It’s only English…

Last week I happened to read a post in a well-known Brazilian newspaper blog explaining that several students who have been granted scholarships in the program Science without Borders are at risk of an early and compulsory return to Brazil. The reason? They have not achieved the minimum proficiency in English to be able to attend the course they intended to. If you read the post (see link below), you’ll see that the journalist who wrote it oversimplified the problem by saying that Brazilian students cannot communicate in English because no English is spoken in Brazilian universities. However, what really surprised me were the comments (and there have been many) which openly criticised the journalist’s point of view that: first, it is of the utmost importance to recognise that our students’ level of proficiency is far from ideal; second, failing to insist that more English be spoken at schools (including universities) is closing doors and leaving us behind.

Let’s consider some of the important issues raised in the post and comments. We live in Brazil and, as teachers, should ensure students are better able to communicate accurately in their own language. However, isn’t denying the significance of also being fluent and able to communicate accurately in English a symptom of prejudice, or at least, naivety? Isn’t it disturbing that so many students risk failing cultural and scientific exchange programmes (which was the reason they were sent abroad) because they don’t know enough English? Isn’t it shocking that the government invested so much money (OUR money!) in sending students abroad to university for four months, only to see them fail? Well, I’d say it’s pretty scandalous and I believe many would agree with me.


What amazes me is the fact that we have for so long tolerated a system in which English is in the curriculum of many institutions from grade 6, some even before that, but when students leave school most of them cannot hold a simple conversation or write a simple note in English. There are exceptions, of course, but they should be treated as such. If you have worked in regular schools you probably know what I am talking about. If you remember your English classes at school you also know what I am talking about. For longer than I can remember I have heard “It’s only English. Our students should learn Portuguese and maths”. Or “If you want to learn English, you have to attend a language course or study abroad.” That indeed seems to be the current belief of parents, students and even teachers. Why does the one necessarily preclude the other? Why can’t we also work on improving in maths and Portuguese, in geography and physics, and so on and so forth? Paradoxically, these same people believe that our students will use English in the future. The thing is that the future has arrived and some haven’t noticed it. This is what such an ambitious and potentially enriching programme as Science without Borders is showing us.


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Elaine Hodgson is a freelance teacher trainer and materials writer, as well as a supervisor on the Distance MA in TEFL at Birmingham University (UK). She holds an MA from UECE and a PhD from UFC in Applied Linguistics. You can read more about her work at Email:

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