The Portuguese Language Program

A Solid Springboard for Brazilian Studies at Harvard

by | Apr 8, 2007

Portuguese language programs are thriving in virtually all U.S. universities, and Harvard is no exception. According to a 2004 report by the Modern Language Association of America, enrollments in Portuguese language courses at U.S. universities increased 21.1 percent over a five-year period, an extraordinarily accelerated pace. The situation of the Harvard Portuguese Language Program is even brighter: enrollments increased 97 percent from fall 2002 to fall 2006. Our auspicious current state is due to multiple and creative endeavors, including attractive new courses, a program abroad, and a series of events that seek to create a tangible community of Portuguese speakers at Harvard.

“Portuguese and the Community” is one of the most successful new courses. Students learn about the large Portuguese-speaking Boston community through theory and practice. As a course requirement, students are placed with Boston-area community organizations and agencies to perform four hours per week of volunteer service-learning. Class work focuses on readings covering many aspects of the immigrants’ experience through history, ethnography, literature, sociology and linguistics. Films and documentaries by and about Lusophone immigrants and specific uses of the Portuguese language from these communities are also part of class discussions. The course provides students with the opportunity to perform a rich variety of jobs at these community-based associations. Work experiences include assisting in citizenship classes, human rights workshops, after-school programs for children of all ages, elaborating publicity materials to raise funds for associations, helping lawyers to assist immigrant workers, serving as medical and legal interpreters and translators and working in HIV prevention programs. Generally speaking, the work experiences provide exposure to a world and a world-view virtually unavailable on campus to the Harvard University student.

Most of the events spearheaded by the Portuguese Language Program, and co-sponsored by the Harvard University Brazil Studies Program at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, through the generous support of the Jorge Paulo Lemann Fund, involve the Portuguese-speaking community living in the Boston area. In spring 2003, for example, we launched the “First Annual Brazil Week at Harvard,” attended by more than 450 people and widely covered in the press. For five days, scholars from Brazil and the United States, Harvard faculty members and students, politicians, artists, a wide range of professionals and the local Brazilian community and its leadership celebrated, discussed, and reflected upon the experiences of Brazilian immigrants in New England. Participants engaged in different activities including a fair for Brazilian organizations seeking Harvard students to perform service in the community, a photo exhibit, a film, a workshop about educational possibilities for immigrant youth, and a panel about the past and the future of Brazilian immigration.

In summer 2004, Harvard’s Portuguese Language Program launched another project to increase the visibility of the language and culture of Brazil: the first Harvard Summer Program in Rio, a total immersion second-year course. Through a combination of language sessions and instructional excursions, screening of films, and appreciation of popular music, participants strengthen their linguistic skills and learn about the history and people of Rio de Janeiro. The course is structured to provide students with direct contact with native Brazilians from diverse backgrounds and to learn Portuguese in a vibrant cultural context. During formal classroom contacts, students have the chance to reflect upon different uses of the language in which they are immersed. They compare levels of formality and informality in both written and oral language and develop their written and spoken academic Portuguese.

We are convinced that the dynamism of the Portuguese Language Program is having a positive impact on Brazilian Studies at Harvard. Each year the number of students writing Senior Thesis on Brazil increases significantly in different departments of FAS. There has been an increasing number of applications for semesters abroad in Brazil, for internships, and funds for conducting research. Finally, the enrollment number s in advanced courses on Brazilian History, Culture, and Literature is also progressing at a fast pace.

In the United States, Portuguese is taught at an extremely limited number of high schools. Most Harvard freshmen have very little knowledge of the language and of Brazil. Our role in the Portuguese Language Program is not only teaching a language, but also raising the awareness about Brazil and hopefully nurturing possible future careers in Brazilian Studies. We appreciate the support of Harvard and of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies in this effort.



I began my study of Portuguese at Harvard in 2004 out of a long-standing fascination with those who branded my Arab seafaring ancestors “pirates.” Yet, a serendipitous “discovery” akin to Cabral’s landed me on Brazil’s shores. After a sojourn in Rio with Harvard Summer School and several advanced literature courses on-campus, I am now a member of the teaching staff in the Portuguese section of Romance Languages and Literatures, and plan to devote part of my dissertation in Comparative Literature to Brazil.

Fares Alsuwaidi

Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature

Harvard University

I have had a long love affair with the Portuguese language, starting off when I first visited Brazil at age 15. … I took a year of Portuguese at Harvard, then applying for a DR CLAS grant to spend six months in Brazil doing work for social progress and development. Thankfully, I was awarded the grant and spent a semester studying at the Catholic University of Rio and interning with an organization that works with children from the neighboring slum—Rocinha.

When I wandered into DR CLAS with a vague notion that I wanted to go to Brazil, I had no idea that in a few months I would be in a leper colony in Rio, interviewing patients and researching my thesis. At the time, I only knew that I wanted to pass a few months in the cidade maravilhosa, and maybe learn something along the way. I applied for, and received, a scholarship to study social service at PU C-Rio…. The first week in Rio de Janeiro, I fell in love with the city’s energy, joy, and chaos, and decided to write my thesis about Brazil. When I approached my social service professor with this idea, she sent me to speak with the national secretary of the Movement to Reintegrate Persons Affected by Hansen’s Disease (MORHAN ). After a short meeting, we made plans to go to Rio’s largest leper colony, Curupaiti. Dozens of interviews, one national meeting of leprosy patients, and countless days in Rio’s libraries later, I discovered that under Vargas, the government of Brazil had not only isolated leprosy patients, but consciously inflamed the stigma that still defines their lives.

For many students, writing a thesis is a daunting task, but for me it was a labor of love. Having seen what leprosy patients had to overcome I was determined to tell their story. My work won me the Kenneth Maxwell prize for best undergraduate thesis on Brazil. It also served as a means to return to Rio, and continue my work with MORHAN . That one semester of Portuguese opened up worlds for me, worlds that are still unfolding before my eyes.

Elisabeth Poorman,

Harvard ‘06

Back at Harvard the following Spring I again found a course that suited me perfectly—“Portuguese and the Community”… I had just settled on a career in Medicine and Public Health, thanks in large part to my recent experience in Rio. Through my class, I found an outlet to combine my interests in health and Portuguese and arranged work as a volunteer Portuguese Medical Interpreter with the Cambridge Health Alliance. This volunteer work became a full-time job for two consecutive summers after my graduation from the college, in between work done abroad in Brazil and, my newest Lusophone addiction—Mozambique. Now, back in the States and back at Harvard I am a first-year medical student. I work once a week with a free-clinic that serves the large uninsured Brazilian community of the Boston area—now not only as an interpreter, but as a part of the patient’s healthcare team. I owe much of what has happened in the last few years to the Harvard Portuguese department and DR CLAS. Without the diverse experiences offered, flexibility in helping me learn the language in a way that best suited me, and the warm environment I may well have chosen a different path for my life. While that path may have also been wonderful, I could not be happier with the one I have chosen and the one that has lead me to where I am today.

Alexandra “Sasha” Rose Clifton

Harvard College, Class of 2003

Harvard Medical School, Class of 2010

I began taking Portuguese as an elective during the fall semester of my freshman year. My interest in the language had grown out of a trip that I had made to Brazil a year earlier, because even though I really enjoyed interacting with Brazilian people and culture, I felt that I lacked the language skills necessary to truly appreciate the experience. Therefore, I planned on taking Portuguese just long enough to gain a general understanding of the language. However, what began as a simple interest has truly become an integral part of my experience at Harvard. I have taken a class in the Portuguese department nearly every semester, and each time has been a wonderful opportunity to approach Brazilian culture from a new and fresh perspective. Analyzing contemporary Brazilian film, learning about representations of culture in the media and the arts, researching Brazilian business practices, reading colonial poetry, volunteering with Brazilian immigrants—these are just a few of the different ways in which I have been able to immerse myself in a culture different from my own.

Pablo Tsutsumi, Harvard ‘07

I first began studying Portuguese in the summer of 2003. I quickly fell in love with the language, people, and culture of Brazil. The following spring I decided to change my concentration to allow me to further study this marvelous nation. In the summer of 2004, I conducted research in the evangelical communities of Rio de Janeiro. I proceeded to write an honor’s thesis titled “The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God: A New Form of Religious Syncretism?” Less than four years after my initial study of Portuguese and Brazil, I find myself in my second year of a Ph.D. program in Social Anthropology at Harvard where I continue to study Brazilian evangelicalism. I am looking forward to investigating the relationship between Brazilian evangelical religion and globalization in my dissertation.

Illiana Quimbaya, Harvard ‘05

I chose my first-semester classes because they seemed interesting. At the top of my list was “Portuguese for Spanish Speakers,” my first step toward graduating with a degree in Romance Languages and Literatures, Brazilian studies track, in June of 2006. I loved the teacher and my classmates (everyone from first-year undergraduates to sixth-year Ph.D. candidates), but most of all I loved learning about Portuguese: how it differs from Spanish, its rhythm and sounds, the enormous variety of people who speak the language (including a large community here in Cambridge and Boston). … Funded in part by a grant from DR CLAS, I spent part of the summer after my junior year in Rio de Janeiro interviewing local poets, translators, and academics, hoping to develop a topic that combined my nascent interests in translation studies and contemporary Brazilian poetry….I realized what it was about Brazilian studies at Harvard that I most enjoyed: I was part of—and a contributor to—a broader intellectual community….Faculty and students listened to and respected my ideas, and I had the distinct feeling that my work was part of a broader discussion of Brazil’s history and future. I was honored to receive the Hoopes Prize for my senior thesis.

James Pautz, Harvard ‘06

Spring 2007Volume VI, Number 3

Clémence Jouët-Pastré is Senior Preceptor in Portuguese and Director of the Portuguese Language Program Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.

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