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Portuguese through an Independent Lens

Kristal Bivona examines an approach to overcome the inherent imperialism of European language education

As language teachers, we spend hours preparing our classes, planning our class time to the minute, and creating our own activities, hoping that our students will connect with the target language and culture. Some institutions focus almost exclusively on what happens inside the classroom and on the assignment of homework—after all planning a course is a lot of work. Meanwhile, other institutions have the means to create programs that go beyond classroom instruction, incorporating course requirements that occur outside of class and offering students more opportunities to use their burgeoning language skills.

I recently had the opportunity to teach in one such Portuguese program at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. As part of the Claremont Colleges Consortium, which is composed of Claremont McKenna College, Scripps College, Pitzer College, Pomona College, and Harvey Mudd College, the Portuguese program is composed of different courses and faculty from different campuses and pools resources so that students get the most out of them. It is important to recognize that the Claremont College Consortium is privately funded and enjoys a generous allocation of resources relative to other institutions, such as public colleges and universities. Therefore, some of the features of the program highlighted below are not realistically attainable for all new language programs. Many aspects of the program were planned and carried out by a Fulbright language teaching assistant, who was a key asset to the program as well.

Portuguese instruction faces some challenges that are by no means unique to Portuguese but also affect the instruction of other imperialist languages, such as English, Spanish, and French. One such challenge is the underrepresentation of cultures and peoples who identify as indigenous and African. Of course, this gross underrepresentation is not limited to language-teaching materials, nor is it occurring in a vacuum within the field of education—it is pandemic in cultural production from formerly imperial or colonized places everywhere, as evident, for example, in the lack of cultural and racial diversity in film and television. As a result, language teachers often present a version of the target culture that misrepresents the reality of the places about which they are teaching. In the case of Portuguese, which faces a dearth of published teaching materials compared to other imperialist languages, textbooks present a whitened Brazil, only mentioning Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous culture and history as side notes.

As instructors, if we want our students to have a deeper engagement with underrepresented groups in the target culture, we need to get creative.
The program at the Claremont Consortium is exemplary in building in opportunities for the students to practice Portuguese outside of the classroom and to learn about Afro-Brazilian culture, research, and experiences. Portuguese-language tables were offered three times a week at different locations on campus. Students from all of the Portuguese sections came and could speak Portuguese over lunch.

Each lunch was presided over by an instructor or the teaching assistant. Furthermore, the Fulbright teaching assistant offered a different workshop or film screening each week. She arranged times for each section based on student schedules. Some of the topics she addressed were Portuguese for Spanish speakers, pronunciation, and preterit versus imperfect. Students were not required to attend Portuguese lunches, but they were required to attend a certain number of workshops over the course of the semester. The teaching assistant also planned and threw parties and arranged a field trip to nearby Los Angeles to see a theatrical production by a Brazilian playwright. Additionally, Pitzer College professor Juanita Aristizábal organized an Afro-Brazilian Speakers Series, which took place over the course of the semester.

The first installment of the series hosted faculty and administration from the Instituto Cultural Steve Biko, an important institution for the Afro-Brazilian student community in Salvador, Bahia, that offers courses in civics, college preparation, foreign language, and writing. Named after the South African anti-apartheid activist murdered by the police in 1977, Steve Biko is also the host school for the Pitzer College study abroad program for Portuguese students. The event had the twofold purpose of educating the students about the university system, affirmative action, and social exclusion while also promoting the study abroad program and telling them about the institute where they could study.

On a day during which the college hosted a speaker for the Afro-Brazilian Speakers Series, the main talk was scheduled during the beginning Portuguese section, given in English, and open to the public. The goal for the beginner students was to teach them about Brazil and the Afro-Brazilian experience. The speakers attended the Portuguese-language table, during which students could further connect with the speakers.

The speakers also visited an advanced class and gave a more informal talk and led a discussion about their topics in Portuguese. The students, guest speakers, and faculty all enjoyed the Afro-Brazilian Speakers Series very much, while learning about Brazil and Brazilian studies in a meaningful and unforgettable way.

The Claremont Consortium program engaged with the Steve Biko Institute in a multifaceted way—aside from the study abroad program at the institute, the administration and faculties visited Pitzer to participate in the Afro-Brazilian Speakers Series, while Steve Biko students and Claremont Consortium students also connected through a virtual, community-based learning course.

Consortium students received credit for this course, in which they were each connected with a Brazilian student with whom they kept in touch via the internet and video chat. On campus, they met and discussed what they had learned from their new Brazilian friends as a group. Many of the students who participated kept in touch after the end of the term, and some even met in person. This course was popular with the students and fostered a sense of community between the two cohorts.

The study abroad component through the Instituto Steve Biko is on their campus in Salvador, Bahia. Like the South African activist for whom the institute is named, the Instituto Steve Biko aims to promote Afro-Brazilian consciousness and social justice while fighting racism. The institute serves the community in Salvador by offering courses for college entrance exam preparation (pré-vestibular), civics and citizenship, critical race theory, STEM, and English.

The summer program affords students an opportunity to learn Portuguese, take part in cultural events, visit institutions of social movements, and work closely with Steve Biko students of college-prep English. Students have opportunities for internships and service learning. The institute also plans a series of speakers to speak about issues of race and gender in Brazil. The study abroad program through the institute offers a level of engagement with the target culture and community that is rare.

The opportunity to study at the Steve Biko Institute and the many extracurricular hours during which students can practice their language make the Claremont Consortium Portuguese program unique, successful, and a pivotal experience for students in their college careers. The experience teaching there gave me strategies for not only incorporating cultural information so that my students take with them a more diverse perspective of the lusophone world and Brazil that is more reflective of reality, but also inspired me to consider how to coax students into using the language outside of class and to foster a community-based education experience.

Kristal Bivona is a PhD candidate in Hispanic languages and literatures at UCLA.

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