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Found In Translation

In Latin America, enterprising female language teachers are using Skype to tap into the global marketplace—and the students up north love it

Author Mara Gay Illustration Harry Campbell

industry

At 10 years old, the internet company that lets users video chat for free has found its most devoted following among homesick families and friends living abroad. But now, Skype is also lending a huge hand to independent entrepreneurs across the so-called Global South, in developing countries where wages are low and job opportunities are scarce—doubly so for women.

In places like Guatemala and Mexico, enterprising women are using the technology not just to bypass job markets plagued by chauvinism, but also to launch small businesses in which they teach Spanish language skills to students in the United States and Europe.

Olga Pacajá, a 34-year-old Spanish teacher from Antigua, Guatemala, who has been using Skype to connect with students in the United States, is one such example. “In Guatemala there are a lot of workers, many of whom are women. There are many female teachers, and they are being exploited,” says Pacajá. “The pay is terrible and there’s often no pay in the summers at all. For me, Skype has opened up a whole other world.”

Pacajá, who charges about $12 an hour and teaches roughly 50 hours a week, says she quickly found the Skype lessons to be more profitable and more fun than teaching in person at a local school in Guatemala, a country where the minimum wage is $9 a day. “This has become my primary source of income, and I do very, very well,” she says.

Ray Blakney,  an American who launched Skype-based Live Lingua about four years ago with his Mexican-born wife, Laura Ramirez Blakney, pays his teachers in Mexico about $7.50 an hour—a huge sum in a country where many workers earn as little as $5 a day, and women often far less. At that wage, Blakney says he’s had no trouble recruiting teachers from across South America and elsewhere. He says the vast majority of his teachers are ambitious women who want to work but need to be able to work from home.

“A lot of them have young children,” Blakney says. “We give these mothers an option to be at home with their kids and keep working at the same time.” And for native English speakers looking to learn a second language on a tight budget, the lessons are an attractive option. On Skype, English speakers can take private Spanish, Mandarin or French classes for about $10 to $15 an hour—a fraction of the cost of a private language lesson in the United States, which can run students as much as $100 an hour.

“For 10 or 11 bucks an hour, it’s like a freebie,” says Michael Chernoff, a retired fundraiser who lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, and takes lessons through Live Lingua. “Over the years, my Spanish has gotten pretty good. I keep telling them, I would happily pay much more.” Gene Grossman, the chair of the economics department at Princeton University, feels the success of entrepreneurs like Pacajá shows that globalization has a bright side.

“Global sourcing has just become possible where it wasn’t before,” he says. “For the average Guatemalan or Mexican woman, this is a real win.” In addition to being drawn by affordable rates, Spanish language students in America are also attracted to the idea of immersing themselves, albeit virtually, in a Spanish-speaking country. “I know it’s not as good as being able to be in the country, necessarily, but it’s the next best thing,” says Jeff Squires, who along with his 10-year-old son, Ethan, takes a Spanish lesson via Skype once a week.

“We don’t just do a lesson, we really get to know each other,” Squires says of his Spanish teacher, who lives in Mexico. “We talk about our kids and about current events, not just here but also in Mexico.”

Gordon McCord, the director of economic policy at the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development at Columbia University, sees Skype as the ultimate equalizer for women in the Global South, who are successfully marketing their skills in wealthier countries at a fair price. “Skype has completely changed the game for these women,” says McCord. “They can be independent and start their own businesses with very little startup cost.

“In most developing countries women suffer from inequality and one of the great ways of solving this problem is having women command a wage,” McCord continues. “And any phenomenon that helps women more than men is sure to be great for society. Often things change for the better when women work.”

For her part, Pacajá is hoping to start a Guatemala-based language company that will teach Spanish over Skype and offer benefits unheard of for most workers in the country. “I want to own my own company and provide good jobs with health insurance,  something we need very much in Guatemala, particularly for women,” she says. “And now it feels very possible.”

MARA GAY is a NYC-based journalist. She writes for the Wall Street Journal, where, fortunately, Spanish is not required.

17 Responses to “Found In Translation”

  1. Christeen Arthur Says:
    September 1st, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    I am one of the many students fortunate enough to have connected with Olga. She is a wonderful teacher, and lovely young woman!

  2. Jen Says:
    September 2nd, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    I’ve worked with Olga for a year now, and I love working and talking with her! There is always time for a good laugh, and she’s great with grammar. For me, learning with Olga is more effective than attending adult education classes because of the individual attention. I think it is very special to be able to learn a little bit about life in Guatemala first-hand. I highly recommend this experience.

  3. Robert Marley Says:
    September 2nd, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    I have been taking lessons with Olga for about 1 yr and 6 months now. I knew zero Spanish prior to starting. I feel that I’m learning very quickly despite only being able to have one lesson a week for two hours and with a busy schedule do not have a lot of time to study. I recently went to visit Olga in Antigua Guatemala and took classes four hours every day and walked around and enjoyed her beautiful country. I can’t wait to return back next year and do more of the same. Not only is Olga a great teacher but also a great friend.I highly recommend any one interested in learning Spanish to sign up with Olga

  4. Dan Tappmeyer Says:
    September 2nd, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Great article about Olga Pacaja. I am one of her long time Spanish students and recommend her highly.

  5. carol grace Says:
    September 2nd, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    Olga was my private spanish teacher instructor. She is excellent and a very, very sweet person. She is very proficient at what she does.

  6. carol grace Says:
    September 2nd, 2013 at 9:11 pm

    Olga is an excellent Spanish teacher and a very, very sweet person. You will get a lot out of her instruction!

  7. Ruth Thomson Says:
    September 2nd, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Olga Pacaja is a most amazing woman and teacher. I have had the pleasure of visiting with her in person for many days. She translated for our medical mission trip, in addition she helped with preparing meals. Olga is an all around good sport. Olga provides Spanish classes to many of my mission friends and is highly recommended. If anyone can get the Guatemalan based language company to employee women, it will be Olga! Best wishes, Olga! May your business grow!

  8. Hannah Goodman Says:
    September 2nd, 2013 at 10:20 pm

    I actually recieved lessons from Olga Pacajá in person and through skype, and she’s a great teacher! Within three weeks of lessons with her I learned as much as I did in a whole year of spanish in school. I’m glad she got the recognition she deserves!

  9. Marvin Rodriguez Says:
    September 3rd, 2013 at 12:26 am

    Felicidades prima, exitos con la empresa!!

  10. Beth Shulman Says:
    September 3rd, 2013 at 7:35 am

    Studying with Olga is a wonderful way to learn Spanish! She is a great teacher and a wonderful person.

  11. Dana Cayuela Says:
    September 3rd, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    Olga is an amazing woman!
    She is an example that shows how skills can be used to make better opportunities and to work in something that can change the way women lives in Guatemala, where is already difficult to anyone.
    I am happy to know her.

  12. David Quegg Says:
    September 4th, 2013 at 11:06 am

    I am a student of Olga Pacajá, continuing my Spanish lessons from my tutor class I had with her in Antigua. As a former elementary teacher myself, I know the importance of curriculum and planning, and Olga has both. That is an important ingredient to successful instruction. I have homework and exams, and she uses the Instant Message option to type impromtu vocabulary and sentences. I can then copy it and review it later. She can also show me images from her computer. Using SKYPE for long-distance instruction is an opportunity for anyone who knows how to teach. For language students, it’s convenient in your home and cost efficient for connecting to native speakers. Olga is a good example for how SA women can improve their income using professional skills and SKYPE technology.

  13. Greg Chapel Says:
    September 9th, 2013 at 9:49 am

    Great article. I am a student from Live Lingua and have been studying Spanish with them for years. My wife is taking German with them. Skype is a great way to learn languages. Here is there website since it was not included in the article:

    http://www.livelingua.com

    I highly recommend using them.

  14. Joe Vaz Says:
    September 9th, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Over the last several years I have attempted to self -teach conversational Spanish from intensely promoted Audio and/or Video programs, unfortunately, with very limited success.
    I speak four languages, and hence appreciate the challenges of successful Language learning .I am now clearly of the view that AV programs alone are not the answer.
    Successful language instruction requires immediate, orderly and efficient interaction with a tutor. Thanks to the benefits of globalization, and Skype, I am now conveniently enrolled in a program with a native speaker in Guatemala. (Full disclosure La Maestra Olga Paceja is my instructor).
    Over the past six months I have gained a level of confidence and fluency to confidently speak Spanish at “advanced – beginner level “, evident in my routine commercial interactions in Phoenix, while confidently working towards an intermediate status

  15. Eileen Berasi Says:
    September 11th, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    Skype is definitely the way to learn Spanish AND Olga Pacajá is certainly one of the best teachers in town! I have been studying Spanish with Olga for about two years and the level of interaction with her through Skype is far above any typical classroom-setting language-learning class. There is no possibility of hiding in the back of the classroom if you haven’t done your homework or not speaking the language because you might feel you are not competent enough. The dialogue is constant, and because Olga speaks English fluently, the ability to go back and forth with questions is very easy. Her manner is friendly, happy and open which makes the lesson very enjoyable every time. I’m very pleased with how far I’ve come: thanks to Olga!

  16. Rebekah Sullivan Says:
    September 24th, 2013 at 11:51 am

    Olga is a wonderful teacher. I have learned so much more Spanish with her than with any other Spanish programs. We like to talk and she always asks about my family. I have learned a lot about Guatemalan culture through her too. I think she’s wonderful.

  17. John M. Says:
    November 5th, 2013 at 7:25 am

    I’ve been taking Spanish lessons with 121Spanish for a year now, I wouldn’t have imagined I could learn a new language by Skype!
    This is their website, http://www.121spanish.com I highly recommend it!

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