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BilinguismoEditorial NRInglês

★ Bilingual education in Brazil – multiple perspectives on language learning

The term ‘bilingual school’ is a rather broad label used in Brazil to refer to various models of second language teaching and learning. Most progammes that fall under the blanket term ‘bilingual education’ promise to educate learners in two languages with three goals: academic achievement; bilingualism and biliteracy, and; cultural competency. Students are then equipped to live and work in an increasingly globalised marketplace. Despite categorisation under the same general label, bilingual schools/programmes follow very different models, many of which have limitations and varying objectives that can fundamentally impact the extent to which the aforementioned three goals are met. This variation and resulting ambiguity for stakeholders, such as families, educators and school leaders, both in Brazil and across United States contexts, prompted Dr. Ofelia Garcia to ask, “What’s in a name?” (Garcia, 2009). To answer this question in a Brazilian context, I will briefly explore the concept of fluency, describe the variations falling under the “big umbrella” of bilingual programmes in Brazil, and then discuss major ‘ingredients’ necessary for ensuring teaching and learning in two languages delivers on the promise of bilingualism and biliteracy for participating students.

Fluency & Proficiency

Fluency refers to the ability to comprehend and produce language unfalteringly. Proficiency, on the other hand, is the ability to understand and communicate and involves linguistic features such as grammar, function, vocabulary, etc. Proficiency in a school setting is a learner’s ability to negotiate three factors: sociocultural, linguistic and cognitive events and requires them to negotiate between language: structures, functions and register (TESOL, 2006). Consequently “…. L2 fluency will therefore reflect L2 proficiency only partially because disfluencies are also elements of communicative successful (native) speech”. (De Jong, 2016).

Because one of the three primary goals of second language teaching and learning includes high levels of bilingualism, schools claim fluency as a byproduct of enrollment and participation. And indeed, to many families who have enrolled their children in such programs, hearing their six-year- olds rattle off songs and math facts in a language other than Portuguese, provokes such exclamations as: “My child is fluent!” Or, “my child is only in 1º ano, but she is already bilingual!” Though indeed impressive to an untrained ear, memorized songs and numbers do not equal fluency.

In order to understand the level to which fluency is expected in a schooling context, it is important to ask questions like: “Will students study all academic content in a language other than Portuguese? “What assessments will be used to measure the extent to which students actually compare with native speakers of the second language being acquired? “How long does it take to become as fluent and proficient as a native speaker in the same grade level? ” These questions, though valid, are often left only partially explained by school leaders and educators. Competing research surrounding Second Language Acquisition in educational contexts and lack of consistent definitions associated with “fluency” contribute to the nebulous promise of bilingualism for students attending an escola bilíngue, perpetuating confusion and underscoring the question: “What’s in a name?”

With this in mind, we can then review programmes, from amount of time spent in Portuguese and the additional language, to assessment tools and teacher qualifications, and how this contributes to student fluency and proficiency, and the degree to which schools that promise bilingualism and biliteracy are able to deliver.

The Big Umbrella – Overview of Bilingual Programmes in Brazil

 Although bilingual education is a simplistic label, it describes a very complex, linguistic, sociocultural and cognitive cultural phenomenon that requires extensive explanation (Baker, 1996). The umbrella below is an overview of the bilingual programmes in Brazil. Each section describes a programme that is considered additive, in that learners acquire a second language without any loss to their home language.

NB: this article will focus on Developmental Bilingual, International Schools and Content-based, language programmes.

1. International Schools

These schools typically serve an expatriate community and have four characteristics. First, they adhere to a national curriculum from abroad and/or adhere to international standards such as IB, CIE, IPC, Edexcel, etc. Therefore, there is a strong focus on international university readiness. Second, Portuguese is normally taught as a subject and Brazilian history is taught in Portuguese; normally all other subjects are taught through the medium of the school’s official language. The week is divided into approximately 80% in the official language and 20% in Portuguese, depending upon the school. Third, they hire a large percentage of their faculty aboard and follow the northern hemisphere calendar (August to June). Fourth, all intentional schools in Brazil are private, fee-paying. International school demographics have changed over recent years and there are now more Brazilians studying in them, this calls for more expertise in bilingual education instruction.

Some examples include: Graded School, Lycée Pasteur, St. Paul’s, (all in São Paulo); American School of Recife; Colégio Suíço in Curitiba, British School of Rio de Janeiro etc.

2. Content-BasedLanguage Teaching (CBLT)

What Brazilians often refer to as ‘bilingual’ schools or programmes

This approach typically serves a family who desire strong second language skills for their children. The over-arching term CBLT is, “an instructional approach in which nonlinguistic content such as geography, history or science is taught to students through the medium of . . . an additional language” (Lyster, 2018). This is referred to as majority language teaching because the majority, often about 100% of the students in the classroom, speak one common language; Portuguese as a first language, and are acquiring an additional language through content. ‘The fact that you have majority language students [in Brazil] is critically important because the research that demonstrated the success of immersion … has been carried out in schools where the students are from the majority language group” (* Genesee, 2013).

CBLT comes in many different forms in Brazil, and indeed around the world, and has different names  including CBI (content-based instruction), and CLIL (content language integrated learning). Under the blanket term of CBLT there are two models: Content-Driven and Language-Driven, programmes.

A. Content-Driven – Immersion Education

Immersion is an instructional approach that enables learners to acquire an additional language through content instruction, educational discourse, and social interaction in the target language for at least 50% of the school day (Cloud et al, 2000). The goal is to produce bilingual and biliterate students. What sets immersion apart are the expectations that students can learn – and teachers can teach – both academic subject matter content and new language at the same time. (Lightbown, 2014)

As with the more general term of bilingual education, immersion education attempts to uphold three goals:

1. Academic achievement equal to or greater than students in monolingual (regular) schools.

2. High degree of proficiency and accuracy in the target language

3. Increased cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity.

(Larsen-Freeman et al, 2016)

Choosing the right school (teachers and parents): Considering that each models has implications to student outcomes, have questions around these three points and ask schools to show you what they expect at each grade level and how they monitor and report on these on an on-going basis.

Most immersion schools in Brazil are private fee-paying schools that offer content taught in a second language (science in English, Math in Portuguese for example). They normally start about the age of 2 or 3 with at least 80% of the day in English, then attempt to have a 50/50 model, approximately half the day in each language from grade 1 – teaching academic content and language at the same time; all the while developing student’s academic language      in the target language. Paramount here is that learners gain language but can also pass high-stakes assessments in the subject areas. Critical is that teachers must be constantly aware of both goals (language and content) in their instruction.

Some examples of this in Brazil are: São Paulo – Beacon, Builders, Escola do Futuro, Global Me, Magister; Rio – Eleva; Salvador – Escola Girassol; Londrina, PR – St. James; amongst others.

B. Language – Driven

Although most of these programmes develop second language, often by incorporating themes or topics that engage the learners, they do not have the highstakes assessment in content that immersion education does. If students learn English but not the content, it is acceptable because they are often getting the core content at school in Portuguese. Some examples are:

• Language institutes (e.g. Cultura Inglesa, Alumini, CNA etc.)

• Regular (monolingual) school, with foreign language teaching (regular Brazilian public or private schools that teach English twice a week for example)

• Intensive Language Programmes (e.g.: English everyday at school for 1 hour)

• Intercultural Border Programmes (Programa Escolas Interculturais de Fronteira). Progammes with reciprocal teaching between Brazil and: Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela.

C. Content Course + Language Course

This model lacks clear definitions except that normally students study at least one content area in the foreign language in addition to a foreign language class. This content may also be taught in Portuguese and/or may not form part of the official school (or national) curriculum, such as ‘global studies’. A good example are the CLIL (Content Language Integrated Learning) schools in Europe and elsewhere, which have recently become very popular in Brazil and account for the recent boom in ‘bilingual’ education. Whereas immersion tends to have a 50/50 model with some content only taught in the target language, it is not necessarily the case here. Typically CLIL programmes are much less time-intensive than immersion and therefore do not have the same language and content outcomes.

3. Developmental Bilingual Education

This model develops the skills of Portuguese Language Learners in both their native language and Portuguese. Examples of this in modern-day Brazil are with immigrant or refugees (minority) groups from Bolivia, Venezuela (Spanish), Korea (Korean), Japan (Japanese) and China (Mandarin). Students will learn Portuguese as a second language, all the time continuing to build their first language skills, all at school. Therefore learning Portuguese does not mean losing their home language.

Three Other Important Considerations

1. Time in the 2nd Language. Although time is not a pedagogical value, with less time comes less opportunity to produce and get feedback in the language and content, and more importantly less time to develop academic language, which is essential for university readiness. It is to this end that many researchers only classify a school as ‘immersion’ if they have approximately 50% of the day in the target language. Programmes that promise to produce fluent and proficient students ready to study abroad with only one hour of L2/day have a daunting task ahead of them. School timetables are also critical, learning an additional language requires a lot of cognitive processing; therefore working in the target language when a student is tired is not the most beneficial for learning outcomes.

Choosing the right school (teachers and parents): Have questions around time and expectations in the 2nd language as well as when L2 is taught. Keep in mind that if students spend the entire morning in Portuguese then move to English the likelihood is that they will be more tired in the afternoon and this can affect achievement in L2.

2. Outcomes and Expectations. Each programme serves different learner’s needs but each has its limitations and is important to understand them to filter school promises. Being a proficient bilingual, as schools like to tout, brings on benefits such as excellent opportunities for the development of executive function and can preserve cognitive flexibility (Bialystok, 1999). The caveat here is that the research is based on quality, evidence-based programmes in which learners reach advanced capabilities in their additional language. This requires a faculty that understand the model have ample opportunities for professional development.

Although changing, many bilingual schools in Brazil that teach content and language use the measure of a Cambridge ESOL exam (Movers, FCE etc.) to evaluate proficiency in English. Although these exams are aligned to the European Common Framework of Language, they are for the most part an ESL (English as a Second Language) test, interestingly this is the same measure used by many language institutes that are language-driven. If a content-driven school is promising higher levels of language development due to the teaching through content then they need to look to more rigorous and dynamic measures, which should be reflected in student outcomes.

Choosing the right school (teachers and parents): Have questions around how schools monitor and report out on student achievement growth. What standards and benchmarks are being used? Where do these come from? How are students involved in the process? What professional development (and how often) is offered to the teachers for this?

3. Absence of Regulations. Surprising as it may sound, there is a dearth of standards and regulations when it comes to what is being done in the target language instruction in our bilingual schools in Brazil. Each school sets its own policies for language targets, content teaching in the foreign language as well as teacher qualifications. There fore there is often a great disconnect between school-wide goals and what teachers have been trained to deliver.

Final Thoughts

Considering all the models and options available in Brazil today, using the generic term bilingual school to describe such a complex process does not do service to meeting the needs of our students and their growth. What’s in a name, as Ofelia Garcia posed, is fundamental to understanding outcomes and therefore I would argue that the terminology we use to describe our programmes needs to change to reflect what is actually happening in a school. If the school is offering content and at least 50/50 then the term ‘immersion’ or something similar should be used. This will allow parents, students and teachers to understand outcomes and expectations. Transparency will only help to improve our instruction and indeed our profession. By being informed we are able to ask the right questions when selecting the right school in Brazil, whether that is as a teacher or a student.


*Interview with Dr. Fred Genesee by Lyle French in New Routes # 49, January 2013

Baker, C. (2006). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. Clevedon, Multilingual Matters.

Bailystok, E (1999). Cognitive complexity and attentional control in the bilingual mind. Child Development, 70, 636-644. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.00046

Cloud, N., Genesee, F., & Hamayan, E. V. (2000). Dual language instruction: A handbook for enriched education. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

De Jong, N. (2016). Fluency in Second Language Assessment, IN Tsagari, D. & Banergee, J (Ed.), Handbook of Second Language Assessment, Chapter 13 (pp.203-218). Walter de Gruyter Inc.

Garcia, O. (2009). Emergent Bilinguals and TESOL: What’s in a Name? TESOL Quarterly, 43: 322-326. doi:10.1002/j.1545-7249.2009.tb00172.x

Gottlieb, M., Katz, A. & Ernst-Slavit, G (2009). Paper to Practice: Using the TESOL English Language Proficiency Standards in PreK-12 Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: TESOL

Larsen-Freeman, D & Tedick, D. (2016). Teaching World Languages: Thinking Differently, IN Bell, A. & Giltomer, D (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching, 5th edition (pp.1335-1388), AMER Education Research Assn. Publications.

Lightbown, P (2014), Focus on Content-Based Language Teaching. Oxford University Press.

Lyster, R. (2018). Content-Based Language Teaching. New York, NY: Routledge

Lyster, R. (2007). Learning and Teaching Languages Through Content: A counterbalanced approach. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Taylor, C. & Lafayette, R. (2010). Academic achievement through FLES: A case study for promoting greater access to foreign language study among younger learners. Modern Language Journal, 94, 22-42. doi: 10.1111/j.1540- 4781.2009.00981.x

The author
Lyle French, M.A.Ed. is Head of Rhyzos Education, a new immersion school in São Paulo opening in 2020. Lyle has over 17 years experience in Brazilian education and held the posts of: Director of Teaching & Learning at Avenues – SP, as well as at Escola Beit Yaacov and PlayPen. As well he has consulted for various ‘bilingual’ schools. Find him on LinkedIn.
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