Being a NNEST in Brazil back in the 80s Part 1

The past is never where you think you left it.”
—- Katherine Anne Porter

Having lived a year in the US, I was convinced that I had become an American. I spoke American English, my clothes were mostly American, and I did not like black beans anymore. I could not help pronouncing the word Coke without a strong American English accent I had slowly developed, and which I was proud of. I knew the American Presidents by heart and I had visited more American states than I had ever done in my homeland. I was only nineteen and I already felt American to my bones.

About two years later I was teaching at an English language school in downtown Rio. I was a NNEST among so many backpackers and adventurers who had landed on the Brazilian territory to enjoy our music, our beaches, and our warmth. Obviously there were people from every walk of life, including me, a 20-year-old Brazilian college student trying to figure out what to do in my spare time. I never asked myself the questions I ask today. I still looked American when I came back; I spoke American English, and so this sense of entitlement was part of my identity as a teacher. I assumed I was one of them. That was also when I started nurturing my insatiable curiosity for the English language, its sounds, and its grammar.

Before the era of globalization,  Brazil was a distant land. While Americans watched movie premieres on cable, we only had about five or six TV channels available. All American TV shows and movies were dubbed and VCRs were still expensive for a lot of people in Brazil. I was different, though: Just like many NESTs, I had experienced technologies and a culture most Brazilian middle class people only had access through movies and music. For this reason, despite my very young age and my young looks, I was quite respected because I had learned English abroad and I spoke like them, and I was transitioning from the audio-lingual methods to the communicative approach. Of course, I did not know the first thing about the communicative approach. I only followed the teachers’ guides, but I did it with a twist. My students liked it.

Back then, we did not talk about NNESTs vs. NESTs issues. College graduates with a teaching degree were eligible to teach at private and state schools; those who had learned English abroad, or spoke English as a first language, taught at the language schools. I was still working towards my degree, so I naturally belonged to the latter group.

In retrospect, I was still living the romanticized era mentioned by Rajagopalan (1999), which views language as being a perfect object existing in a monolingual setting that is threatened every time an alien language intrudes — in my case it was Portuguese, which was daily banned from my classes and from my interactions with my colleagues. I worshipped English and everything American  just like a religion; I never even wondered why I sometimes got tired of it when I was living in the US or why there were times I tried to hide my Brazilian accent as much as I could or why there were times I felt the urge to show off my Portuguese — which I hardly ever did. Mistakes were not allowed. I had to speak perfect American English. Our Brazilian colonial past had slowly colonized my entire present in such a way that I had no idea of the impact all those beliefs would have in my career and in my future self.


Suggested article:

Rajagopalan, R. (1999) Of ELF Teachers, Conscience, and Cowardice. ELT Journal, Volume 53 Number 3 pp. 200-06

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Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a Master's Degree in Language Studies from PUC-Rio, a B.A. in Linguistics from USP, and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 30 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in Systemic-Functional Linguistics, identity studies, visual literacy, and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language.

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