Plan Colombia: From language teaching to the ironies of progress

Plan Author

  • Antonio Iaccarino, 2010

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Tutorial: Synthesis of Psychological Concepts in the Foreign Language Classroom
  • Course: Teaching English as a Second Language
  • Course: Gender Trouble: Modern Women Writers in Latin America & Afro-Hispanic Diaspora

Project Description

To combine a solid foundation in psychology, Spanish, and applied linguistics in order to apply them to the Colombian context of English language learning, history, culture, and armed conflict.

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Beatriz Fantini, SIT World Training


As the lingua franca of much of the modern world, the English language enjoys a privileged position that makes it a highly desirable second language. Unfortunately, many language programs do not teach English as effectively as they could, and economic circumstances place second language instruction out of reach for all but the most fortunate of the world’s population. This Plan examines the pedagogical theories behind second language acquisition, drawing on the author’s personal experience teaching English to street children in Medellín, Colombia.

Most students at Fundación Social Paz Eterna in Medellín, Colombia—the foundation where the author taught English—are orphans or the children of internally displaced Colombians. Many are shy, suffer from low self-esteem, or have substance abuse problems. Teaching these students effectively required positive reinforcement and a hands-on approach. For children without parents, lack of external motivation also made maintaining classroom engagement difficult.

Engagement is also an issue for students in more traditional language learning environments. For more advanced second-language learners, interesting aspects of the target language’s culture and history can supplement vocabulary and grammar lessons. This is especially effective if the student’s home country has a controversial relationship with the new language’s country, as it can encourage in-class debate in the new language. To test this theory, this Plan includes two papers written by the author in Spanish, both of which examine the painful history between the United States and Latin America.


“The students were disadvantaged language learners in that many did not have steady economic or parental support. All were classified as part of an ‘at-risk’ population or had already experienced drug consumption, prostitution, homelessness, verbal and physical abuse, and other illicit activities.”

“It seemed that Cati and Julie were initially defiant in class because they were anxious about making errors, but after a session of positive reinforcement, they became more confident and involved in the class. Additionally, songs in English began to be rewards for good class behavior.”

“Much of the material in foreign language classrooms focuses on subjects such as daily interactions, food, cultural norms, and small snippets of history, but rarely emphasizes controversial contemporary and historical relationships between the native language (L1) and the target language (TL) population.”


When I was a freshman I took a Latin American History class about the Dirty Wars in Argentina and Chile. Learning about these events inspired me to build my Plan on a mix of history, education, public policy, and (eventually) my personal experiences in Colombia.