Fulbright Features: Alum makes a big world smaller teaching English in Brazil

Penn State students and alumni are traveling around the world to conduct research, teach English, attend master's degree programs and more as part of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, a highly sought-after international educational exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State. This essay was written by a Penn State Fulbright recipient who has embarked on his Fulbright trip.

Nine Penn Staters earned Fulbright awards for the 2017-18 academic year. For more information about applying for the program, visit the University Fellowships Office’s website

A round of Catchphrase started up among a few of my international friends during a party in Curitiba, the city I’ve lived in since February as a Fulbright grantee. The people in the room, representing three continents and five countries  France, Portugal, Mexico, the United States and Brazil  brought a wide range of linguistic backgrounds to a game that requires players to guess a certain word based on a series of verbal clues. I was the only person in attendance whose first language was English.

While the night’s lingua franca had been Portuguese, English would be our only option for this game. We split up into teams. I was singled out as the only “native speaker” and placed on a pedestal, even as I sat on the floor. My teammates were Brazilian, French and Mexican.

What followed was a landslide defeat. It turns out that one person with 24 years of intensive English contact is not the most important ingredient for victory. The other team had chemistry and communicated their clues more efficiently. They demonstrated an ownership of English, one that allowed them to excel. They proved an adage that’s gaining traction in international pedagogy: English belongs to its speakers.

This story illustrates one of many complex linguistic situations that have arisen during my five-month tenure as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Brazil. As one of 40 teachers placed in 20 cities around the country, working with undergraduates, graduates and community members, I’ve found that my role as a language instructor is secondary to my role as ambassador or, as Fulbright puts it: “Through engagement in the community, the individual will interact with their hosts on a one-to-one basis in an atmosphere of openness, academic integrity, and intellectual freedom, thereby promoting mutual understanding.”

Daniel and Isabel stand under a "Welcome ETA" banner

Magerman stands with fellow ETA, Isabel Sacks, during his first days in Curitiba.

Image: Daniel Magerman

Unlearning what I thought I understood about English, about who speaks it “well,” and about what the stakes are for the millions of people working hard to master it as an additional language are among the eye-opening elements that I did not expect entering this grant year.

Fortunately, as a Fulbright ETA, I’ve been placed in a situation where I can both learn about the realities of English in a foreign context and provide another perspective on my mother tongue. Inside the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), my duties include hosting conversation clubs and office hours. The clubs are an open forum for students of any English level to come into a low-pressure environment and engage in English conversation. Topics have ranged from the best burger in the city to the Brazilian government's many corruption scandals. Students can also sign up for office hours with me whenever they want to discuss a question they have about grammar, a presentation, a proficiency test, or any language-related issue.

Daniel take a selfie with a group of students in his conversation club

Magerman hosts a conversation club with UFPR students at the Agrárias (Agriculture) campus.

Image: Daniel Magerman
 

Alongside my job as an ETA, life in Curitiba has been central to my Fulbright experience. Curitiba has a reputation as being “the most organized and cleanest” city in Brazil. Indeed, it has a different vibe (and a much cooler climate) than famous destinations like Rio and São Paulo. “Brazil is not for beginners,” State Department administrators warned us during ETA orientation. Nonetheless, Curitiba, the capital of Paraná, was a fantastic place for me to begin.

At UFPR, my co-ETA and I have been utility players, helping with English-language projects across its campuses. As one exciting example, we guided a team of architecture students during their preparations for the Race to Zero, an eco-design competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The group was the first ever from Brazil to win a place in the finals and a chance to present  in English  in Colorado this past April.

 

One additional duty in my position at UFPR is aiding in professional development of the first student tutors and translators of Brazil’s first ever collegiate writing center. The Academic Publishing Advisory Center (Centro de Assessoria de Publicação Acadêmica, CAPA, in Portuguese) opened just last year. I have had the privilege to harness four years of experience as a writing tutor and peer tutor coordinator at Penn State Learning to help shape CAPA’s formative months.

As I work over the next few months to improve my Portuguese, help students reach their English language goals, and better understand this enormous country, I remain grateful to Fulbright for the opportunity. Likewise, I will try not to take for granted a beautiful dynamic that has emerged in both my job and daily interactions: I help you with English. You help me with Portuguese. We don’t concern ourselves with every inconsequential grammatical error. We work together to communicate, be friends, and make this big world a little smaller.

Daniel Magerman is a 2016 graduate of Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College and the College of the Liberal Arts, majoring in applied linguistics and Spanish.

Last Updated August 31, 2017