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Editorial NRInglês

INTERVIEW- with Antonieta Megale

Troika: Hi, Antonieta. Thank you for agreeing to give us this interview. It is an honor to have you with us. Let’s start with your professional journey. What brought you to where you are now, perhaps the most prominent specialist in bilingual education in Brazil. Did you begin teaching in language programs, like most of us? What sparked your interest in bilingual education?

Antonieta Megale: Hello, Isabela! Thanks for the opportunity to share with you a little about my journey. I was living in Canada, where I studied and played basketball. Then I had a serious knee injury and had to quit playing it. I was 20 at that time. As I could not afford to continue living in Canada without playing, I returned to Brazil and had to find a job. The first job I got was to teach business English in some companies. Then the company I was working for provided me with a student who told me his wife was opening a bilingual school and asked me if I wanted to get to know the school. After working for a few months teaching business English, I was then hired to teach 1-year-old kids in this bilingual school. It is important to mention that I had studied marketing and, therefore, was not qualified to be a teacher.

The first week was a complete disaster and I decided to quit. I was convinced by them that I should try a little longer and they started giving me lots of support. As I knew I did not have enough knowledge to teach, I decided I needed a degree in Education, and I started another four-year undergraduate course. I used to work for the bilingual school in the mornings and afternoons and go to college in the evenings. As I wanted to make more money, I started teaching English on Saturdays in a language institute. It was when I realized I also needed to learn more about teaching an additional language. On that occasion, alongside the undergraduate course, I decided to take a two-year graduate course on teaching English as a foreign language. In this course, as I was working for a bilingual school, I wrote my final assignment about this topic. My supervisor encouraged me to publish part of it in a journal whose special edition was about bilingualism and bilingual education. When the journal was released, the article I wrote caught some people’s attention and I started being invited to write more and talk about the topic. However, I knew very little about bilingualism and bilingual education. Actually, everything I knew was already written in the article. I started studying more about it and continued working for this bilingual school.

I ended my undergraduate course, started working for an international school, went back to the language institute to make some more money, took some courses provided by the institutions I was working for, got some certificates, and decided to start my Masters in order to research bilingual education. I told you all this to say that my career and my beginning in bilingual education were not planned at all. Everything came as a need – I needed to make money, and I got the job. To keep the job, I needed to gain some knowledge, as I knew nothing, and then I started studying, which I am still doing.

T: Could you exemplify a few positive initiatives in bilingual education both in the public and in the private sector? What lessons can we learn from these examples?

AM: That is a very good question! I have been learning from some institutions which are challenging the idea that an effective program should be imported by hegemonic countries. These institutions are trying to imagine a Brazilian bilingual education connected to our territory, our needs, and relevant to the school communities they are part of. These institutions are increasingly perceiving that bilingual education is not only about providing students with the opportunity to learn an additional language but also with the possibility to access other discourses and experiment with new subject positions that resist the narratives that structure our society in unequal layers.
Michele El-Kadri, who is a professor at the State University of Londrina, and her group have been working on the implementation of a bilingual curriculum for public schools in Ibiporã – PR. Michele has been an important partner of mine, among other bright researchers, such as Fernanda Liberali from PUC/SP and Jorgelina Tallei from Unila, to research possibilities to promote an intercultural bilingual education in Brazil. Michele and Vivian Saviolli, one of her advisees, wrote fabulous material to be used for preschoolers. This material adopts an understanding of language as social practice and, among many other interesting aspects, provides the opportunity for teachers to work with children’s stories from non-hegemonic countries. Through these stories, children become familiar with and learn other ways of being and living in this world. By learning these other possibilities, they can examine their and their communities’ own ways of being and understanding the world.

T: You are part of a group of educators who dedicate themselves to studying bilingual education. This group actively participated in the critical review of the parameters set by our National Council of Education, which are still not homologated. What are the positive aspects that these parameters bring and what would you change in them?

AM: My group, like some other groups, tried to contribute in order to turn these parameters into something less problematic. I say that because there were many theoretical and methodological misconceptions in the first version of this document. We had also to turn to very outdated issues. One of them, for example, is that to be a teacher, one cannot only be proficient in the language, but it is mandatory to have a degree in the area.
The version approved after taking all these contributions from different groups into consideration differs greatly from the first one. From the perspective I defend, in a country with so many inequalities and challenges, it is complicated to understand that all this discussion was raised so that we could merely separate the wheat from the chaff, which means to give some schools the right to define themselves as bilingual and to forbid others to do so. Of course, I understand that there are many market issues involved in this discussion, but I do think we need other types of parameters if we aim at promoting more democratic and decolonial bilingual education.
There are some conceptual problems in the parameters. For instance, they advocate for an integrated curriculum, which is very important. However, when they mention the qualifications to be a teacher who works in a bilingual school, they only refer to the teachers who work with the additional language. How can we develop and promote an integrated curriculum if only part of the group of teachers, in this case, the ones who work with the additional language, understand bilingualism and bilingual education? I say this based on the fact that, according to the parameters, only the teachers who work with additional language have to take a course related to bilingual education.
Another aspect we should delve into is the level of proficiency that should be proved by teachers and students. Are there tests that work with academic language to be used? Or are we talking about these international tests which verify language in general? I say that because if we want to test the language of students and teachers in bilingual education, we should certainly focus on language related to specific areas of knowledge. This is one of the differences between learning a language in bilingual schools and in language schools or regular schools which have the language studied as a subject and not as a means to learn content. A positive aspect the parameters brought was the interest and need to study bilingualism and bilingual education. Many institutions, such as Instituto Singularidades and Troika, launched 120-hour courses to respond to these parameters.

T: BETT Educar 2022 featured primarily a variety of English-language program solutions, ranging from ELT materials, bilingual programs, and bilingual and international school franchises or educational systems. How do you view this booming market in Brazil today? What are the positive aspects of such an interest in English language education and what are your reservations?

AM: I am a little bit skeptical about talking about solutions, I think nowadays there are possibilities to build a bilingual curriculum for schools. For me, education has little to do with solutions, but more to do with building alternatives and possibilities. I am concerned with the idea behind the term solution because it may lead school leaders to mistakenly think that they can buy something that will meet all their needs for linguistic education, for instance. It does not exist. Even if the choice for the material and the program were adequate, there would be other very important aspects to be considered: How does the material/program acquired contribute to the students’ all-round development from the perspective adopted in the school? How does it relate to the school curriculum? What kind of training will the school provide to the teachers? Will this training be focused only on technical issues or will conceptual questions also be addressed so that the teacher not only follows instructions or a set of procedures but also build knowledge to understand what type of education they are involved with?

T: How do you see the future of English language learning for school-age children in Brazil? Will it take place primarily in their own schools? Will English language teaching institutions that cater to this public survive?

AM: The business market has advanced in a predatory way on regular schools that are being sold to large groups and/or adding the bilingual label to their names. In our society, language and also linguistic education have become commodities. It means that, in this neoliberal society, if you can afford it, you can “buy languages” or pay for experiences or educational processes aimed at developing the necessary linguistic competencies to succeed. It happens, among other reasons, because, the bilingual label adds value to the decision of families to create, in their sons and daughters, a type of “more behavioral value” and a “performance surplus”, as Dunker explains in a brilliant book called Malaise, suffering, and symptom. In this way, as regular schools are struggling to attract new students, I understand that the offer of the possibility to develop a language throughout the schooling process, as it happens or should happen to other subjects, such as Chemistry and Maths, will also happen to English. Now, besides thinking of aspects that involve the market, it would be very beneficial for the full development of students to have an English program integrated into the other areas of the curriculum so that they would go through critical linguistic education, which is able to broaden their possibilities of acting in the world.

T: You are a prolific writer and conference presenter, not to mention your leading role in Instituto Singularidades, and your work as a professor at Unifesp. Yet those who follow you on social media can also see that you value your private time with your husband and friends. How do you balance your professional and your personal life in order to have such a light and positive demeanor?

AM: I am an educator and this is part of my life. But I do have a life. and I have learned that everything is fleeting. except for the relations we build. I genuinely value my friends and family and dedicate time to being with them. They not only help me to remember who I am and where I came from (when necessary), but they also provide me with genuine feedback when I need it. I share with my dear ones joys and frustrations, and if there is something that I am very grateful and proud of is that I never walk in life alone, I walk with people that are always there for me and I feel very confident to be part of a group of people who care for each other. This is the most important for me; the rest is a consequence of my work, which also involves many people who have been helping me develop and deliver something good to the world.

T: Finally, what advice would you give to novice teachers who want to embark on bilingual education?

AM: We need to struggle to build strong and solid foundations – theoretical, methodological, and political – to understand our roles in education nowadays. It is not only important to be a good teacher in technical terms, but also to know how to position ourselves towards the challenges and abuses we have been facing in education in general. Talking particularly about bilingual education, it is important to build knowledge in order to suspect magical solutions and not be naive in discussions that may seem very simple but involve ethical and political aspects. In my opinion, it is very important to invest in studying theoretical aspects that may be very useful to understand what is behind some procedures and methodologies. To end, surround yourself with people you trust and admire, and remember that we do not go anywhere alone.

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