknown. However, in Cuba you will find that anyone in the tourist industry can speak English. Cuba is opening up and it is expected to receive increasingly numbers of tourists. This means that English is being promoted by the government and more and more people are learning. That being said, the local language is Cuban Spanish and it is estimated that less than 10% speak English.
Let’s now take some time to look at the different areas of Cuba and the prevalence of English.
English Use in Major Cities in Cuba
- Havana – The city is the capital city, major port, and commercial center of Cuba. Havana is the largest city by area, the most populous, and the fourth largest city in the Caribbean. The city of Havana was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and acted as a springboard for the Spanish conquest of the Americas due to its strategic location as a stopping-point for treasure-laden galleons returning to Spain. King Philip II of Spain granted the title of City to Havana in 1592. Walls and forts were constructed to defend the old town. The sinking of the United States’ battleship Maine was the immediate cause of the Spanish-American War. Regarding Havana’s tourism and culture, over a million tourists visit Havana annually. The city can be divided into three distinct cities: Old Havana, Vedado, and newer suburban districts. In 1982, Havana was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is highly regarded for its history, culture, architecture, and monuments. In Havana, tourists and travelers should have no trouble finding English speakers at many locations not exclusive to tourist destinations.
- Santiago de Cuba – Santiago de Cuba is the capital of the southeastern province of Santiago de Cuba, which faces a bay off the Caribbean Sea. The city was founded in 1515 by the Spanish, and is known for its colonial architecture and revolutionary past. The distinctive Afro-Cuban cultural roots of the city are on display during the Carnival of July, a festival of drum-beating parades featuring colorful costumes and a precursor to salsa dancing. Santiago de Cuba was the fifth village founded on July 25, 1515 by the Spanish conquistador Diego Velazquez de Cuellar. In 1516, the settlement was destroyed by fire, and immediately reconstructed. It was the starting point for expeditions led by Juan de Grijalba and Hernan Cortes to the Mexican coast in 1518, and the expedition to Florida by Hernando de Soto in 1538. A high number of residents practice Afro-Cuban religions, most notably Santeria. The city has a long lineage of Haitian immigrants, so some aspects of religious practices can be traced by to Haiti. While finding English speakers in Santiago de Cuba might be difficult, it is still possible to find English speakers.
- Holguin – Holguin is an eastern Cuban city. Parque Calixto Garcia sprawls in the city center, with a statue of the eponymous 19th century general. The Museo de Historia Provincial is located in a former colonial barracks that houses artifacts like the Hacha de Holguin, a carved axis head from the 15th century. The Museo de Historia Natural has a large collection of specimens of plants and stuffed birds and animals. San Isidoro has two red-domed spires. Before Columbus settled on the island, the Taino people settled in huts made from royal palm. The Taino’s artifacts are housed at the local Holguin La Periquera museum. The settlement was established in 1523 on land donated by Diego de Velazquez to the Spanish military officer Captain Francisco Garcia Holguin. At many of the museums in the city, there should be English language placards at the museums, and English-speaking docents throughout the museum.
- Santa Clara – Santa Clara is the capital of the Villa Clara province in central Cuba. It is famous for its groundbreaking landmarks. In the west of the city, the Che Guevara Mausoleum is Che Guevara’ resting place alongside many other revolutionary combatants. The Mausoleum is crowned with a huge bronze bust. The nearby Historical Museum of the Revoultion has artifacts and personal belongings that record Guevara’s life. Santa Clara was the site of one of the final battles in the Cuban Revolution. The town was attacked by two rebel groups, one led by Guevara and the other by Camilo Cienfuegos. As a smaller city, this might be the city on the list where it might be hardest to find an English speaker.
- Cienfuegos – Cienfuegos is a town in the Bahia de Cienfuegos, a bay on the southern coast of Cuba. It is famed for its colonial-era buildings. Tomas Terry Theater has gold-leaf mosaics and ceiling frescoes on the main plaza which is called Parque Jose Marti. The Museum of Provinces discusses the region’s colonial past. Cuban democracy is commemorated in the Arco de Triunfo. Ferries transport passengers and visitors to the 18th century Castillo de Jagua. As a city with a prime location, this city has a large tourist population that comes each year. It is likely that there will be many English speakers working in the tourism industry here.
What Languages are Spoken in Cuba?
- Cuban Spanish – Cuban Spanish is Cuba’s most common language with an estimated 11 million native speakers. Cuban Spanish is a member of the Indo-European language family and the Iberian language family. The language is a variant of the Spanish language, and shares many characteristics with other Spanish speaking varieties in the region. One common feature of these Spanish varieties is the use of the -ica and -ico diminutive suffixes, which is different from the standard Spanish -ita and -ito. Linguists claim that Cuban Spanish originated in Spain, and particularly in the Canary Islands. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Cuba experienced an influx of Spanish settlers from the Canary Islands. These immigrants played an important role in influencing Cuban Spanish. Throughout this time, immigrants from other regions of Spain also arrived, but their effect on the language was not profound.
- Haitian Creole – Haitian Creole is a major language in Cuba, and is primarily spoken by Haitian Cubans, who are estimated to number about 300,000 people. Haitian Creole originates from Haiti. These original Haitian Creole speakers were slaves who immigrated with their French masters to Cuba during the Haitian Revolution in the 18th century. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries more Haitian immigrants settled in the region, where they worked oin sugar cane farms. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Cuban government discriminated against the Haitian Creole speakers, until 1959 when Fidel Castro assumed power and formed a government which gave more power to Haitian Creole speakers. In recent years, Haitian Creole has flourished and spread to non-Haitian Cubans, many of whom are fluent in the language.
- Lucumi – Lucumi is a minor language. The language is strongly influenced by the Yoruba language of Western Africa. The language is a liturgical language, so it is mainly spoken by Santeria practitioners. Lucumi emerged from slaves from Yoruba brought to Cuba during the 18th-century trans-Atlantic slave trade. These Yoruba slaves molded the language, incorporating over Bantu languages spoken. The slaves molded the language and incorporated other Bantu languages spoken by other African slaves along with Spanish spoken by the slave masters.
- Galician and Corsican – Galician is natively spoken in Spain by Galician residents, estimated to be about 4.8 million people. Galician is closely related to Portuguese, with both languages deriving from the Western Iberian language family. In Cuba, Galician is usually spoken by immigrants from Galicia who typically live in one of the country’s larger cities. Corisca is another significant foreign language spoken by a large Italian population. The language originates from the French and Italian regions in Corsica and Sardinia. Corsica is closely related to Italian with the Tuscan language family sharing both.
- English – As Cuba opened its economy to the rest of the world, more and more Cubans started to learn English. The Cuban government has introduced programs to improve English competency throughout the country and across different education levels. In addition to easing travel restrictions, many tour operators are hosting more English speakers. With that said, its unlikely that many people outside the tourism industry will speak English. Lower English proficiency is unexplainable due to a long, cold relationship with America.
Is English Necessary in Cuba?
As a tourist, it seems important to note that the number of English speakers is still very low. The majority of people only speak Spanish, so it seems important to learn key Spanish phrases before moving or traveling to Cuba. You may find it easy to use English in cities like Havana, Cienfuegos, or Santiago de Cuba, but outside those cities, then it might be harder to find an English speaker. Otherwise you might have a harder time communicating verbally and you will need to resort to using body language.
As a local, Cuba is slowly opening its economy to the larger international community, and more and more Cubans are learning English. The Cuban government has made English proficiency a requirement for all university and high school students. As many international events like jazz festivals, film festivals, and other artistic and cultural events occur, English speaking Cubans will benefit the benefits that might come with international exposure.
English Teaching in Cuba
Teachers looking to work in Cuba will likely find the majority of teaching jobs in Havana. Cuba provides many opportunities for teachers who want to begin their international teaching career. Teaching positions in Cuba can be at either public schools or international private schools. The Cuban education system follows a strict set of regulated standards to ensure that all students receive the highest-quality education. This is good news for teachers who would like to teach in Cuba as the demand for quality teachers will be high.
To teach in Cuba, teachers must have a bachelor’s degree, especially if you would like to teach at a private international school.
Because of Cuba’s high literacy rate and educational quality, it is strongly recommended that teachers have additional ESL teaching qualifications, such as a TEFL certificate, which provides ample classroom and pedagogical tools.
For United State’s citizens, obtaining a teaching visa may still be somewhat challenging, although policymakers are currently developing new policies, so be sure to pay attention to current policies when seeking a job. Nonetheless, obtaining a visa to teach English in Cuba is very similar to application process for other Latin American countries. Many schools will help you obtain a sponsored visa to teach in Cuba and live for longer than three months.
In the Land of the Tony Montana
Cuba is definitely a unique experience with nice, smiling people at every step, and that means at almost every step, or stoop as it is common for Cubans to sit on their front porch and people watch at all hours. Cuba also has a wonderful culture and beautiful history with great beaches like the ones in Varadero, and spectacular sights in Havana. Add in a nightlife that few outside Cuba have never experienced, and it will possess your spirit with a uncontrollable sensation to dance. You can experience the legendary clubs and cafes that Ernest Hemingway and Nat King Cole frequented, including the La Bodeguita de Medio and El Floridita Bar, and you can rest assured that these experiences will forever be ingrained in memory.
Even if very few of the locals speak English, you should certainly take some time to visit this amazing country. The people are fascinating and it gives you a chance to listen to one of the more beautiful forms of Spanish.