This past week I had the opportunity to attend a summer conference on bilingual education in São Paulo under the theme: “Education is our passport to the future”. One of the guest speakers, Vinicius Nobre, Academic Manager at Associação Cultura Inglesa, presented a great talk on the matter of the Future of Language and Bilingual education.
Nobre initially highlighted some of the myths in learning a second language (English, in his more specific case):
- you can learn English in 3 months
- you work for a month at Disney World and you’ll return fluent
- Only native speakers can properly teach the language
- You can learn that language only if you travel abroad
- Living in a monolingual country makes it impossible / or too hard to learn a second language
The list could go on indefinitely but the point about Brazil being a monolingual country and that being a myth – just blew my mind. There are around 210 languages spoken in Brazil – including indigenous languages and around 30 languages through immigration from Europe and Asia (not counting those from Africa and Latin America). Studies show that only 5% of Brazilians consider themselves proficient in English. You can see that as an opportunity or a tragedy.
By dispelling those myths, Nobre went on to his next question:
“For decades millions have been invested in the teaching of English as a Foreign Language in Brazil. So why is it so low?”
And I repeat: Why is the foreign language proficiency level in Brazil still so low? Considering that the teaching of English as a Foreign Language has been mandatory in Brazil for all public and private schools since the mid-1970), we could add that this problem happens in many other countries around the world where the teaching of a foreign language is treated as just another school subject).
Instead of being a means to an end, the teaching of a foreign language is seen as an end unto itself. Also, the informality of the profession doesn’t help it at all. Bilingual schools can call themselves so without any regulation from education authorities. They can offer English classes one hour a day or teach many different subjects in English and Portuguese and fall under the same category of “bilingual education”. Teachers can be hired literally off the street or even worse, schoools can hire those who have a teaching degree and are absolutely underqualified.
So, what can be done?
- Teachers must learn to take more advantage of our business and make it more relevant;
2. The teaching of English is a kaleidoscope of subjects – and the study of language teaching is relatively speaking a very recent discipline;
3. To learn another language – interaction and the ability to listen to others is essential: you must learn to listen actively;
4. The language is not the end but a means of communication;
The language classroom is an environment of high creativity – challenged to be more innovative and more critical.
A good language class will be a means of communication – “I’m not studying English I’m learning to communicate”
Is it possible to change this paradigm?
We are now experiencing an anti-globalization mood – with mediocrity as king – but even in such times as these, or maybe more so, to be able to speak another language will be even more valuable.
Until the first half of the 20th century, language had been pegged to national identity – it was deeply political. – in some instances to speak another language was considered a betrayal of your country – this happened in Brazil during World War II when any speakers of German, Italian or Japanese were seen with suspicion and regarded as likely traitors or informers.
Add to that the false belief that all the stress of learning another language could harm you and be bad to your mind.
“See all those language teachers? They’re a little “weird” wouldn’t you say? They’ve got a screw loose.”
- Fortunately there is hope. Teachers must become more aware of their role and importance in society:
- Socially you are ahead if you speak another language;
- A teacher won’t have great salaries but he won’t be unemployed;
- The career of a teacher – is a threatened species – threatened by government policies and dwindling investments in teacher education and infrastructure. Sooner or later they’ll wake up to the reality that teachers are important;
- And based on so many studies just to know the fact that learning another language wards off mental diseases… in case of doubt you have at least learned a language.
And NO! I won’t apologize for having taken the time and effort to learn another language.