It is not a stretch to say that Orlando Kelm, an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at The University of Texas at Austin, is one of the most popular teachers of Brazilian Portuguese in the world. This is thanks to Brazilpod, a collection of podcasts, videos, transcripts, and blogs on Brazilian Portuguese that Kelm and his colleagues have been producing over the past two decades.
At the time of this writing, the site and its materials have garnered millions of views from around the world, reaching so far and wide that Kelm was once stopped on a bus in Brazil when his voice was recognized by a fellow passenger who was a listener.
Each element of Brazilpod has a specific focus. The podcast Língua da Gente (“language of the people”), for instance, focuses on learning everyday Portuguese from short audio clips of dialogue accompanied by a line-by-line English translation, analysis of the pronunciation, and any vocabulary or cultural context relevant to the clip. Tá Falado, a favorite among the resources of Brazilpod, is designed with the Spanish speaker in mind, presenting Portuguese conversations that are repeated in Spanish to compare the two languages and bridge the acquisition of one language from proficiency with the other. Slice of Life, a collection of audio lessons that teach English to speakers of Portuguese using the same methods as Língua da Gente, was developed in part because Kelm was getting feedback from listeners at various state departments and embassies that they wanted such a resource.
“Year in, year out, his podcasts are the most downloaded of all of the podcasts we produce,” says Mike Heidenreich, director of studio operations for Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS), which produces the Brazilpod podcasts. “It’s amazing to look at the range of countries all over the world.”
It is not hard to understand the appeal. Kelm and his colleagues see their materials not as replacements for traditional textbooks but as complements to them, with an emphasis on what it’s like to actually use Brazilian Portuguese in regular life. They generate dialogue-based examples of natural speech where they highlight and explain specific nuances of tone, syntax, pronunciation, and cultural context.
“The difficulty of any language instruction is portraying a real exchange,” said Kelm. “It was and is important for us to give students a rich opportunity for analysis to see how real Brazilian Portuguese speakers say this or how they convey that idea. Insights from those lessons have immediate effect in the real world.”
Kelm’s expertise in international business communication provides an added layer of value to many of the projects. “Brazilians Working with Americans: Cultural Case Studies,” for instance, presents 10 case studies illustrating challenges that executives face in professional intercultural communication.
You can talk to the president of the company, but you can’t talk to the foreman, you can’t talk to the people on the factory floor, or the suppliers. There are places where that assumed shared language breaks down.– Orlando Kelm
In one segment, people play out scenarios in which negotiations between Brazilians and Americans are stalled because of cultural confusion and miscommunication. Each clip presents an executive speaking and then unpacks some of the underlying interpretations of that speech based on the culture of the audience.
“The Brazilian,” explains one segment, “is perhaps more of a Latin-Catholic culture, one of original sin, of feeling guilty, of the search for an explanation, of self-defense. Whereas perhaps a more Anglo-Lutheran culture has confidence in the idea that ‘If I am successful, it is because God is on my side.’ If one does not understand these cultural differences, well, it could cause the Brazilians to interpret American confidence as naiveté or arro-gance. And it could cause the Americans to interpret Brazil as a defective culture, one that is sometimes a little too submissive, or subversive, or even lacking in the truth.”
The success of Brazilpod, for Kelm, is evidence of one of the ironies of working in what is sometimes designated a Less Commonly Taught Language (LCTL). Languages like Portuguese (or other LCTL’s like Arabic, Russian, and Yoruba) don’t get the resources that foreign languages like Spanish or French do. But being an underdog can lead to more collaboration and innovation. The LCTL realm has developed an emphasis on open-access materials and freely sharing innovations in pedagogy. This ethos was central to the creation of Brazilpod and to its success.
“It’s a less crowded field than in some other languages,” says Kelm. “If you want good resources on conversational Brazilian Portuguese, on Brazilian Portuguese for Spanish speakers, on business Brazilian Portuguese, we are one of the best available. And it’s all free.”
Kelm points out that being an LCTL isn’t the same thing as being unimportant. Brazil is the seventh-most populous country in the world, with one of the largest economies and vast natural resources and biodiversity. To study Brazilian Portuguese is to enable participation in an essential region of the world.
“There are those out there that think you can use English everywhere, and it is a lingua franca in many ways,” says Kelm “But if you don’t speak a local language, you can only converse with that small percentage of people who speak English. You can talk to the president of the company, but you can’t talk to the foreman, you can’t talk to the people on the factory floor, or the suppliers. There are places where that assumed shared language breaks down.”