Teaching Portuguese as a Third Language

It’s been a while since I last blogged. I’ve been delving into the literature of vocabulary learning and testing, material development and the role of reading and listening that I hardly ever have any time to sit and write. Besides I got involved with a group of immigrants from Africa two months ago, some of them who have become close friends to our family.

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My mother-in-law with our new friends – July 2014

They are all working now and the more in contact they are with Brazilians, more they feel the need to learn Portuguese. Nothing more natural then to volunteer to teach them. In order for that to happen, I had to make lots of decisions on what to teach and how to teach them in order to maximize their learning experience.

The difference between teaching ESL and EFL

These terms don’t seem to make much sense to me because for me both are learning/ acquiring a language other than your native language. But there are advantages to be learning a language in the target country and that could be quite obvious if it wasn’t for a little detail: no matter where you learn it, it depends on how much effort you put into it and how much instruction you receive about the language either in a formal or informal setting. I have blogged before of how much I learned from people around me when I lived in London and in Alexandria. In Alexandria I couldn’t find a school to teach me Arabic but I found lots of people willing to help me learn their language and understand their culture. The UN employee who lived in the building next to mine taught me about the local culture and the DOs and DON’Ts. My ex-husband’s family who could speak English well also gave me their version of DOS and DON’Ts plus preaching me Islam. My neighbors taught me the alphabet, the sounds of the words, how to write and curiously asked away about my culture. But it was with the lady who cleaned and cooked that I learned most of the phrases and vocabulary I needed to get by on a daily basis. I also read the Quran in English and Arabic with help of someone, and discussed it with everyone around me. Mind you I wasn’t a follower of any religion which made me tackle certain uneasy issues like women’s rights just for what it was the women’s right to be treated with respect. I loved Egypt and its people. I wish one day to go back for a visit.

It didn’t take long before I could use the language in basic conversations. In England things weren’t much different apart from the issue of culture which didn’t seem to be so different from Brazil. The process was basically the same, but I attended school and it was much easier to learn English on my own, and asking for help when it was needed as the written system was the same as mine. Going to school was cool!

The advantage is clear contact with the language is really important. However, it is quite normal for immigrants to start working without being able to speak the language and start earning money. They usually live in small communities and the ones who do learn help others in their daily needs. When I moved to both countries I wasn’t in contact with a Brazilian community, but in constant contact with foreigners so I had to learn it in one way or the other.

Whether someone learns it in the target country or not, the motivation or need to engage with the target language needs to be present at all times.

The same thing happens here. Although given the chance to learn Portuguese, few are content to be working, depending on others and play soccer instead of going to class. The ones that do come to class are highly motivated and engaged in the process.

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After practicing with flashcards with the whole group, they were divided in threes to test each other. Main aim of the lesson was spelling, expanding vocabulary and learning strategies.

What to learn and How

The importance of building vocabulary is clear to me now. Without vocabulary, grammar can’t really sink in. The more learners are able to understand what they hear and read, the better they will get at undestanding how language works. How I learned English and Arabic never really translated into the classroom as I believed that as ESL and EFL were very different the way to teach would be too. In terms of exposure to the language yeah, but regarding instruction not so much as I have realized now in contact with teachers around the world. In the past, the only way to immerse was through traveling to the country. Nowadays the internet creates all the possible ways for immersion without leaving your sofa. I believe that guidance is important though. Being in contact with the language is cool, but without any instruction the process gets just as long and painful as if you were learning a language in a foreign country. Once we get past through the basics of it and can understand speech, things start to make more sense and knowledge builds itself up. Slowly or fast is just a matter of how much one really wants to master it.

I believe in the role of teaching, either in a formal or an informal environmental, instruction is needed to develop an understanding of the language. I used to ask people around me about things I didn’t understand how it worked and practiced it as much as possible, by listening carefully, noticing when reading and trying to use in speech I developed very fast. You can’t do it without someone who will guide you through it. Videos can do part of the job, but dialoguing is key for the process. I have always being a self-directed learner. I knew what I wanted and I looked for those around me to help me out. I also think that I can be the same for my students if I give them the space they need to ask questions and think together on what to do next.

Paulo Freire and Andragogy

Talking about dialoguing, through Paulo Freire’s work I learned that in order to develop literacy it was necessary to develop a program that consider language that was useful for the group of people (the students) who should not be considered receivers but co-designers. It is through them and for them that teaching is there, so nothing more obvious that take into consideration what they need and want. However, Freire was refering to adults that could already speak the language and that should be given the right to literacy. He believed that being able to read and write were paramount for developing one’s citizenship which I totally agree given the fact that one without being able to read are excluded from the most basic needs in a society like ours. In order to make reading more meaningful and thinking critically about reality, Freire used the group’s own lexical as a starting point.

Although my Ghanians students need to learn the meaning as well as being able to recognizing it in speech, they can do all these while learning to read and write. Paulo Freire’s method of literacy proposes a framework that I found to be very useful.

As you see in the video, the words are related to the students context. For this course I chose vocabulary and phrases that are likely to need in order to get by on a daily basis: greeting, meeting people, going shopping, taking the public transportantion, asking for directions, etc… as they share more and more of what they feel they need to learn in order to fully engage in social interactions, they give me more information of what to include in the program.

How things are going so far

 My husband has been assisting me so I have another pair of eyes and ears which helps me not miss anything. Let me say that having someone there is so valuable. My husband sits on the side and points out things that I have missed or misunderstood, and his feedback after the class is always so important. While I am totally engaged in the teaching, he makes sure that we register moments of it by taking pictures or filming.

So far, so great! 🙂 I’m grateful for such a great opportunity to put into practice all that I have studied in my Pedagogies studies which focus on Literacy for children and adults. I just never thought I would need to make the link between the both – Pedagogy degree in Education and EFL experience.

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