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Welcome to 1984, Brazilian Style

Brazilian students in the class roomRicardo Bonalume Neto, one of the estimable science editors of the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, recently brought us news of a stimulating piece of research which shows that the brains of bilinguals have denser grey matter.

According to the British journal Nature, learning a second language modifies the anatomy of the brain, and the earlier the learning, the greater the modification.

This finding is neurological proof of something that any immigrant with children knows perfectly well: kids tend to learn languages with more facility than adults.

Researchers in the UK and Italy, according to the journal, used functional magnetic resonance to take images of the brains of subjects with a range of language skills and found that speakers of two languages show greater density of the so-called grey matter in the area of the brain known as the left inferior parietal cortex.

“The degree of structural reorganization in this area of the brain is modulated by the proficiency reached and the age at which it is attained”, say researcher Andrea Mechelli and her colleagues at the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience in London and the Santa Lucia Foundation in Rome, who undertook the study.

The initial tests were done with native English speakers. 25 people with little exposure to foreign languages were recruited.

Another 25 people who had learned a second European language before the age of five and who continue to speak it were added, along with a final group of 33 “late” bilinguals who had learned their second language between 10 and 15 years of age.

Independently of the merely physical fact of greater or lesser density of grey matter, there is little need for major research to notice that a bilingual person – or even more, the polyglot – has more mental acuity than one imprisoned within a single language.

Someone who speaks more than one language knows the roots of words, their migration from one language to another and their different acceptations across a variety of countries and historical periods. His is a privileged brain.

When it comes to learning languages, a polyglot friend of mine used to say, the most difficult thing is learning the first fifteen. After these, it gets a lot easier.

The brain gets so limber that new languages are learned almost by intuition. I know a few of these people. They don’t really study languages anymore. They study groups of languages at the same time, which makes learning easier.

Ironically, at the same time that scientists are proving the superiority of bilingual or polyglot brains, we Brazilians are right in the middle of government by a poor monolingual.

And we didn’t have to wait long for the results. At the beginning of October, we read again in the Folha that Foreign Minister Celso Amorim announced changes in the Instituto Rio Branco, the institute which educates Brazilian diplomats.

No longer will fluency in foreign languages be decisive in choosing candidates for admission to the course. How could the brain of a mere diplomatic flunkey be superior to the noggin of the country’s chief?

And the candidate whose Portuguese is not up to scratch could do better by giving up on Rio Branco and running for President – with a better chance of success.

Until now, the written exams in French, English and Spanish, as well as the orals in English, have been used to eliminate candidates for the diplomatic service.

For Amorim – who sees the change as a great advance – the current exam system is a disincentive for people who have not lived outside Brazil or developed facility with foreign languages.

This philosophy is a microcosm of the current government’s project – to dumb down.

Those who one day had the intellectual curiosity to study languages, to open windows on the world, those young people, full of courage and without much money who went to the US or the UK to wash dishes or wait tables in order to pay for their English courses, will not receive any merit for their efforts.

Beginning next year, Itamaraty [the Foreign Office] will be invaded by mere monoglots, who will need to start from scratch in learning the fundamentals of their trade.

This measure is an obvious attempt to patch up the Affirmative Action Program announced in March this year by the Instituto Rio Branco.

In a gesture of reverse racism, the Institute began to offer study bursaries of $25,000 reais for black candidates for a diplomatic career. For those thinking about such a career: better to be black and illiterate.

If you are white and educated, forget it; education is not the currency of the era of Lula. Who could possibly be more educated than the Supreme Ignoramus?

As if this scandal, which has the heavens crying for justice, weren’t enough, the government is distributing a kit “to combat racism in schools”.

According to the Folha, students will be taught that is no longer a sign of ignorance to use mispronunciations like “muié” (mulher – woman), “simbora” (ir-se embora – to leave) and “zoiá” (olhar – to look at).

The respectable Aurélio dictionary is also in the sights of the new pedagogues, as the entry for “cabelo” (hair) contains variations which denigrate Negroid hair: “cabeça cocô-de-rola” (birdshit head), “cabelo ruim” (bad hair), cabelo de cupim” (termite hair) and “carapinha” (frizzy hair).

In this dumb new world, even the works of [Brazilian writer] Monteiro Lobato run the risk of being fuel for the bonfire.

In “O Presidente Negro” (The Negro President), the writer describes a hair straightening institution in a future society where blacks have succeeded in freeing themselves from the stigma of color, but not from frizzy hair.

Another candidate for the bonfire would be the classic samba, “Nega do Cabelo Duro” (Honey with the Hard Hair) by Rubens Soares and Davi Nasser.

In addition to this censorship which, in the best Stalinist style, aims to rewrite dictionaries, one of the “racism kits” condemns the word “mulatto” as cruel and pejorative.

And what about “mulatta”? Could this glory of the Brazilian racial mix, subject of so many novels, as well as poems, songs and sambas, become a slur?

Are we going to re-edit literary works, rewrite sambas and create new rhymes, just to satisfy the racist zeal of these Stalinist bureaucrats in the Planalto [the President’s office] who aim to hijack the language? Who creates a language, if not the people?

The current government is starting to show its claws. Having failed to censor the press, it is attacking the perceived problem by the roots: it aims to censor words.

And, into the bargain, it also intends to disqualify anyone who is concerned about correct usage.

Not satisfied with disqualifying the educated, the new pedagogues want to make delinquents out of those who would point out errors in the speech of students. The PT [Partido dos Trabalhadores] has finally confessed its goal: barbarism.

Teachers of Portuguese, whether “homis” or “muiéres”: wake up! Beware when you correct exams.

Don’t dare to question a student on language use; you could be charged with racism, a crime with no chance of bail and subject to the penalty of imprisonment, according to our Citizen’s Constitution.

And be especially careful if you speak two or more languages. This will make you, ipso facto (oops!), an enemy of the state. If you have acquired some education, hide it. It’s dangerous. Remember Pol Pot.

“Barbarian” is a word which is intimately linked to the idea of linguistic incompetence.

For the ancient Greeks, barbarians were foreigners who mangled their words when they attempted to speak the Greek language. Brazil’s new pedagogues have enthusiastically set course for a new barbarism.

Janer Cristaldo—he holds a PhD from University of Paris, Sorbonne—is an author, translator, lawyer, philosopher and journalist and lives in São Paulo. His e-mail address is cristal@baguete.com.br.

Mike Allan translated this article. He worked as a translator in Rio de Janeiro from 2001 to 2004, and is currently based in Vancouver, Canada, where he continues to translate, as well as working in international education and playing guitar. He can be contacted at mikeallan@uol.com.br.

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