Thanks to Wells Fargo, Carolinas HealthCare System, Bank of America, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and SunTrust, I was able to travel to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for two weeks in July of 2017.
I applied through the World Affairs Council of Charlotte for this travel grant because over the past few years teaching English as a Second Language in Title I elementary schools in CMS, I had noticed that Charlotte was experiencing an influx of Brazilian families with very few Portuguese-language resources to assist in their transition. When families would arrive, I would try to speak Spanish with them as the two languages are fairly similar. However, though the families were gracious, this exchange would often prove very difficult. (Now I understand why!) When awarded the grant, I made sure that my fluency in Spanish would be a help in the language-learning process, and found a school that offered Portuguese classes for Spanish speakers. What I soon discovered, however, is that while Spanish and Portuguese have many grammatical similarities and might be easily understood when read, the spoken version of both languages is so disparate that conversation really must happen in the same language. I’m so grateful to be given the opportunity not only to study but to come to that realization through intensive Portuguese classes. I believe that had I not learned any Portuguese at all, just coming to this epiphany would have been a huge help to Brazilian families, and I intend to share this finding with the staff at my school. Looking back now on exchanges that I had with Brazilian families, I’m sure that they were confused and a bit frustrated that their language was lumped in so much with Spanish, the dominant second language in our region.
When awarded the grant, I made sure that my fluency in Spanish would be a help in the language-learning process, and found a school that offered Portuguese classes for Spanish speakers. What I soon discovered, however, is that while Spanish and Portuguese have many grammatical similarities and might be easily understood when read, the spoken version of both languages is so disparate that conversation really must happen in the same language. I’m so grateful to be given the opportunity not only to study but to come to that realization through intensive Portuguese classes. I believe that had I not learned any Portuguese at all, just coming to this epiphany would have been a huge help to Brazilian families, and I intend to share this finding with the staff at my school. Looking back now on exchanges that I had with Brazilian families, I’m sure that they were confused and a bit frustrated that their language was lumped in so much with Spanish, the dominant second language in our region.
Though Spanish and Portuguese are very different, especially in vocabulary and pronunciation, it also must be said that knowing Spanish was helpful in learning Portuguese. Conjugating verbs was a familiar practice, and many of the tenses are used the same way in both languages (with some notable exceptions). Because everyone in our class spoke Spanish, we were able to cover a new verb tense every day and put it into practice right away. This is unheard of in language acquisition, and would even be considered bad practice. However, our teacher knew that we could handle it and would go away from the classes with the base we needed to continue our studies on our own.
As for how my trip to Brazil will affect my practice in the classroom, I’ve already mentioned one way in which it will change my interactions with Portuguese-speaking parents. I will greet them entirely in Portuguese and will continue my studies here in Charlotte in order to eventually conduct parent meetings in Portuguese. I will also share my experiences with my new colleagues at Renaissance West, in the hopes that one or two of them will join me in starting to learn Portuguese to make our school as welcoming as possible.
Impact on Professional Development
How will my trip to Rio de Janeiro impact my career and interactions with my students?
Though there may be some unintended benefits (improved cultural competence, etc.) I feel the most obvious benefits will come in the form of language and interactions with a.) newcomer students from Brazil and b.) all families from Brazil, whether or not their student is yet proficient in English.
When English as a Second Language students arrive in the classroom, they arrive either as first time immigrants to the country or as is most often the case, they were born here and raised in a home wherein English was not spoken. In the former case, students must confront not only a new language, but also new customs, new people, new food, new routines. In the latter case, students most often find it easier to adapt. For the parents and families of these students however, this may very well be the first interaction they’ve had with a public office in their new country. There are so many official documents, forms and requirements for enrolling a child in school, and it can often seem daunting. The biggest reason that I applied for the World Affairs Council Scholar grant to learn Portuguese was to assist children in feeling comfortable with this huge transition. However, it must be said that the parents are often frightened as well. I wanted to find ways to make them feel more comfortable also, and learning Portuguese was the biggest factor.
Personal Growth as an Educator
There is nothing like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes to put you in your place, and that proved to be true when I (the teacher) became the student in Brazil. Learning Portuguese was fun, at times frustrating, difficult and eye-opening. I found myself wanting to throw in the towel more than once or searching for a word to get my point across, or reaching for a dictionary.
This experience, of being in a classroom again and attempting to learn a second language after not having it done it for so long was invigorating, and it gave me a sense of empathy that I hadn’t lost for my students, but which I had redirected to all of the other issues that so many of them face. It was wonderful to face that challenge again, and I believe that I will go into this next year of teaching with a renewed sense of patience and respect for everything that my students go through, including having to learn a new language.
Overall there were very few issues when it came to studying in Brazil, and perhaps this was due to my extensive prior travel within Latin America. However, all cultures are different and unique in their own way, and Brazil proved to be no different. One of the largest issues that I noted was that even though Rio de Janeiro was broken up into smaller, manageable neighborhoods (much like Charlotte) it was difficult to find someone within that neighborhood that could help with directions. On my first full day, I was looking for a grocery store so that I could purchase some staples to buy to cook in my homestay apartment. The mother there, Dahlia, had let me borrow her membership card to a specific neighborhood store so that I would benefit from her discount. Walking downstairs, I realized I hadn’t gotten directions from her, but figured I could practice some Portuguese (mixed with Spanish of course) and headed to the local bread shop to ask for directions. No one at the bread shop knew where the grocery store was, so I went outside to the newspaper kiosk. Same thing! This was not an isolated incident either- there were other times when I needed directions and the locals living and working in the neighborhoods couldn’t help me. I don’t believe it was out of any malice, or coming from a place of not wanting to help a foreigner. They seemed just as perplexed as I was, and I found this odd and a little frustrating. Beyond this small hiccup, I had no problems in Brazil and found everyone to be nice and the city to be beyond beautiful.
While in Rio de Janeiro, I was able to use the afternoons after class to visit many amazing sights around the city. Sugarloaf mountain provided an amazing jungle hike with small monkeys swinging in the trees and views of the beach all the way up. Once at the top, I took a cable car that swung between two mountains to reach one of the most amazing sunsets I had ever seen.
Living four blocks from Ipanema beach allowed me to take long walks in the afternoons as well, or take my homework out to the beach and conjugate verbs while I watched some fairly intense beach volleyball! The school provided many activities as well, such as a samba class, a cooking class, bicycle tour of the city and a conversation class. My teacher, Grazielle, advised the class not to go into the neighborhood of Santa Teresa alone, so I signed up for a walking tour of the area in order to be able to experience it safely.
Luckily, I have a friend from high school who is Brazilian and who lives in Rio de Janeiro. She came to my high school (North Mecklenburg) to study for a year our senior year, and we have stayed in touch thanks to social media. She showed me around to some of her favorite spots in Rio, including a great place to gather and watch the sunset in a different part of the city. She also took me to Cristo, the most famous sight in Rio by far.
Beyond what the city had to offer, I knew that I wanted to buy a ticket to go see Iguazu Falls, on the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Though it took a flight and a lot of driving to reach the falls, they were beyond worth the trip and the trouble and ended up being one of the most beautiful natural sights I have ever seen in my life. It also happened that I was there on my birthday.
The trip to Iguazu was so special. There were times, walking around on the boardwalk above the falls that I got teary-eyed and overcome. They were so immense, and I was feeling so grateful to have been given the opportunity to be in such a beautiful place.
It is clear to anyone that has gone through the process of learning a second language that two weeks of immersion is not enough, and to sincerely learn and begin to grasp the language the process is a continual one. I returned home on a Monday night, and on Thursday evening I was at the International House in Charlotte to attend their Portuguese conversation hour. It was a wonderful experience. In years past, I had attended the Spanish conversation hour in the evenings and though that was also a great way to practice, it was mostly listening as there could be anywhere from 30-50 people in the room. However, with Portuguese, there were only 6, one of them being a native of Brazil who is here visiting his brother for the summer. There was ample opportunity to practice speaking, and already I felt myself refreshing what I had learned. I plan on continuing to attend the conversation hour so that I am able to really communicate with parents and students at my school.
Thank you so much to all involved in the World Affairs Council of Charlotte for allowing me to participate in such a wonderful program. I’m beyond grateful, and can’t wait to welcome my first Brazilian family in their native language!