Before I get to that point, I should tell you about the two mainstream ways of English language teaching in Brasília: in regular schools and in language institutes. In a Brazilian regular school, teachers face 45 – 50 students sitting in orderly rows waiting for your lecture. Not very communicative, huh?! As a matter of fact, many English teachers in regular schools here can’t speak the language they teach. The language is taught in Brazilian Portuguese, and the focus is on grammar and superficial reading comprehension. In addition to that, many of the students study English at language institutes, so the teacher ends up having students from all different levels in the same classroom, from those who have never studied English in the classroom to those who are proficient speakers, and this teacher has to teach them “all” about the verb BE. Been there, done that.
Language institutes abound in Brasília. You can find a language institute everywhere you look, and the fact that language institutes fall under the same classification of knitting lessons, or craftsmanship courses means that they are not considered education – at least not by the Ministry of Education. Consequently, you can find language institutes that claim to teach all there’s to be taught in as few as 8 months, and others that say it’ll take you 8 years to finish your studies. Hence, an English language teacher can pretty much pick and choose where and with what methodology he or she wants to work. I’d rather tell you a bit about my current situation.
I’ve taught in regular schools and in quite a few language institutes, and I currently run my own language institute. Just like many other language institutes in Brasília, our classrooms are much smaller – about 15 students per class, and the goal of the course is to enable learners to effectively function in English. All skills are integrated, and students are encouraged to use the language productively rather than just being able to understand it. In terms of professional development, teachers from many of the language institutes are usually interested in professional growth, and even though Brasília isn’t usually the venue for major conferences, few seminars are held from time to time. Some publishers also fly in some important people from the world of ELT, but that doesn’t happen as often as it does in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. But this is enough about the context, I suppose.
Coming back to the question I asked in the introduction, teaching English in a country as big as Brazil, and one in which you can travel for more than 2.000 kilometres without having to speak another language has its drawbacks, and the one of these is showing people the real importance of learning at least one foreign language (perhaps the hardest thing teachers have to do). Even after the advent of the Internet and everything that globalization has brought about, many students still fail to see the usefulness of English in their lives (and being able to drive for two days without having to speak another language seems to make a strong case for those who think learning a foreign language is irrelevant). It’s not uncommon for parents to talk to teachers and ask for help in convincing their kids that learning English is important to their future. However, many of these parents are not truly convinced of its importance either.
To our advantage, most well-off teenagers are online all the time, and because of that they are in touch with English all the time. This means you can try to show them the reality of English as a lingua franca by making use of their own reality. You can show them that they’ll need English to play the latest videogame, to read an online article or to get in touch with their friends from abroad. Lots and lots of arguments, but isn’t this the same thing that our parents used to tell us? Have we forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager and all you want is being part of your own tribe. A student of mine once told me he wouldn’t even care about learning how to use twitter, or how to blog, for instance, simply because his friends were not into it. As for the videogames, it seems they’d rather talk to one another and get to the next level through trial and error than try to understand what is written on the screen. It actually reminds me a bit of what adults do with manuals.
I’m sure the situation I described isn’t unique to my teaching situation. And even though there are difficulties, this is what teachers do: we overcome difficulties, we try to find innovative ways to engage our learners and to make sure we’re trying our best to prepare them for life. Teaching English in Brazil, in most cases, requires a good deal of creativity and willpower. But it’s all worth it when you see your students progressing and telling you they can now understand what the people in movies and songs are saying – their main sources of “interaction” with the target language.
Henrick Oprea is a teacher, teacher trainer and Director of studies at Atlantic Idiomas, Brasília, Brazil. He’s been teaching English for about 13 years and is currently taking his MA in TEFL/TESL from the University of Birmingham. As any good Brazilian, he’s a football fan and supports Vasco da Gama, the best football team in the world (or so he thinks). He’s also a blogger and you can read his thoughts on his blog. You can also find him on twitter.
* A million thanks to Barbara, for inviting me to write this guest post. It is my very first one.