Sound Bites

Sound Bites

It’s been an eventful week. Over the past seven days, protesters have taken to the streets of Brazil’s major cities, demanding that the government address a range of issues, from an unpopular rise in public transport fares, to the corruption that is endemic in public life here. As in many political protests worldwide, the protest banners are often in English, as the protesters seek to explain their grievances to an international audience and gather both local and global support.

Protesting in the cause of social reform has, of course, a long and honourable history, although often with mixed results. The current protests in Brazil have been the first major demonstrations since 1992, when people went onto the streets to demand the removal of the then President, Fernando Collor, whose impeachment subsequently happened. Today’s protests are similar and different in some major respects: as so often is the case, the protesters are young, many of them being university students. But the targets of the protests have been diverse, from the hikes in bus and metro prices to Brazil’s inadequate standards of health, education and security against crime. One way of reading the current events is that participants are in fact involved in a series of multi-functional protests, each group projecting onto the demonstrations their own agenda. Earlier today, this fact was perhaps reflected in the current government’s announcement that a series of initiatives would address transport, education, fiscal responsibility, the political system and healthcare. Those Brazilians I have spoken to about the government’s response remain sceptical – one strategy to fix the hospital system is to draft into Brazil a host of Cuban doctors, but this is hardly a credible solution to the problem of access to adequate medical treatment. But it is perhaps indicative of a dialogue beginning between protesters and the government.

One side-effect of the current protests has been to make me feel old. Popular demonstrations obviously stretch back well beyond my lifetime, but it is with some alarm that I realise that I have actually lived through numerous waves of protest movements, from the civil rights and anti-war demos in 1960s America and the student strikes in France in May 1968, which, as a child, I watched on my parents’ black-and-white television, to the ‘rock against racism’ and CND protests that I occasionally participated in when I was a student in the 1970s. Then there were the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, when the world, for me, really did change. In 1988-9 I worked in the then Soviet Union , and subsequently had a chance to visit a number of post-Soviet bloc countries, and to share the local amazement at the speed at which old assumptions had crumbled, and the nervousness people felt about the new regimes. More recently, of course, there has been the Arab Spring, whose effects are still uncertain and the variable consequences of which will be with us for some time. Many of the features of these earlier protest movements are layered onto the present Brazilian demonstrations – from the students’ retro-fitted slogans, and their Portuguese translations of 1960s protest anthems by singers like Bob Dylan, to the sophisticated use of 21st century social media to gather support for, organise, comment on and debate the events, literally as they happen. As a detached observer, watching the Brazilian demonstrations, I feel the weight of all the popular protests that have gone before, as well as the novel twists added to this one, and I wonder if or how the series of challenges to the status quo will ultimately be met.

Intercultural language education, by its very nature, encourages critical cultural awareness, and the relationship between ILE and active citizenship has been the subject of several book-length studies, for example those written or edited by Geof Alred, Mike Byram, Manuela Guilherme, Audrey Osler and Hugh Starkey. None of them, so far as I recall, directly prepares learners for taking to the streets to challenge the government policies of the day (though several certainly address the kind of political issues that underlie the protests). Many English teachers, in my experience, and perhaps particularly British expatriates like me, express some anxiety at the idea of interfering in local political situations: we are supposed to be teaching language, not social activism. And yet it is difficult, even perverse, to keep out of the intercultural language classroom those current events that clearly impinge on issues at the heart of the intercultural curriculum: e.g. fair access to educational opportunities, effective access to healthcare for those that need it, and a political class that serves rather than steals from the people it represents.

A reasonable question is how to address these burning issues practically in a language classroom. There are some obvious ways in which current events can be linked to traditional classroom activities: with much of the world’s English-language media available on the internet, the teacher can ask learners to compare reports of local events from the perspective of the press and television in different countries, from Australia to Zimbabwe. A more creative activity is to ask learners what slogans they would put on English-language banners to show to the world’s journalists; for example, how would they complement: ‘It’s about: Respect Health Education Security!’

But what about those layers of history? In a conference paper from the turbulent 1990s, Alan Pulverness suggests mining literature and popular culture for what he calls ‘sound bites’. He suggests that teachers can select passages from fiction, poetry, songs and drama to dramatise four things (i) the culture of a period, (ii) the social attitudes of an era, (iii) political values and (iv) language and manners. Relevant and dramatic non-literary texts, like memoirs, essays and travel writing, can also be combined with literary texts.

In my introduction to intercultural approaches to ELT I suggest that learners consider one ‘soundbite’ that may be as relevant to today’s Brazil as it was to Victorian Britain when it was composed – it is from Sybil, a novel by Benjamin Disraeli, himself a politician who became Prime Minister. In this passage, one character is explaining the nature of the country to another:

‘Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, of inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.’
‘You speak of –’ said Egremont, hesitatingly.

To leap forward a century, and across the Atlantic, we can read this passage by Abbie Hoffman, who helped engineer some of the social protests of the 1960s in America. It is reprinted in Norman Mailer’s journalistic account of Miami and the Siege of Chicago:

‘A Constitutional Convention is being planned … visionary mind-benders who will for five long days and nights address themselves to the task of formulating the goals and means of the New Society.
It will be a blend of technologists and poets, of artists and community organizers, of anyone who has a vision. We will try to develop a Community of Consciousness.’

It may, of course, be objected that the rich and the poor are still with us, indeed are further apart than ever, and that Hoffman’s techno-poetic community of consciousness slid slowly into the neo-conservative USA of the 1980s. And that is true: social change is notoriously difficult to deliver, and there are songs and literature that speak of the disillusionment of protest, like The Who’s ‘Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss’ from ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, and more extensive literary insights into the ways that old regimes manage to hang onto power and privilege. My own favourite of the latter is Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa’s novel about Garibaldi’s revolution, ‘The Leopard’, in which we are shown in considerable detail how ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’

So: a whole variety of soundbites from literary and non-literary texts can inform and deepen our understanding of current events, and might be used in the intercultural language classroom. But perhaps for the students, still out on the streets on this rainy midwinter’s night in Sao Paulo, the most useful sound bite is from the folk song, adapted from a hymn and then sung during the civil rights movements of the 50s and 60s to sustain hope and determination:

Keep your eyes on the prize:
Hold on.

Further reading:

Alred, G. (2006). Education for intercultural citizenship: concepts and comparisons. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Byram, M. (2008). From foreign language education to education for intercultural citizenship: Essays and reflections. Bristol: Multilingual matters.

Corbett, J. (2003). An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Guilherme, M. (2002). Critical citizens for an intercultural world: Foreign language education as cultural politics. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Osler, A., & Starkey, H. (2005). Citizenship and language learning: International perspectives. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham books.

Pulverness, A. (1996). Worlds within words: Literature and British cultural studies. In David A. Hill (ed.) Papers on teaching literature from The British Council’s conferences in Bologna 1994 and Milan 1995. Rome: The British Council


Watching the Brazilians

Watching the Brazilians

Intercultural teachers and learners need to develop a good eye. The whole idea of ‘loafing and lurking’ is to help develop techniques of practical ethnography that alert language learners to the many little surface similarities and differences between cultures, points of comparison that can speak of deeper patterns of belief and attitude. In my own case, my Brazilian wife and I have different attitudes towards washing dishes. She squirts some washing-up liquid onto a sponge, runs tepid water from a tap, and rinses the dishes as she washes. I grew up scrubbing dishes in a plastic bowl of boiling, soapy water; you had to wear rubber gloves to prevent your fingers from being scalded. I lifted the dishes onto a rack and let the soap suds run down the plates as they dried.

My wife hates this way of doing dishes. ‘The food will taste of soap,’ she complains, which is nonsense. I hate her way of doing dishes. ‘The germs will survive,’ I complain, which is nonsense. We adhere to our own assumptions about taste and hygiene, neither of which has much basis in reality. So we have developed an intercultural compromise, which is: I wash dishes her way and try not to think about it.

Scholarly ethnography offers detailed descriptions of patterns of behaviour and belief in given communities, descriptions based on years of work by trained participant-observers who systematically record social rituals and probe belief systems. Popular ethnography tends to be written in a tongue-in-cheek fashion to give natives a pleasurable shock of self-recognition, or to mock the practices of a particular group of people – or both. Some popular accounts are written by professionals, like Kate Fox’s Watching the English, which exposed ‘the hidden rules of English behaviour’ (and is particularly good on pub etiquette) and Joe Moran’s Queuing for Beginners, which takes everyday routine and subjects it to anthropological scrutiny (particularly good on office life). Sometimes popular ethnographies are written by outsiders, sojourners who happen to have a keen sense of observation and notice things about the culture in which they are living. Ron Martinez’ idiosyncratic phrase books How to Say Anything in English and Como Dizer Tudo em Portugues contain nuggets of useful ethnographic detail – for those, like me, struggling to converse with Brazilians, he recommends not waiting for the pause that Anglophones expect to hear as a cue to speak. It will never come. Instead you have to develop the flexibility (or, in Portuguese, jogo de cintura) to dive into conversations and not be afraid to talk over your interlocutor’s contributions. It’s not as rude as you think it is.

Popular ethnographies can be tongue-in-cheek and some slide towards stereotyping and mockery. But even then they often contain sharp observations, and in the intercultural classroom they can be used to begin discussions and as prompts for learning tasks – such as writing a more accurate guide to local customs and behaviour for visitors. One tongue-in-cheek ethnography recently doing the rounds of Facebook was a Frenchman, Olivier Teboul’s 65-point list of ‘Brazilian Curiosities’, published in a blog he keeps about life in Belo Horizonte. Not all of them are politically correct, some are clearly stereotypical, but some are observations about life in Brazil that will strike any observer as acute and accurate. My top 10 of his points (in my own stumbling translation) are:

1. Here in Brazil, you can’t touch food with your hands. In MacDonalds, the hamburger comes inside a napkin. Every table in a bar, restaurant or luncheonette has a distributor of napkins and toothpicks. But these napkins are almost like plastic, neither soft nor agreeable. The object is not to clean your hands or your mouth but it’s to take the food in your hands, without leaving the paper either on the food or on your hands.
2. Here in Brazil, couples sit one beside the other in bars or restaurants, as if they were sitting on a train.
3. Here in Brazil, there’s always a priest speaking on the television or the radio.
4. Here in Brazil, life proceeds slowly. It’s normal to be stuck in traffic for an entire day. But don’t fall asleep at the traffic lights. There you have to be fast, and start going before the light turns green. It doesn’t matter if there aren’t many people behind you or if they are not in a hurry. Likewise, it is normal to spend 10 minutes in a supermarket queue even though there is only one person in front of you. They will slowly pass the goods across, and often the person on the till has to enter the barcodes by hand or ask another worker to look for the price of an article. But when it comes to taking your credit card from the machine, again you have to be quick. It’s no joke, if you don’t take back your card promptly, the same girl on the till who took 10 minutes to scan 10 articles will speak to you severely to speed you up: ‘You can take the card!’
5. Here in Brazil there is a place called the ‘public notary office’. It’s a great invention to steal your money and waste your time: you can spend hours doing things like certifying a copy (that nobody is really going to look at) or confirming that your signature is indeed your signature.
6. Here in Brazil, music is an essential part of life. There is live music everywhere. Many Brazilians know how to play the guitar, although not many people ask them to do so. They have many talented musicians, but not many play their own music. The bars are full of cover bands.
7. Here in Brazil, the soap operas are more important than the movies. But the national cinema is good.
8. Here in Brazil, there is no shortage of space. They say the country is the size of a continent. And it’s true: you could fit all of humanity into Brazil. But then, if there is so much space, why are the parking spaces in the garages so close together? Why does the concept of hunting for a parking space even exist?
9. Here in Brazil, Brazilians brush their teeth in the office after lunch.
10. Here in Brazil, the thumbs-up sign means anything: ‘OK?’ ‘Thanks!’ ‘Sorry!’

How accurate is this? Well, as they say here, it’s mais o menos ‘more or less’. But at least it can get a class of Brazilian learners of English talking about their own culture, paying closer attention to it, and thinking about how it might appear to others. If the learners are part of an online community doing intercultural exchanges, these kinds of popular ethnography can be used as the basis for email interactions: my own feeling, for example, is that the kind of supermarket behaviour described in point 4 above is fairly universal. But is it?

The great Scottish poet, Robert Burns, once wrote the lines:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion…

Or: ‘O would some Power give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us! It would free us from many a blunder and foolish notion…’

It could almost be an anthem for intercultural language studies.

Further reading

Fox, Kate (2005). Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour. London: Hodder and Stoughton

Martinez, Ron (2000). Como Dizer Tudo Em Ingles. Amsterdam: Elsevier

Martinez, Ron (2003). How to Say Anything in Portuguese/Como Dizer Tudo Em Portuguese. Amsterdam: Elsevier

Moran, Joe (2008). Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life From Breakfast to Bedtime. London: Profile Books.

Teboul, Olivier ‘Curiosidades Brasileiras’ at

Befriending new words: PIBIDing in Curitiba

Befriending new words: PIBIDing in Curitiba

At the weekend I attended a conference in Curitiba, organised by the Universidade Tecnológica Federal do Paraná (UTFPR) on the challenges of teaching English in public schools – or what I and fellow Brits would call state schools – in Brazil. The conference was specifically organised to showcase some of the work coming out of a Federal Government project called ‘PIBID’ or the Programa Institucional de Bolsas de Iniciação à Docência, which helps fund the involvement of undergraduate students of English in supporting classroom teachers in state schools. The students refer to themselves as PIBIDers, or sometimes PIBIDians, and they were presenting reports of their diverse work with the public school teachers – often on cultural topics.

I like conferences. Those who have researched conferences as opportunities for learning have suggested that the real educational work goes on before the event, between the presentations and afterwards – it does not necessarily go on during the presentations themselves. In other words, learning happens when we prepare our presentations, talk to people about our presentations, and follow up on other people’s presentations, when they are stimulating enough to inspire some follow-up. It’s a theory I subscribe to – the most exciting aspect of conferences, for me, is meeting people with similar goals and different approaches to attaining them, and getting infected by their enthusiasm. They are also an enjoyable way of catching up with old friends and colleagues.

Indeed, the opening speaker in Curitiba was an old acquaintance, Ron Martinez, now of San Francisco State University, who gave an entertaining and polished opening plenary on vocabulary acquisition. In a vivid extended metaphor, he likened the process of learning new words to developing networks of friends: we notice some people, but not others; interact with them frequently or infrequently, in multiple or limited contexts; and, finally, we engage with them in a deep or shallow fashion. So we remember their names to a greater or lesser extent. To encourage vocabulary acquisition, we need to encourage learners to notice words, refresh their acquaintance with them and, perhaps especially, find ways to engage learners with the concepts the words express. My argument, in my own presentation at the end of the day, was that English teachers can engage learners with words and their concepts at least partly through intercultural language tasks and projects, which involve learners in exploring aspects of their own and other cultures. Undergraduates who are in PIBID projects can partner teachers in devising such tasks, and they can support learners in accomplishing them.

In between the opening and closing sessions there was a sobering round table on the challenges facing teachers in public schools – a set of what people here like to call ‘provocations’, led by Miriam Retorta, Didiê Denardi and Vera Lúcia Lops Cristovão , all experienced and committed teacher educators. The challenges were partly theoretical – how do we encourage teachers and learners to move beyond vocabulary, grammar and the ‘four skills’ to address the multiple literacies needed for communication in the 21st century and the critical cultural awareness required for active citizenship? Many of these concerns again coincide, or at least overlap, with the issues raised in intercultural language education worldwide. The greatest challenges however, are practical and local to Brazil: public school teachers are shamefully poorly paid, and the classes they teach are over-large and under-resourced. Brazilian public schools work on a ‘shift’ system, so that one set of school children attend school in the morning and another in the afternoon (and sometimes yet another in the early evening). To make ends meet, public school teachers often have jobs at two, sometimes three, institutions. The dedication of these teachers is humbling to those of us privileged to teach in better working environments. In one of the more passionate ‘provocations’ of the round table, Vera Lúcia Lops Cristovão condemned the prevailing conditions and demanded action to improve the conditions in public schools. It is a call that has been heard before – in 2011 Amanda Gurgel, a teacher in Rio Grande do Norte, eloquently demanded better conditions for those people entrusted with educating Brazil’s youngsters. Sadly, initiatives such as PIBID, however worthy they may be in training undergraduates and supporting teachers, cannot hope to address a system that needs to be completely overhauled. Some argue that such initiatives are indeed window-dressing, designed to divert attention from the fundamental problems of a broken educational system. As Vera observed, the present administration’s ambitious plans to extend the school day in public schools will require a massive public investment in refurbishing school buildings and training more (and better renumerated) teachers, and there is a lot of understandable cynicism about whether the necessary funds will be forthcoming. The challenges of teaching English in public schools in Brazil are indeed daunting.

Happily, just as I was about to lose my faith in humanity, and tear up my own closing plenary as being trivial and pointless, the undergraduate PIBIDers from UTFPR Curitiba and Pato Branco, UEPG and UFPR came onstage to present their own work. Their enthusiasm, talent, commitment and youthful idealism were everywhere apparent, as was their endearing nervousness in presenting their own work in public, in English. They made a strong case for the value of experiential learning, as the often warring theoretical abstractions of social constructivism, critical pedagogy, genre theory and intercultural learning were levelled by the shared practical challenges of teaching English in a classroom. Their solutions to these challenges were humane and diverse and included:

• reading advertisements critically as a precursor to writing ethical propaganda
• reading, updating and blogging Aesop’s fables
• involving both adults and younger learners in shared learning endeavours using virtual learning environments like Edmodo
• using the web (and in particular the website to reach out across learning communities
• combining English and citizenship education through critical literacy.

Throughout, there was a real excitement in different forms of exploratory practice and evidence of mature reflection on the outcomes of the partnership between universities and participating schools. I came away inspired by the determination of these young educators, alongside their more experienced mentors and partners, to make a positive difference to the future of Brazil. I only hope Brazilian society eventually honours and rewards their determination.

Jordão, Clarissa Menezes, et al (2013) O PIBID-UFPR Nas Aulas de Inglês Campinas: Pontes

PIBID blog:

On the challenges of teaching in Brazilian state schools: (2010) (2011)