Jaboticabas and Figs

Unit 3: Food. In the first exercise, the coursebook brings a set of pictures, each of them showing different food separated in groups. The image labeled with the letter “B” depicts bacon, a box of cereal, two doughnuts, a waffle, some pancakes, eggs, and a glass of orange juice. The instructions tell students to check the picture which contains breakfast food. Easy-peasy. However, they frown and take longer to do what is required from them than you had predicted in your lesson plan. In a short while, the first shy, tiny hand goes up accompanied by the inescapable “teacher…” and you suddenly see yourself drowning in “how do you say pão de queijo?” “I eat pão francês com requeijão” “In my house, we drink juice for lunch not for breakfast” “this is not breakfast”

In the introduction to his 1872 novel Sonhos d’ouro, the famous Brazilian writer José de Alencar would question if those with a diet of mangoes and jaboticabas could speak a language with “the same spirit” of those who consumed figs and pears. Can you really speak the language without speaking the culture? How can children learning about food really express their preferences when the foods they eat in the morning are not in the book they have in their English class? How can they be expected to choose between a sandwich and hamburger for lunch in a role-play when their idea of lunch must necessarily include rice and beans?

The problem is aggravated when we take into account that many coursebooks don’t even present American culture, but a neutralized culture. Breakfast burritos – many times including beans, become more and more common; the southern breakfast grits are classics; and in urban areas as much as 15% of people simply skip breakfast altogether, while other 10 to 15% will have a heavy on carbs portable fast-food breakfast option such as bagels or the very successful Egg McMuffin. None of these have room in the EFL Typical American Breakfast.

Coxinha, empadinha and brigadeiro are to birthday parties in Brazil as turkey is to Thanksgiving in the USA. Language and culture are interdependent, therefore, learning a language should involve being equipped to negotiate meaning across languages and cultures. And there are very effective ways of doing so. In her classic “A Tour of Brazil” Solange Ribeiro de Oliveira tackles this problem by localizing the content in Brazil. Published in the late 70s, the book would teach students about means of transportation through “A Flight to Brasília” and would practice prepositions and collocations in a text about “Democracy in São Paulo”. Another way of dealing with that is trying to bring authentic content in the EFL books that reflect real and complex cultural expressions, always inviting students to juxtapose those to their own culture. John Hughes can be named as an example of a contemporary author who has consistently chosen this approach.

These are solutions, however, that depend on material design and selection – issues more often than not out of teachers’ control. However, there are ways of giving our students the chance to meaningfully talk about themselves. First, we can adapt the material. Present students with options that mean something to them, that are part of their vocabulary universe and of the community they live in. Second, we should acknowledge the issue. Call students attention to the gaps between their experiences and the content presented to them. The discrepancies between the neutral Culture presented in the course materials and the complexities of the real world around us. Promoting these debates in class is a way to foster the key skill of students’ critical thinking. Finally, we have to provide students with tools to find ways of authentically expressing themselves. This could go from teaching them where to look for a good translation to a specific term – and how to check if that translation actually makes sense, to practicing circumlocution when creating their own explanations of their vocabulary and of their world. “Pão de queijo is a sort of…”

Co-author: Neiriberto Borges Calil.

Neiriberto is a (mostly) self-taught English speaker with almost 20 years of experience teaching kids and adults alike. Bold and energetic, he defies the status quo by planning innovative lessons that captivate even the most disruptive students.

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Ana Carolina Calil

I’m a passionate educator with 23+ years of ELT experience and a master's degree in Applied Linguistics and an MBA in school management. I have focused my career on building strong and cohesive teams in order to make learning happen beyond the classroom walls. Currently working as a coordinator at Colégio Arvense, my mission is to help teachers with the design of great learning experiences.

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