Brazil 2010: No Football Glory, But A Great Conference
July 23, 2010 3 Comments
I’m just back from the Braz-Tesol conference and trade show which this year took place in Sao Paulo, and I want to quickly get things into writing while everything’s still fresh in my mind. It was my first time in Brazil, and my first impressions are of a country on the cusp of a real breakthrough in adopting English as a generalized second language, not least as a side-effect of Brazil’s growing export-oriented economy and in anticipation of the World Cup and Olympic games to be organized here later in the decade.
A few EFL-related observations: first of all, Brazilian teachers of English seem to have zero issues with American vs British English: I heard plenty of both (in the context of generally very high English proficiency) at the conference. The consensus among both delegates and speakers seemed to be that learners should be exposed to all variants of the language and be able to function in “Globish” regardless of the origins of their conversational partners.
Secondly, I was surprised by the presence and clout of the big home-grown language-teaching franchises – CNA, Cultura Inglesa, Alumni, Wink, and Casa Thomas Jefferson, just to mention a few – who don’t seem to have left much breathing room for the global multi-school or franchise players like Berlitz or Wall Street Institute. That said, small and medium-sized language institutes from all over this vast country sent teachers to the event, which probably benefits from the rarity value of being held only every two years. Brazil is clearly a honey-pot for the big publishers and for the British Council as well, with investments in stands, staffing and imported star speakers even more significant than those at IATEFL earlier this year.
In terms of innovation, I was interested to see the efforts being made in the public education sector, in particular the Centro Interscolar de Linguas in Brasilia, which runs a network of state language schools attended by over 30,000 students and was presented by Claudia Arantes Batista during the well-attended EdTech Special Interest Group meeting. Brazil also seems to be a leader in the practice of partnerships between high schools (both state and private) and language institutes, something which might be a valid approach in some Southern European countries where state sector secondary school teaching of English leaves much to be desired.
I was impressed by the number of Brazilian teachers using film clips to illustrate grammar concepts, and attended a particularly impressive workshop on this topic given by Claudio Azevedo of Casa Thomas Jefferson. The subject of Teaching Teens was also addressed by several speakers (the English Attack! presentation is here ) and proved popular with delegates, as did – as is now the norm for these conferences – any talk or workshop incorporating the key words “technology” or “social media” in its title.
On a personal note, I had the immense pleasure of finally meeting several Twitter friends from Brazil face-to-face, including Fernando Guarany, Willy Cardoso, Rafael Medeiros, Deniliso Lima, and the irrepressible “Junior” from Natal, all truly great guys whom I got to know a lot better at the fun MacMillan party on the Wednesday night. I travelled back to Paris with a notebook crammed with scribbled notes, new friendships, about a dozen new ideas for English Attack!, and a much better idea of what a good Caipirinha tastes like (and when I should stop drinking them).
A word about the plenary talks. I was attending the conference in parallel with some business meetings, so attended only about half of these sessions, but most of those I attended were excellent: David Crystal’s hilarious tales of his globe-trotting experiences, for example, but also the more academic presentation given by Donald Freeman of the University of Michigan, who gave an very smart talk on the need for EFL teachers to protect and promote their professional status by developing a profession-specific lexicon and teaching-specific assessment systems comparable to those used, say, by airline pilots or medical doctors. There is a clear pattern emerging for the proper role of plenary session speakers at this type of conference: that of the speaker either as entertainer, or as original thinker with useful pedagogical insights, or, ideally, both. Those speakers who fall neither into one category nor the other – and I did sit through a couple such talks in Sao Paulo – need to “find a new shtick,” as they say in Brooklyn.
In general the conference was extremely well run, with a smooth registration process; sessions starting and ending on time; video projectors working as intended; and a wide range of speakers and topics. There was some carping about the absence of Wi-Fi internet access at the venue, but I’m ambivalent about the inconvenience caused: at times I missed being able to connect with the outside world, but being cut off probably also resulted in delegates more tuned-in to the speakers and less engaged with Tweet Deck. So congratulations to Vinnie Nobre, to Braz-Tesol, and to the numerous volunteer Minders (all teachers of English themselves) for organizing a memorable conference. Something tells me I will be visiting Brazil more often in the coming months and years.
How to end this little post-conference stream of consciousness? In the final plenary talk, Jeremy Harmer gave a typically congenial, charismatic and thought-provoking presentation on the subject of “endings,” one that for me raised the bar on how to choose an appropriate closing for anything, even a humble blog post. I started worrying about this a couple days ago, as the notion of writing about the conference began to form in my mind, and then last night, at 3am while jet lag did its worst on my sleeping patterns, providence came to my assistance while I was hopping from channel to channel on the television in an effort to bore myself back to sleep. I happened to stumble upon a documentary – in English! – on brain plasticity fronted by Dr. Normal Doidge, author of “The Brain That Changes Itself.” It powerfully presented, through a handful of amazing case studies, the emerging science of investigating and manipulating the brain’s ability to learn new functions and competences through stimulation and repetition, and detailed the brain’s amazing ability to find alternate neural pathways when the most obvious ones are dysfunctional, damaged or, in the incredible story of a girl literally born with half a brain, inexistent.
As I had incorporated the subject of brain plasticity into my talk on Wednesday, I stayed awake for the entire film and by the end of it understood more clearly that we are just beginning to understand how profoundly we can influence what and how the brain learns, for any individual, in any condition of health, and at any age. I guess it is this message of discovery and faith in the future that allows me to select, from the many possible styles of ending amusingly illustrated during his talk, Harmer’s “ending of hope” option, and I look forward both to investigating this field further in the context of language learning, and to a continued and mutually beneficial teaching, learning and life dialogue with my new Brazilian friends. To everyone I met there: Obrigado!