In recent years, an important debate has been taking place on the concept of bilingual education and how it fits in the Brazilian educational system. With rare exceptions until recently, additional language learning, particularly English, was restricted to a few hours of contact a week at a regular school or in a language center outside the school building. However, with the boom of bilingual solutions on the market, in addition to the recent development with the publication of a document to regulate bilingual education in the country by the National Education Council (Conselho Nacional de Educação), what is the situation in this scenario today? What are the differences between a bilingual program, a bilingual school, an international school and a language course?
This is the first part of a blog series on English learning in Brazil, particularly bilingual education. I intend to talk about the current scenario, historical background, the upcoming legislation, and some of the chosen approaches and methods used in different schools. If you are interested in bilingualism and want to know more about my country’s experience, this blog series is for you.
Concepts and Definitions
Bilingual Education and Translanguaging
First let’s define bilingualism. According to Hakuta (2009), bilingualism is the coexistence of more than one linguistic system in an individual. Grosjean (1982), posits that a bilingual subject is not simply two monolinguals put together. In that case, bilingual education is a broad term that encompasses different modalities of bilingual learning and teaching in different contexts. Megale (2018, p. 5) objectively proposes that Bilingual Education is based on:
Multidimensional development of two or more languages involved, the promotion of knowledge between them and the valorization of translanguaging as a way of building comprehension of the bilingual subjects’ world.
Megale, 2018, p. 5.
The concept of translanguaging, widely used in works on bilingualism and plurilingualism, with authors such as Ofelia García and Colin Baker (2007) and Li Wei (2018), refers to the practice of using the entire linguistic repertoire of the bilingual subject to give meaning to discourse, to communicate with others, which implies a heteroglossic view of language, that is, the perspective that languages do not form independent systems. This means that languages are not stored separately in the brain and that they overlap and intertwine in a natural way (Busch, 2015). A simple example is that of two bilingual speakers of Portuguese and English who can talk using elements of both languages dynamically and in an intelligible way.
Within this context of bilingual education, we have bilingual schools. The denomination of bilingual school is usually given to schools that:
- have the curriculum taught in Portuguese and in the additional language in an integrated way. This may mean taking classes of the same subject in Portuguese and in English, for example, or dividing the subjects so that some are mostly taught in the native language and others in the additional language;
- offer an additional curriculum (optional or not), with classes taught in the additional language, which may or may not be connected with the regular curriculum. This additional curriculum is, as a rule, created by the school itself;
In the first example, schools use CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), which, in short, is characterized by the use of the additional language as a means of instruction for the teaching of subjects in the curriculum. That is, math, history, geography or any other subject is given in English. Therefore, with this approach, both the subject and the additional language are learned. In the second example, the school can use CLIL (or some of its elements) as well as focus more on Project-Based Learning.
Unlike a bilingual school, a bilingual program is, in general, a service package offered by an unrelated outsourced company without any prior connection to the school. This company is responsible for the elaboration of teaching materials and professional development training based on approaches and methodologies related to the development of bilingualism and the idea of student-centeredness. Therefore, the bilingual program has all the necessary structure, including books, online platform, commercial and pedagogical support, as well as expertise to carry out implementation in any given school.
It is worth noting that both bilingual and international schools, which I explain in the next section, need to have teachers who are experts in their subjects and proficient in the additional language, since the teaching of these subjects in the curriculum is done in that language. In the case of a bilingual program, the teachers at the school that adopts the program are usually the English-speaking teachers that the school has hired. These professionals undergo a linguistic assessment and, if they have the appropriate level of competence, go through an initial training about the program. They receive constant support from the program’s coordinators (who are normally called advisors, tutors or mentors) and follow didactic-pedagogical recommendations prepared by the program.
In short, a bilingual program is characterized, therefore, by the increment of contact hours with the additional language and by the use of more student-centered approaches, with the inclusion of project-based learning, immersion and CLIL.
A school without a bilingual program usually has one or two times of contact with the English language in the curriculum during the week and the classes are mostly taught in Portuguese through a more teacher-centered approach. With a bilingual program, the school has an increased number of hours (three, five or even ten contact hours a week) for English classes, which are taught in English in a more communicative way, based on projects and with the insertion of CLIL elements. .
So, can a school with a bilingual program be called a bilingual school? The answer is no, or at least it shouldn’t. Bilingual schools have (or should have), of course, an even greater workload of the additional language and qualified teaching staff both in their subjects and in teaching through the additional language. This makes official Portuguese-English bilingual schools infinitely more exclusive in a country like Brazil, where only 5% of the population has some competence in English according to a 2014 British Council report (these numbers have surely changed but apparently not much).
It’s worth mentioning that the new document drafted by the National Education Council in Brazil labels this modality Extended Curriculum in Additional Language. If this document is approved and comes into force, the denomination Bilingual Programs will most likely stop being used.
International schools follow the school curriculum and timetable determined by the country of origin. They are like a piece of the foreign country’s territory and operate in accordance with that country’s legislation. A practical example is that of an American school, which works with subjects in English and follows the dates and curriculum guidelines of the United States. This school can offer courses in Portuguese, which can be integrated or not to the regular class time. Students at that school learn what students at a US school learn and therefore have the necessary certifications and / or diplomas to continue their education in the USA. It is worth remembering that Brazilian schools in foreign territories also make up this category.
Language centers are common in Brazil and their range of language options is extremely varied. It is common, however, to find language schools that offer English as their main language and add value with languages such as Spanish and other elite languages (usually European – German, French, Italian, etc.). These schools generally:
- have their own materials or work with books from major publishers (often international);
- have a curriculum that is not aligned with the curriculum used in the regular school;
- work with varied approaches and methods that are different from other bilingual solutions (eg communicative approach and audiolingual method)
- are physically separated from the regular school;
- work with smaller classes (up to a maximum of 20 students)
- vary widely in terms of teacher training (some hire without previous experience or diploma in the area while others require international certifications)
- may be associated or not to the government or institutions of countries that speak the additional language taught (such as binational centers linked to the US State Department or the British Council)
These schools usually offer between 2 and 5 contact hours a week with the language, mix students of different ages in the same class, offer intensive classes, holiday courses and classes on Saturdays in addition to occasionally creating agreements with regular schools to use their space to offer lessons in loco. However, the lack of convenience and practicality of having to take children to another place to learn English and then pick them up has given more value to bilingual solutions within the children’s regular school.
Final Thoughts and What comes Next
We’ve looked at some of the possible options for anyone seeking to receive a bilingual education in Brazil. It’s evident that the country offers a number of possibilities that are quite similar to those of other nations. Nevertheless, Brazilian levels of competent English speakers are quite low and millions of people do not even have access to English classes. With the rise of bilingual schools, many public school kids are being left behind since bilingual education rarely reaches those populations. The next blog post of this series will address the history of English teaching and learning in Brazil, access, levels of proficiency, and pre- as well as in-service program for teachers. Stay tuned!
Busch, B. The linguistic repertoire revisited. Applied linguistics, v. 33, n. 5, p. 503-523, 2012.
García, O; Baker, C, eds. Bilingual education: An introductory reader. Vol. 61. Multilingual matters, 2007.
Grosjean, F. (1982). Life with two languages: An introduction to bilingualism. Harvard University Press.
Hakuta, Kenji. “Bilingualism.” (2009): 173-178.
Megale, A. H. Bilingual education of prestigious languages in Brazil: an analysis of official documents. The Especialist, v. 39, n. 2, 2018.
Wei, L. “Translanguaging and code-switching: What’s the difference.” Blog Post. OUPblog. Oxford UP 9 (2018).