Sara Moodie is Head of the EAL team in Jersey. In this post, contemplative, searching and uplifting by turns, Sara describes accompanying Portuguese heritage pupils to the Youth Parliament in Lisbon. She uses the experience to reflect on what it is to be a language learner, and offers us a glimpse of a future through optimistic young European eyes. This is the last guest post of the school year. It arrives at a perfect moment to reflect on how we have contributed to the lives of our EAL learners this year, and how we will build on our successes in September.
As we get out of the plane at Lisbon airport, Luisa (pseudonyms used throughout) turns her face to me and beams “Oh Miss, that smell…” She means the smell of home, the country she left four years ago. I realise then that this is about more than just a competition.
I am accompanying a teacher from the Instituto Camões, the organisation providing after school Portuguese mother tongue lessons in Jersey. We’re taking two students to the Parlamento dos Jovens (youth parliament), in the Portuguese parliament building, the Palacio de São Bento, in Lisbon. It’s a big event. Students from schools all over Portugal compete to represent their region to put forward motions, debate, amend, discuss and vote. This year the given theme is gender equality. With my intermediate level of Portuguese, I am also looking forward to some language immersion for myself.
Next day, in a debating room within the magnificent building, I watch as teams from various places put forward their motions. The team from the Azores is keen to halt the gender bias in children’s toys. Another team objects to the fact that baby changing stations are still commonly placed within women’s toilet facilities. Several teams mention the gender pay gap which unsurprisingly appears to be as much of an issue in Portugal as elsewhere.
I am struck by the shining confidence of these young people, their ability to speak, listen, reflect and question.
While students debate, teachers are treated to a tour of the building. Huge paintings depict various famous politicians from the past, and the Portuguese discoveries of Brazil and Africa. Portugal was of course a great colonial power. Stunning artworks, but I can’t help noticing that no women are portrayed, except for as cowering natives of “discovered” countries. But, as the guide eloquently puts it, “We can’t hide from our history, it’s part of us. There are achievements to be very proud of and other things which seem, to our 21stcentury eyes, to be wrong. It’s our duty to take the good from our history and move forward…” At least I think that’s what she said – or am I putting my own sentiments into my interpretation of her words? As I understand approximately eight out of every ten words spoken, the temptation is always to fill in the gaps with what I would like someone to have said. At any rate this sentiment is beautifully illustrated by the groups of boys and girls discussing gender equality in the rooms below.
There is a lot of discussion amongst the teachers and I want to share this thought with someone, but the words won’t formulate in Portuguese quickly enough to join in and I have vowed to myself to speak as little English as possible. So I am silent. I spend the conversation listening, nodding and rehearsing comments I could have made five minutes ago. This is what it’s like operating in a foreign language. Your thoughts are no less complex, but the language you have in which to express them lacks fluency and finesse. Trying to think of a metaphor for this – constructing a bridge out of chewing gum perhaps, or singing opera with a mouthful of humbug – I lose the thread and now have no idea what the teachers are talking about. I tune in again, clutching at words until they start to make sense, thinking this is how it must feel for the EAL child. Lose concentration for a few seconds, and you are cast adrift.
During the buffet lunch, the students tell me how they enjoyed the morning. They are conscious of being at a disadvantage in their level of academic, formal Portuguese because their lessons, these days, are in English. Much as we always advocate the maintenance of the mother tongue at home, families are unlikely to practise formal speech at the dinner table. “I need to do this more,” Luisa says to me “I speak Portuguese but not like them. I need to know some bigger words.” We have an interesting brief chat about how she might maintain and develop her mother tongue. Marco has bypassed the main course and is getting stuck into some chocolate mousse. “it’s really good,” he says. Mousse or conference, I ask. “Both. I didn’t know so many people spoke Portuguese. I mean, of course I have seen people talking Portuguese, but not about big subjects like this.” I ask if he has Portuguese TV at home and suggest tuning in to the news. Both students have made plenty of friends and soon drift off into the gardens to spend their break talking.
In the lobby, wonderfully named “Sala dos Passos Perdidos” ( the room of wasted steps), we wait to meet the minister for foreign affairs. When he arrives, I manage to converse with him, touching inevitably on Brexit, on the rise of the alt right in France (he lives in Paris). He is very patient with me but at the end of our chat I torture myself with all the verb endings I know I got wrong. Was he just humouring me? And did I convey what I meant, or did my lack of complex vocabulary and deft turns of phrase cause me to come across as slightly simple? EAL students must often feel this way at school.
Later on the students get a chance to ask questions to real politicians, in the elegant chamber which is the equivalent of our house of commons. There are 5 politicians, representing the main parties, keen to attract the interest of these future voters. The students are merciless in their questions, and, as politicians posture and pontificate (some things are truly universal), young journalists from the different teams record and photograph the event.
By the end of the two days I am quite tired. We teachers are sitting in the public gallery listening to the final speeches. It may be the slight distortion from the microphones, but I find that I am struggling to understand. A whole day of listening has dulled my brain. I drift into my own thoughts, text my husband (in English) while words fly around like caged birds and don’t settle. The comparison with EAL students at the end of long school days/weeks/terms is obvious.
Then it is our team’s turn to sum up. Luisa gets to her feet and I force myself to concentrate. We are from Jersey, in the Channel Islands, she says. Our lessons are in English, which gives us the many benefits of bilingualism but also means that sometimes we struggle to express ourselves in the language of Camões. It has been an honour to represent Europe in this event….and then she offers a quote from poet Fernando Pessoa “I hold all the dreams of the world within me.” She is applauded with cheers and a standing ovation.
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