In this post, Luiz Otávio Barros shares his experiences of writing ELT coursebooks as a NNES based in Brazil. This blog concludes Part I of our mini-series on writing ELT materials for different markets around the world. We will return with Part II in six months’ time, so if you would like to share your experiences of writing ELT materials wherever you are, please get in touch.
The big picture
The ELT publishing industry in Brazil is huge, and there are three easily identifiable market segments:
• Private language institutes, which traditionally adopt mainstream international titles published by Brazil’s big six: Cambridge, Cengage, Macmillan, Oxford, Pearson and Richmond Santillana. This slice of the pie, however, has shrunk in recent years as more and more language institutes are going solo and publishing their own in-house titles.
• Private schools (e.g. primary schools, middle schools), which may use either the same international titles as the language institutes, or adopt books written specifically for Brazilian students and published by either the big six or some smaller market players. These books usually focus on grammar, vocabulary and reading, and they may even include examples of the students’ L1, which an international coursebook can’t afford to do.
• State schools, whose coursebooks are selected by a government board according to very specific criteria. These days, state schools are where the big money is, with government-funded purchases of tens of thousands of books.
The native factor
I’ve been in ELT since 1992, and before I became a full-time author, I worked at some of Brazil’s top language institutes, teaching, training teachers, dealing with angry parents and … writing materials. So it seems logical that somebody with my profile should have been writing mainstream international titles from the start. But things are not as simple as that. In general, Brazilian authors are restricted to the primary / secondary school markets (state and private). There seems to be a tacit understanding that only native speakers can write mainstream international coursebooks. I believe this is so for two reasons. One, this is the only model we know. Virtually all the watershed, million-selling ELT classics of our time were written by native authors – the Streamlines, the Strategies, the Headways. Two, publishers and authors want their titles to sell as well as possible, and, other things being equal, a last name like Smith or Jones is easier to market internationally than Barros, Nakamura or Bertrand. Reason one simply describes a paradigm we have grown used to. Reason two, real and relevant as it is, feeds into this paradigm, which conspires to perpetuate the current state of affairs.
So, yes, I’m one of the few exceptions, thanks to Richmond International, which back in 2011 set out to create a new mainstream series with a truly international feel and look, but targeted mostly at speakers of Spanish and Portuguese. This – and the fact that a household name like Paul Seligson was the series editor – made a last name like mine more palatable. Seven years later, I am now co-authoring Jim Scrivener’s new series for young adults. Whether Richmond’s bold move will start a trend toward more diversity in the publishing world remains to be seen. I sincerely hope so.
A few months ago, I was asked, ‘How does your experience and identity as a NNES author affect the materials you write?’ Interesting question.
In a number of ways, I believe. One, I write from the standpoint of someone who learned English as a foreign language, so I know where the pitfalls are and how to avoid most of them. I think a non-native speaker knows instinctively, for example, that ‘I’ve lived here for two years’ and ‘I’ve been there twice’ are, for teaching purposes, two different things that should be taught in two different lessons – at least at A2 and B1. Two, when you’ve spent most of your life in an English-speaking country, you might – and I say might – fall into the trap of making too many cultural assumptions. As someone who’s more culturally and emotionally detached from both the US and the UK, I think I instinctively tend to pick topics and texts that have broader international appeal. Three, and somehow paradoxically, being a non-native speaker has often helped me select what lexical items should or should not get taught at a certain level. In other words, if I’ve never heard a word or expression before, chances are that it’s not very commonly used, which means it deserves further editorial scrutiny before it appears in a lesson. And this is where an experienced editorial team comes in.
In the end, it’s all about collaboration. It’s not about who’s better than who, but what native and non-native speakers can do well together.
Luiz Otávio Barros (MA Hons. in Applied Linguistics, Lancaster University) has been teaching, training teachers, designing language courses and writing ELT materials since 1992. Formerly academic coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo, head of research and development at Associação Alumni São Paulo and BRAZ-TESOL’s second vice president, Luiz Otávio is co-author of English ID / Identities, Personal Best and series editor of Access, all published by Richmond. He has also self-published The Only Academic Phrasebook You’ll Ever Need, available on Amazon.