The Five Pillars of Language Evolution – and Why we Mustn’t Neglect them

I’m privileged to say that I’m part of a team of lecturers who is qualifying the first generation of bilingual education professionals according to the demands of recent legislation – yet to be approved – recommended by the National Education Council of Brazil. In this 120h course, our aim is to discuss important subjects about bilingualism, bilingual education, methodology, curriculum, and assessment. I teach Language and Cognition and my very first lesson starts with a quote by Dan Everett:

The greatest technological breakthrough of human beings is language

Dan Everett, TEDx Talk

I thought this would be a fitting start for my group of eager students to (re)consider for a moment the magnitude of the work they do. It also helps everyone rethink the role of language in society and how it is intrinsically connected to how we, humans, have evolved and become more intelligent than any other being on this planet – at least according to our own appraisal.

This blog post looks at five pillars I focused on when teaching this lesson on Brain and Language Evolution. It assumes that there are 5 elements that cannot be dissociated from language learning and must not be neglected in language teaching, even though they might be misunderstood by students and, oftentimes, by teachers themselves. They are:

  1. Grammar
  2. Play
  3. Arts
  4. Storytelling
  5. Reading

History of Language and Brain Development

There are over 7000 languages on this planet. Some are dying out and are expected to become extinct in the next years. Many have already disappeared from the face of the earth. If you look at some of the proposed beliefs to explain our incredible linguistic diversity, you’re bound to come across the biblical passage about the The Tower of Babel and the idea that after the flood, Noah’s descendants became one people with one language who wanted to build a tower to touch the heavens. God decided to confuse their languages and spread them all over the planet.

However, the idea that languages were created – in a relatively short period of time – does not seem to hold water. If we analyze this claim by comparing the tree of languages to the evolutionary tree of life, we’ll find striking similarities. Languages seemed to have evolved just like how every being on this planet evolved from a common ancestor – languages may have evolved from more than one. We can posit that the current configuration of languages is precisely what we’d expect given enough time and geographical isolation – and specialization – according to Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Why have humans developed such incredible linguistic wealth? Why haven’t other animals accomplished this feat? Can we even say that they haven’t? I remember watching an episode of TV series Cosmos hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson on which bees can communicate to their peers with incredible accuracy how to get to a food source by walking in circles and waggling their body inside the hive for everyone to see.

Bees and humans are quite different, though. What about animals that are closer to us from an evolutionary perspective? If you think about other primates, you may want to analyze the interesting case of Kanzi the Bonobo who can use a limited version of sign language and visual cues (on a lexigram) to tell his caregiver Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh what he wants or feels. Most of what he can communicate, though, is connected to immediate needs like what he wants to eat or where he wants to go.

Even though animals can communicate, most linguists would agree that they do not have language. Language has different layers or spheres such as phonetics – human sounds, phonology – sounds of a particular language, morphology – word formation, syntax – phrase/sentence construction, semantics – meaning, pragmatics – meaning in context.

As a matter of fact, there’s evidence to suggest that the very first language homids had was sign language. Since great apes do not have a very sophisticated vocal tract, making them unable to vocalize a wide range of sounds, and based on observations of bonobos, gorilas, and chimpanzees, we can assume that these animals started communicating through body language.

Anthropological and archeological records seem to suggest that the first hominid to speak was Homo erectus. H. erectus has been until this day the longest-living hominid to walk the earth (2.1 million years ago to 300,000 years ago)  and has conquered many geographical locations on the globe (including Europe and Asia, extending on Homo habilis’ feat of conquering most of eastern and southern Africa)

H. erectus was an incredible tool makers and had to be able to build boats to populate the many islands in Indonesia where fossil records were found. The reason why researchers believe they were the first ones to speak is tied to the fact that tool-making technologies had to be passed on to the next generations and communication at sea required more sophisticated symbology. It is also important to note that bipedalism freed H. erectus hands to use gestures more often and that the need to hold tools such as spears may have prompted them to vocalize their warnings and wishes.

Now think for a second about the advantages of being able to communicate efficiently on a range of topics and somehow saving a record of what one has learned. Think about the ability to pass this knowledge to other members of the species. Can you imagine the social and cognitive gains? This knowledge and the skills acquired through this process for hundreds of thousands of years – possibly more than 2 million years – gave humans unprecedented benefits.

Nevertheless, something was needed for this to happen. If hominins were communicating with symbols, simply combining them randomly would have limited the things they could communicate. There had to be a set of rules, shared by other members of the tribe to allow for more complex communication. This thing was grammar

1. Grammar

Any given phrase or sentence produced by animals does not always seem to follow rules. If we look at a bonobo trying to say or sign something, their constructions might be like:

me – banana – me – me – want – banana – me – banana – banana

On the other hand, humans have learned to code language using a sequence that makes sense and that combines different items into novel sentences that can be understood by others. If we think about it, grammar – or at least more advanced grammar – is an important pillar of modern languages and what differentiates us from animals since it gives us rules of how to combine our symbols in a way that makes sense and can be replicated ad infinitum. This is the idea behind recursion – not that recursion is necessary for all human languages.

Let’s not get into the debate over a single universal grammar – or if there are other types of grammar – but we can certainly claim that humans have reached an unparalled ability to combine linguistic elements into constructions that can be passed on to other generations and create ever more complex language.

As a teacher you must have heard the following from one – or more – of your students:

I just want conversation classes. I don’t want – or need – to learn grammar

Some student

The problem here is that grammar is embedded in language. We can’t really teach language without grammar. What we can do, however, is to not teach grammar explicitly. Your students might not benefit from knowing the names or labels ascribed to different verb tenses for instance. They do however need to know how to use them and understand that apparently, without grammar, there’s no language really.

2. Play

With many parents watching remote classes due to COVID-19, I get a comment quite a lot. They normally say something like:

That teacher only plays with the kids. He doesn’t teach them anything

Some parent

That really shows how little importance they give to such a fundamental activity in human history. We can see play even in other animals – I certainly witness it daily with my two cats – and that sure means something. Play is the basis of social interaction and serves as a simulation for a number of tasks animals will have to carry out throughout their lives in order to survive. Hunting, escaping from predation, testing their body limits, communicating and negotiating. In humans, as Maria Montessori put it:

Play is the work of the child

Maria Montessori

When we see kids playing, we realize that they’re sharing intention, communicating their feelings and thoughts, setting up goals and rules, engaging in physical and mental activity, collaborating and competing, analyzing others’ behavior, making predictions and decisions and more. As humans evolved, we can be sure that play played a vital role in how we developed language and, thus, our brains.

3. Arts

It is quite common to hear families who have children enrolled in an English course complain about how much kids draw, paint, and dance. If we think about how nature expresses intention and sends messages, we might think about how male peacocks show off their amazingly colored feathers to impress females, or how a type of puffer fish draws intricate circle patterns on the seafloor, or even how some whales sing, and other birds dance to attract the opposite sex or signal danger. Humans are no different. In fact, we have been able to take artistic expression to the next level.

Think about it. There’s evidence that humans could express themselves artistically for at least 40,000 years (cave paintings and sculptures). Many thousands of years before writing – which wasn’t invented until around 7,000 – 6,000 BC – humans used arts to record their stories, their knowledge, dreams, wishes, and daily lives.

Some experts claim that cave paintings, such as the ones found in Lascaux, France are so complex and intelligently designed that cavemen actually invented the movie theater. The projections on the wall as researchers enter the cave with a torch are most impressive and they move telling a story.

4. Storytelling

Again, telling stories doesn’t bode well with some school managers, teachers, and families. Sitting in circles and listening to the teacher read a big book and use props to bring a story to life seem like a waste of time to many. However, we must ask ourselves? How were humans able to secure language from generation to generation without a writing system?

H. sapiens, for instance, is believed to have been around for at least 200,000 years – maybe up to 400,000 years. That means that for the better part of our time on this planet, we couldn’t have kept language alive except for speaking it, and storytelling and mythology certainly played a role.

Gathering around the fire to exchange stories about the day, to tell someone about a new location with fresh fruit, to plan how to get a mammoth the next day, or to wonder about the stars and how it all started gave humans the ability to learn socially like no other animal. It created culture and shared values that allowed us to accumulate knowledge like never before. Arts and storytelling are fundamental mechanisms through which humans have explored and surpassed their creative capacity and further developed language.

5. Reading

I once watched an interview given by Carl Sagan in which he said that reading a book was like having a conversation with people from past centuries, dead for even thousands of years. Once humans were able to write down their ideas, we started building on the experience of others and our shared knowledge grew exponentially.

We can learn languages by reading them. Experts today might not know what some languages sounded like but they have deciphered their secrets and can translate texts in Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, Latin, Old Aramaic, Old Norse and other dead languages. We can also learn about how people taught and learned languages many years ago.

Literacy certainly develops cognition as well. It gives humans access to a wealth of knowledge and the capacity to understand symbology and develop abstract thinking to unprecedented levels. Extensive reading, for example, is connected with benefits that surpass students’ reading ability. It’s also related to increasing vocabulary, developing writing, and improving oral fluency.

Conclusion

Humans are animals. We’re primates and we’ve evolved from a common ape ancestor. As any other animal, our survival depended on some key elements that brought us here today. Moving, hunting, learning quickly from nature, passing on new knowledge to other members of our tribe, building knowledge collectively, creating culture – at least in our case. Our unmatched ability to communicate gave us the edge over other animals. Without language, it’s safe to assume that we wouldn’t have gotten this far.

Any educational system or – more specifically – language course that neglects the pillars on which we were able to build a solid foundation to evolve is deeply misguided. We must strike a balance between novel demands and base our teaching and learning on what has helped us evolve.

There is no modern language without grammar. Let your students understand that. Tell them that grammar is what allows humans to construct sentences and talk to one another through shared rules at a highly complex level.

Kids – and adults alike – need play to simulate real-life situations, learn to collaborate, set goals, rules, and develop empathy. Games require focus, negotiation skills, they’re engaging and memorable. Let’s use them more often.

Last I checked, teaching English fell under the category of language arts. Despite the movement pushing a STEM-oriented curriculum, we need to make sure schools put the “A” back where it belongs. Particularly for YLEs, when literacy is still being developed, we should see more music, drawing, painting, and acting in classes.

Storytelling has been responsible for keeping language and culture alive. We connect through stories. We relate to the characters and we learn from them. One of the most pleasing human endeavors is to gather around a fire or in a room and listen to funny, touching, fantastic stories.

Reading is a powerful tool. Sticking to the books without resorting to tales, novels, poems – literature in general – means missing an opportunity. Students can benefit a great deal from reading fiction and non-fiction books, blogs, magazines and the like.

It seems to me that these five pillars have given our species the key to unlock our cognitive potential like no other animal. We must embrace them as educators and reflect what they can tell us about who are and what it means to be human. Language is really a tool that allows us to see, interact with, and understand the world. It’s our most powerful weapon. Just think about major setbacks in our History. Authorities banning play, burning books, alienating the masses through language, censoring arts. When we get away from those pillars, apparently that’s when things are going wrong.

References

Corballis, M. C. (2002). From hand to mouth: The origins of language. Princeton University Press.

Everett, D. (2017). How language began: The story of humanity’s greatest invention. Profile Books.

Howard-Jones, P. (2018). Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or How You Got To Be So Smart... Routledge.

Schoenemann, P.T. (2012)Evolution of brain and language IN: HOFMAN, M. A., FALK, D. (Eds). Progress in Brain Research, Elsevier, v. 195, p. 443-459, 2012

Sousa, A. M., Meyer, K. A., Santpere, G., Gulden, F. O., & Sestan, N. (2017). Evolution of the human nervous system function, structure, and development. Cell170(2), 226-247.

Language, Thought, and Time Perception: How far-fetched is the movie Arrival?

Written by André Hedlund and Rodolfo Mattiello

The idea that multilingualism develops cognitive potential and influences perception is well explored in the specialized literature. Linguists and cognitive scientists have long proposed the notion that language determines thoughts or at least shapes them depending on how adept they are to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (Boroditsky, 2001). Several authors have also been able to find a high correlation between bilingual brains and executive functions (updating, switching, and inhibiting) as well as cognitive reserve, which buys the brain a few years before it develops dementia, thus, extending its protective effects (Perani & Abutalebi, 2015; Bialystok et al. 2004). It seems that learning languages have significant effects on cognition, however, what would happen if humans could access, be exposed to, and even learn an alien language? This premise is explored in one of Denis Villeneuve’s latest productions: the film Arrival (2016, Paramount).

Watching this amazing film can be interesting not only to language teachers but to all who actually like Neurocognitive Linguistics. Apart from the sci-fi aspect of the movie when they talk about time traveling based on how the alien language is perceived, first we can focus on the issue of how our perception is changed based on the new linguistic experiences. According to Fodor (2008),

Experience affects concept learning only as it is mentally represented

(Fodor, 2008: 135)

And in the case of the alien language in the film, in which chronological time is not essential for understanding, the main character (Amy Adams as a linguist) has a whole different perception of time.

Amy Adams tries to decode their written language: the logograms. Insterestingly, logograms are shaped as circles, which gives the linguist the impression of time circularity

It could be argued then that what Arrival promotes is based on our current understanding of how languages influence cognition and based on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It is important to highlight, though, that this hypothesis is still a matter of debate and we could claim that the movie goes one step, or perhaps several, too far in suggesting humans would be able to rewire the linear perspective of time hammered into the brain since birth (and even from the womb) by being exposed to an alien language for a relatively short period of time. 

When one learns a second language (L2), its initial stage is never the same as the initial stage of the learning process of a native language (L1) for concepts have already been learned and time, as an epistemic conceptualization, is part of it. In the film, when aliens use their language, time is not essential for communication. For instance, if they want to communicate ‘yesterday we saw that’ they would simply produce the words ‘we’, ‘that’, ‘see’ without any time modality because for them, time is perceived differently and it does not have an essential apparent role in their oral language. 

When Amy Adams learns this new language, her epistemic notion of time shifts since the concept of time that she possesses gets updated, remolded by the alien language. If we analyze the retrieval of concepts backwards, from words and grammar to concepts, the understanding of a new language will reshape epistemic parameters in order to grant effective communication (Dabrowska, 2004). When people engage in a conversation, some linguistic features such as phonemes, lexis, concepts, etc., must be shared otherwise it will not have an effective outcome (there will be misunderstandings). These concepts we share are developed as we interact and create schemas (Croft, 2007, Dabrowska, 2004, Fodor, 2008, Langacker, 2007) and they can always change depending on the language that will be used and the interlocutor.

The first argument we might throw at Villeneuve’s production and scriptwriters against the depiction of this alien encounter is that it’s quite unlikely for our species to fathom and be guided by a concept of time that is not based on our tridimensional existence. Time is perceived by us through our senses and internal biological clock which are intrinsically connected to our lifespans. It has a physiological aspect that could not possibly be affected by learning an incredibly different language. The second argument might be related to our technological limitations. The civilization of Abbot and Costello, the aliens portrayed in the movie, might have figured out how to warp the space-time fabric and that means that time to them works differently. 

To better illustrate this idea, let’s think of how new technologies have changed our perception of time. Before the telegram, letters would take several days to arrive at their destination. With telephones, humans were able to call many people from distant places and shorten the time to get an answer about any issue from a couple of weeks to a couple of hours. Nowadays we can virtually connect with most of the world and send messages that take less than a second to get to the receiver. These technological advances have shaped our perspective of time and how long things take to be done, nevertheless, time has remained a linear constant for humans because events still happen in a sequential manner, even if the next step of the sequence takes less than a second to occur.

Therefore, our epistemic concepts are susceptible to change as we are exposed to, learn and use new languages, no doubt. The schemas we develop become updated so that we can engage in an effective conversation with shared features. Nonetheless, it might be inconceivable for humans to be able to rewire the consolidated neural networks in our brains, which are the product of years of genetic, psychological, and social interactions, in such a way that would allow us to perceive time so differently.

The Pirahã, a native American tribe in the Amazon

Think for a second about cultures that might not value the future as we do. They live one day after the other, bound to the scarcity or abundance of their contexts. This is the case of the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon. According to linguist Dan Everett (2017), the Pirahã have developed a simple language based on just a few sounds, which gave them all the necessary resources to communicate effectively about their way of life. They do not have numerals, a distinction about the future and the past, or mythology. They are stuck in the present so to speak. They are limited by the boundaries of their empirical existence. They focus on what they can see and hear right in front of them or through someone else’s senses. Here is the thing: even though they do not place a lot of focus on the distant future and do not really plan it, they still experience time as a succession of events because that’s part of human biology. They can even refer to the future as something that would translate into “far time”

Now think of the time perception of a child. Children are hedonistic little people, very much like the Pirahã, trapped in the present. But that has to do with their underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. Although a four or five-year-old can understand the notion of a future, they cannot really conceptualize such an abstract idea that is too distant from their lived reality. Imagine then an ape and how we could possibly teach them the notion of, let’s say, millions of years ago or say that in many billion years our sun is bound to consume its energy and explode. Their existence and lack of sophisticated language wouldn’t allow them to understand let alone rewire their brains to start experiencing time in a different way because even if we tried as hard as we could, they would simply lack the cognition to comprehend such abstractions. 

That might be the case for Amy Adams. In the film, she’s the ape and the aliens are the humans. If we consider language a vessel to convey our thoughts and perceptions, we will have to stick to the idea that no language, human or alien, will ever be able to fundamentally change how we experience the physical world when it comes to the limits of our existence. For now, the concept that a language can “unlock” hidden cognitive potential that could substantially transform the fabric of space-time and all the matter within right before our eyes will have to stay in the sci-fi section of our favorite streaming provider and books.

You can watch our Chá Pedagógico discussion of this movie below:

You can also listen to us on Spotify:

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.


Bilingual Education in Brazil – Part 1: What options are there?

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.

Bilingual School

Within this context of bilingual education, we have bilingual schools. The denomination of bilingual school is usually given to schools that:

  1. 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;
  2. 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. 

Bilingual Program 

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 School 

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

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!

References

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).