Bilingual Education in Brazil – Part 2: History of Education and English Teaching

Adapted from my text for PolicyBristol Blog. Don’t forget to access the first part of this series

“Challenging. The Brazilian Educational System is Huge”

This is written on the website of Todos Pela Educação (All for Education), an NGO that provides information about the Brazilian educational scenario in order to help boost quality and access to basic education.

Brazil has a history of elitism and oppression. Education was used as an evangelisation tool by the Jesuits to convert Indigenous Brazilians in the early colonial years, between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Till this day, many schools are run by religious institutions. In the 19th century, the elite either had the luxury of private tutors or sent their children abroad, particularly Portugal, for their studies while slaves traded in from Africa were not allowed any type of education at all. Black people are still marginalised as a consequence of structural racism.

We can trace the origins of Brazilian current education legislation and structure back to the 1930s and 1940s.  In the next four decades, research and Higher Education institutes flourished but also came the military regime through the 1964 coup. The dictatorship was responsible for the persecution of intellectuals and left-wing supporters, undermining free speech and critical thinking.

A bright future and a sad reality

After more than two decades of an authoritarian period, the 90s seemed to be the beginning of a bright future. Enrolment rates of 15-17 year-old students in secondary education grew from 58.1% in 1991 to 77.7% in 2000 (Costa, 2013).When the Labour Party won the presidential elections in 2002, with Luiz Inácio da Silva (aka Lula) as president, Brazil went through important educational changes. Federal funding for education increased substantially – The Ministry of Education (MEC) nearly tripled its budget and the National Fund for Basic Education (Fundeb) was created. Access to basic education was de facto universalized and reinforced by social programs’ requirements such as Bolsa Família (a state-funded pension to families living under the poverty line provided their kids were enrolled and attending schools as well as vaccinated).

From 2002 to 2010, Brazil saw its low quality educational indexes rise. PISA scores grew, university enrolments skyrocketed, Federal Higher Education Institutes were inaugurated all over the country (almost doubling their numbers), illiteracy levels dropped, and scholarships, research grants, and travel grants were available to many students.

However, still during the Labour Party’s government, the education budget began to dwindle and it has not stopped since. A huge corruption scandal involving the Labour Party undermined its political capital and a massive political crisis grew.

Until today, basic reading comprehension and mathematical skills in high school have not improved significantly and Brazil has figured among the world’s champions in terms of physical violence against teachers.  Scientists have fled the country in a huge human capital flight movement because of the terrible conditions they worked under, often having to buy basic research tools or pay for analyses out of their own pockets.

That’s the sad reality of Brazil. When we look at international rankings, Brazil normally figures right at the bottom. But there’s more. We have one of the highest pupil-to-teacher ratio in the world (32 students per teacher), lowest salaries (comparable to Indonesia), the lowest value for money considering investment vs students’ results according to PISA. In many pre-service teacher training programs, such as the Modern Languages undergrad qualification in Brazil, teachers are not well-prepared to speak English and need to seek further qualification elsewhere.

It’s worth mentioning that our Higher Education entry exams are basically selecting rich teens to attend tuition-free and accreditted universities (our State and Federal universities) and forcing poorer teens to go to paid institutions which are not as good as the public ones. There are, however, affirmative action initiatives to give poorer teenagers access to Higher education. Funding programs and quotas for black people are some examples. Besides that, Brazil has unified its entry exams into a single National High School Exam (Enem) which will allow students to apply for several institutions at the same time. For that reason, most of the Brazilian educational system focuses on preparing students to pass this exam, prioritizing the memorization of general knowledge contents and neglecting more active learning methods (such as PBL).

Languages in Brazil

Brazil has been a multilingual country since its origin. Before our colonization, millions of indigenous people lived here with their customs, culture and, of course, languages. European languages ​​were brought to the territory from 1500 onwards. From Portugal, we receive Portuguese, the country’s official language and spoken by most of the population. However, the successive invasions and migratory waves, in addition to the need for communication with the indigenous people, created an environment in which many languages ​​were used. Today more than 230 languages ​​are present in Brazil.

Over the centuries and the establishment of different education systems, European languages ​​have consolidated themselves as prestigious languages. In addition to Portuguese, those few who had access to education sought to study foreign languages ​​such as French, German or Spanish. In the 20th century, immigrants from Italy and Germany created conglomerates in southern Brazil while Asians (Japanese, Koreans and Chinese) settled in the southeastern region. At the borders, Latin neighbors boosted the use of Spanish. The end of World War II propagated the English language as a language of global communication among peoples.

According to historical records, English, and French as foreign languages started to be taught in Brazil in 1809, a year after the Royal Family fled from Portugal to settle in their colony. For the better part of this period, teachers used the Grammar-Translation method, which emphasized reading classical texts and translating them. It was only in the third decade of the 20th century that the Direct Method was introduced and English began to be taught using the target language. In 1942, a educational reform gave foreign languages more hours of contact in the curriculum, however, between 1961 and 1971, a new reform did not include Foreign Language Learning in Brazilian curricula.

Things changed in 1996 when the Lei de Diretrizes e Bases (LDB) or Law of Guidelines and Bases made the inclusion of a foreign language to the curriculum mandatory in primary and secondary school. In 1998, when the Parâmetros Curriculares Nacionais (PCN) or National Curricular Standards were established, the importance of English teaching was stressed even more. Nevertheless, most regular schools have offered 1 or 2 hours of English a week in their curriculum.

All of these changes, however, did not impact most of the Brazilian population as it should. According to the British Council, in 2014 only 5% of the Brazilian population could speak English at some level and only 1% could do it proficiently. To make matters worse, Education First (EF) places Brazil at 53rd in its English Proficiency Index in 2020, which is considered low and behind other South American neighbors such as Uruguay, Bolivia, Cuba, Chile, and Argentina for instance. That scenario only reinforces that if anyone really wants to learn English in Brazil, they have to either go to a language center outside school or a bilingual school.

Bilingual schools / Bilingual Education in Brazil

The current universe of bilingual schools or schools with bilingual programs is tiny when compared to other countries. The estimates of the Brazilian Association for Bilingual Education (ABEBI) tell us that more than 90% of Brazilian schools have no bilingual solution in their curricula. The last decade, however, has brought an explosion of new bilingual teaching solutions on the market. With the consolidation of English as a predominant prestige language in Brazil and the spread of the idea of ​​English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), that is, the coexistence of several “Englishes” used as a global communication tool, regular schools started to focus on the differential of offering bilingual education.

According to ABEBI, based on the 2018 Ministry of Education (MEC) school census, Brazil (around 3%) lags behind other South American countries such as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay (around 8%) in percentage terms when it comes to bilingual education in private schools. This means that to reach the level of these neighbors, Brazil would need an increase of 5%, which corresponded to at least 2000 schools in 2018. Even so, more than 90% of private schools are outside this projection. This illustration demonstrates the growth potential of the bilingual education trend in the country.

Another recent development that indicates that bilingual education will be increasingly present in the Brazilian educational system is the document drafted by the National Education Council (CNE) on the National Curricular Guidelines for Plurilingual Education. The document came out for public consultation in mid-2020 and is still pending approval. It contains the history of Brazilian education, particularly the evolution of multilingual teaching (in border regions, in the case of deaf education with the Brazilian Sign Language – Libras and in regions of the indigenous population), the legal foundations, concepts bilingualism and plurilingualism, bilingual education in Brazil and Latin America, in addition to the relationship with the Common National Curricular Base (BNCC), our own common core.

Final Thoughts and What comes Next

We’ve looked at the History of Brazilian education. It saddens me to realize we still have many structural problems such as lack of funding, resources, proper teacher training and more. Brazil’s history is based on oppression, elitism, and content-driven curricula to help kids and teens memorize contents worked in different subjects to pass universities entry exam. There’s a huge gap between rich and poor kids and how much access they get to good quality education and English classes. The next blog post of this series will discuss the new document that will probably regulation bilingual education contexts in Brazil.


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