The following is Laura E. Hamman’s reflection on the time she spent in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, thanks in part to the FLAS grant she received.
Ah, que bom você chegou!
As a PhD student in Curriculum and Instruction specializing in bilingual education and ESL, I am constantly engaging with micro- and macro-level questions about language in education, ranging from pragmatic pedagogical strategies to issues of power, inequality, and “hidden curriculum.” However, while I work at the intersection of education and applied linguistics, the requirements of my degree do not easily facilitate language study. As an advocate of multilingualism, I believe it is essential to meaningfully commit to learning other languages, in part to gain insight into how different languages operate and, perhaps more importantly, to remain connected to the experience of learning a language—with all of the joy and frustration that it entails. Thus, I was thrilled to learn of the opportunity to apply for a summer FLAS grant through LACIS, which permitted me to deeply engage with the Portuguese language and Brazilian culture.
Prior to beginning my doctoral studies, I lived and worked in Santiago, Chile for several years. During that time, I spent a couple weeks in Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo and thus had some prior exposure to Brazilian culture, but I was struck by the distinctiveness of Salvador. Formerly the economic and political capital of Brazil, Salvador was an immensely important city for the Portuguese crown. It was also the center of slave importation in Brazil, beginning in the mid sixteenth century and stretching until 1870, making Brazil the last country in the world to officially end slavery. The legacy of slavery in Salvador is a palpable tension between the celebration of Afrobrazilian culture and the pervasive racial inequalities and discrimination.
Since the 1960s, organizations like Ilê Aiyê have worked to promote the culture and history of afrodescendentes in Bahia, employing samba-reggae—a hybrid musical genre of traditional African samba de roda and Marley-style reggae—to teach and celebrate African heritage. I was fortunate to live with a family deeply tied to Ilê Aiyê—my host father was one of the directors of the organization—and I gained a deep appreciation for the type of work they do in the legal and educational spheres as well. For example, when I arrived in Brazil, my host family gave me a stack of pamphlets and books about distinct African countries and cultures, materials that had been disseminated in local schools and incorporated into public curricula to emphasize that “Africa” and “African culture” are not homogenous (a curricular move more advanced than present instruction of African history in most U.S. schools). One afternoon several weeks later, I came home to a flurry of activity as my host parents prepared to go to court to defend a young black man who had been convicted of a crime without substantial evidence (he was later acquitted, due, in large part, to their intervention). Like other foreigners, I came to appreciate the African influence in the food, music, and dance of Salvador, but the unique experience of living with my host family offered me a much deeper understanding of both racial tension and advocacy.
Of course, the main focus of my FLAS experience was to learn Portuguese and, with six to eight hours a day of courses, lectures, and tours, it was certainly a rich educative experience. Coming into the experience with Spanish fluency and beginner Portuguese, I felt adequately prepared for speedy acquisition. Nevertheless, it took a full month before I stopped referring to my Portuguese as “Portuñol” (an accurate moniker). The distinction between formal (written) and conversational Portuguese is so extreme that several professors joked that they should be considered separate languages. I found myself constantly drawing upon my Spanish linguistic resources in conversations with my Brazilian host family, professors, and friends, sometimes with success—much of the lexicon aligns in spelling, pronunciation, and meaning—but more often with confusion. For example, in Portuguese you can assistir (watch) a game of futebol on television, while in Spanish you would assistir (help) a friend or assistir (attend) a class. And, while proclaiming a dish exquisito (exquisite) in Spanish might win over the chef, the similar term in Portuguese—esquisito (weird)—will likely not have the same effect.
Some Portuguese cognates are more similar to English than Spanish—for example, you can be embaraçado (embarrased) without the linguistic fallacy of being embarazado (pregnant). However, other similar-sounding English words could be misleading, such as doors labeled puxe (pronounced “pushy”) that require you to pull. Still, I never encountered a bahiano—someone from the state of Bahia—unwilling to teach me a new word or correct pronunciation. The bahianos I met were warm and welcoming, and I enjoyed talking with them over a cafezinho (coffee) about differences between the U.S. and Brazilian jeito de ser (way of being). I quickly learned that in Salvador one never fully says “no” to anything—a talvez (maybe) or vou pensar (I’m going to think about it) suffices. I also learned that bikinis from Brazil have two styles—asa delta (hang glider) and filo dental (dental floss)—while U.S. female swimwear is uniformly known as “pampers”. After spending a couple of weekends at beaches in Salvador and Recife, I can confirm the veracity of this distinction.
This reflection on my experience in Brazil would be incomplete without mention of the World Cup, which effectively dominated the second half of my study abroad experience. Being in Brazil during the World Cup provided a first-hand glimpse into both the tension between large-scale corporations like FIFA and the general public—whose violent encounters were widely publicized in international news—as well as the familial spirit of watching futebol. More interesting than the games themselves was the spirit of national pride and international camaraderie as people from around the world shared in the love of the game. While bars and stadiums packed with tourists (and, among them, a good number of Brazilians), for many bahianos the World Cup was a time of family togetherness, with game watches lasting all afternoon and well into the evening. The energy and excitement of the World Cup quieted even the most ardent critics of FIFA—for better or for worse.
Since returning from my summer learning and adventures, I find that I am constantly referencing my time in Brazil. Insight into the Portuguese language has given me a new repertoire for teaching phonology to my undergraduates: the open and closed vowel distinction between grandfather and grandmother in Portuguese— avô (pronouced “av-OH”) and avó (pronounced “av-AW”)—helps me demonstrate the way in which our brains are linguistically “trained” to distinguish between certain sounds and not others. My experience in Brazil also renewed my interest in comparative international work with English language programs in Latin America, especially in my interactions with bahianos taking English classes at my program’s institute. For them, English was a vehicle for occupational and educational advancement, a necessity instead of a luxury.
I am incredibly grateful to the LACIS department for providing me with the means to have this incredible experience in Brazil that has undoubtedly impacted my current and future work in education. I hope that other UW-Madison students will take advantage of the opportunity to apply for a FLAS grant, so that they, too, can deepen their understanding of language, culture, and, undoubtedly, themselves.