Monday, May 04, 2009

CELPE-Bras. This time last week I was in the middle of a gruelling 3-hour writing paper for the government Portuguese exam, CELPE-Bras. I decided to take the test to give myself something to work towards to improve my Portuguese before we left. With a reasonable result, I hope my certificate might also provide something to stick on the ol` CV. The test itself was OK - I had prepared for it fairly well, utilising all the techniques and strategies I've been trying to teach my own students taking English exams. I had memorised idioms, set phrases, useful collocations, linking devices and I frequently used strategies in my oral test to buy time and stall if I didn't know how to express my answers.

Generally, I think the writing went OK. The oral test was hard as I was being interviewed by someone I'd never met before I wasn't used to their voice. The hardest section of all was the listening - a woman was talking about a restaurant. After the test, I heard two other candidates talking about the listening part - "Did you manage to get the address for the restaurant?". "Not all of it", came the reply. Meanwhile, I was in the background with eyebrows raised thinking "what address?!!!".

Twenty or so of us took the test in Joao Pessoa. I was the only Brit/American. Several other Latin Americans were there (not fair, I thought, as Spanish is so similar to Portuguese). Some candidates were definitely European - French, Spanish and I think. With test centres all around Brazil and the world, the CELPE-Bras seems to becoming increasingly well-known and sought after. Before my oral test I chatted to one of the helpers for the test - a university student studying literature. My conversation with her went a lot better than my oral test, I felt, and she had a lot to say about university life in Brazil. She explained that for many people the CELPE-Bras is their ticket to a new life in Brazil. Some companies, professions and many university research or teaching positions will require the certificate if you are to make a living here (similar, to be fair, to all the university-entry English tests I prepare students for back in the UK). In actual fact, she was teaching 8 Congolese refugees (who did not know French - so for them, Portuguese would be a whole more alien than it was for me!) who were going to win VISAs if they passed the exam. I felt humbled - my reasons for taking the test were rather low-key in comparison. For others the stakes were much higher.

One final note - a further question to the student from Joao Pessoa. Whenever I meet anyone who isn't studying to be a lawyer, doctor, engineer, nutritionist or computer scientist at university I always have to ask them how they're managing. This is because I've come to realise that many parents and families exert pressure on their kids to do courses that lead to certain traditional, high-earning careers which often comes at the expense of art, music, history, literature or philosophy. So, when I asked the young lady studying literature how her parents reacted to her course choice, she gave me a weary sigh as if this was a topic that frequently came up. "All I say to people is that the biggest and best thinkers - the people who changed society - came from studying the arts and humanities. That's what I'm aiming for". As someone who spent an inordinate amount of time in the York university library hunched over tomes on the Politics and History floors, I couldn't agree more!

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