Critical Media Literacy in Brazil

As an English teacher teaching abroad I have had to come to terms with my role as an agent for cultural imperialism The role of English in globalization, commerce, technology transfer, and the economy have made it the world’s second language—often with consequences for other culture’s first. If you are a native English speaker working abroad you have thought about your role in this system, or you are not paying attention.

I have found critical media literacy to be a way to work in this system and justify my work. Everyday here in Brazil I am astounded by the influence of English on people’s everyday lives. In the Brazil Reader (Levine & Crocitti, eds.), Roger Allen takes us on a journey through a typical American shopping mall where all of the ads are in German, the store names are in German, the movies are in German, you can only hear German pop songs on the radio, and all middle class students take German classes after school. Place this scene in Brazil and change the language to English. My students voraciously consume American TV series—they all watch Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, and what they can’t get on TV they download and watch on the Internet. They listen to the same American pop songs and can tell you everything about most American star’s lives. I challenge you to name one Brazilian actor.

The romance with all that is foreign has deep roots in Brazil. Nationalistic dictators essentially closed the country to foreign competition to support the national economy—creating the cult of “everything that is foreign is better.” There is still extremely heavy taxation of imported goods. Foreign = expensive = better. It is in this climate that American media thrives.

As an English teacher, it is great to have so much “real material” available to use in the classroom. When I ask them why they are studying English at the beginning of the year, they all repeat one after another, “For my future. So that I can get a job.” They might be thinking, “’cause my mom makes me,” but they know the right key phrases to tell the teacher. I am not sure where they are being programmed, but it has worked.

Tied in with this idea is the idea of learning English so that they can leave Brazil. There is a general feeling of hopelessness about the state of Brazil. More than once I have heard it called a small scale civil war. That is not an exaggeration. There are on average 38,000 people killed by firearms a year in Brazil—the highest rate in the world (or a close second depending on the year). On average these are poor people killing each other at an alarming rate, with desperation murders of the rich on occasion.

It is in this environment that I am attempting to teach a critical perspective of the role media plays in our society. Brazilian media violence makes the US look like Canada. You have to numb yourself just to leave your house after watching the news. I decided not to get a TV (to the detriment of my Portuguese) partially because I don’t know if I could leave my house after an evening of news. I have the strength to go about my daily life mostly out of blissful ignorance--An acknowledgement of my susceptibility to media messages.

My students are media-savvy. They understand the power of media to make them buy and desire things—they all have an Ipod or want one, but that does not change their ability to be influenced, and they admit that. They are critical of the role the US plays in the world, but they consume its cultural products without blinking an eye.

I teach them to play with media—to adbust, to see how media is made, to make their own movies, and while I do this work with the techno-savvy middle class, I am giving workshops about how communication works, communication as a human right, and empowering people to become communicators in the community. Being a passive media receptor is the norm when you have no access to media—except the talking box that is on all day long in every house. There are more televisions than refrigerators in Brazilian houses. Moving from receptor to creator is a giant leap, and when you get the opportunity to make media, what kind of media do you make? Do you replicate what you have seen? Do you look at something with a new eye? People that work in the free radio and community radio movement have noticed that as soon as people get on the radio their voices change and they immediately put on an accent from Southern Brazil—the accent they hear everyday on the radio and television. They only time you hear an accent from Northeastern Brazil in the media is coming out of the (normally southern) actor playing the maid.

This was supposed to be the introduction to an article on teaching critical media literacy in the EFL classroom. Somewhere in there I have to add Freire, a lot of references, and what all of this means in the classroom. For now I think that I will put it on my blog and keep thinking.