Portuguese American Journal

Luis Gonçalves: Meaningful ways to teach and learn Portuguese – Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi

Luis Gonçalves was recently named the new Director of the Portuguese School, of the Middlebury Language Schools, which features a seven-week summer immersion program, offering beginner through advanced-level Portuguese languages courses.

Established in 2003, the Portuguese School is one of 13 Middlebury Language Schools network, located on the campus of Bennington College in Vermont.

Gonçalves is excited and honored to join the Portuguese School and follow in Middlebury’s well-established tradition of engaging students with an intensive, inclusive, and diverse curriculum, full of innovative and surprising guests and activities.

“All of this is intentional and maximizes the Portuguese learning experience,” he said. “As we plan ahead, we will continue working to create an environment that encourages our students to grow and learn in deeply personal and meaningful ways.”

Gonçalves holds a PhD in Romance languages, with a minor in Communication Studies and a certification in Cultural Studies, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Currently he is also a lecturer in Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University where he specializes in Portuguese-speaking cultures and civilizations.

Gonçalves is also the president of the American Organization of Teachers of Portuguese (AOTP), president of the National Council for Less Commonly Taught Languages (NCOLCTL), and executive director of Encontro Mundial sobre o Ensino de Português (EMEP). He serves as a member of the editorial board at Portuguese Language Journal and other international publications.

In the interview featured below, Luis Gonçalves discusses how he grew up in Portugal, his journey to the United States and how he became a Portuguese language teacher, meaningful ways to teach and learn Portuguese, the definition of “full-immersion” and second language learning, the Middlebury’s Language Pledge, and José Saramago’s 100th birthday.


Q: What drew you to become a Portuguese language teacher?

A: It wasn’t planned, it happened organically.

In my last year at the Universidade Fernando Pessoa in Porto, Portugal, we had a visiting scholar from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that opened the door for me to do a master’s and PhD in the United States.

During my studies in North Carolina, I was a teaching fellow in Portuguese, and that’s how I started to teach Portuguese as a foreign language, but my focus and research was Communication and Cultural Studies. Later, I taught at Columbia University, where I coordinated the Portuguese Program and in 2009 and organized a workshop on Portuguese teaching, where I presented how I used technology in my classes, and I received great feedback and several invitations to do that workshop at other universities.

That experience snowballed and I completely shifted my research to Second Language Acquisition and Foreign Language Methodologies and refocused my career on language teaching. Teaching a foreign language always brings communities together. You are part of creating the space for someone to transition between worlds, for bringing people together, for cultural ambassadors that can lead the way to the kind of mutual understanding we all need, and that is just an extension of my personal experience and life.

Q: Where in Portugal does your family come from? Where did you grow up?

A: My mother’s side of the family is from Trancoso, up north by the mountains, and my father’s side of the family is from Tomar, in the central marshlands. I was actually born in Mozambique, but I grew up in a very small village in the center of Portugal. We were coming from an African capital and when we first arrived at that small village, there was no electricity, plumbing, water or telephone service, it was quite the cultural shock, but, with the establishment of democracy, those basic things came in time. Later, I studied and lived in Porto.

Q: Can you describe what it was like coming to the US for the first time?

A: I came to the United States in 1997. The day before I left, my father gave me an envelope with ten one hundred-dollar bills. I thanked him at the time, but I did not understand the size of the effort, it took me some time to realize how much the exchange cost.

I went to the airport. At that time flying did not require all the security measures we have to go through today. I was dragging a small but very heavy black carry-on filled with books. I did not say a word to anyone, I was afraid that my English would not be as good as I thought.

Halfway through, I started bleeding spontaneously from my nose. I tried to stop it with tissues. When they came to collect the waste later, the flight attendant refused to accept it and told me to just leave it in the seat pocket and someone would take it later.

In 1997, with so many questions about HIV still very poorly understood, many people were afraid to deal with blood. It was still early in the morning, so I stayed at the airport waiting for my connecting flight in the afternoon. I spent hours watching everyone running back and forth in a hurry that was unfamiliar to me. Through the window, the beautiful city of New York in the distance; I clearly remember seeing the twin towers of the World Trade Center and imagining what life would be like in that city.

I went for coffee. I dragged my books to the counter, sat down in a highchair and ordered a coffee, and the lady asked “Small, medium or large?” I had no idea what that meant, but I replied “Small!” When she put the cup in front of me with almost half a liter of coffee, I pretended everything was fine and I drank it, but I kept trying to figure out what was going on. I called her and said “I’m sorry, I asked for a small…” What I meant to say was “I asked for an expresso…” but I did not know how to ask for what I wanted, and she did not guess the true meaning of my question, so she answered, “That’s a medium, I’m out of small cups, but I’ll charge you for a small, don’t worry baby!” I said “Okay,” and I sat down to drink, as if I had understood everything… until I asked for the check.

At that point, I took one of the $100 dollar bills that my father had given me and gave it to her. She was surprised, “I have not seen one of these in a long time!!!!” she said as she looked at the bill in the light and wrote on it with a pen, which today I know it has a special ink that identifies fake bills. She gave me the change, and I boarded for North Carolina, to start this American adventure and I am very grateful for all that has given me…

Q: Parabéns! On being appointed as new director of the Middlebury Portuguese School. What are you most excited to do?

A: Thank you very much. The school is an international reference in the teaching and learning of Portuguese, and I am very excited to bring my experience and add to the opportunities to explore all the diversity of the Portuguese-speaking world through innovative materials with a diverse and experienced faculty to provide an enriching and surprising experience to our students.

Language immersion inside the Portuguese store.

Q: The school is known for its full-immersion language courses. Can you describe what “full-immersion” means?

A: From the moment students arrive to the moment they leave, students live in and through Portuguese.

Students sign the world-famous Middlebury’s Language Pledge in which they promise to speak only Portuguese. For 7 weeks everything, academic and social, is designed to maximize the learning opportunities for the students at different levels of proficiency level. Even when having fun participating in co-curricular activities, students are surrounded by learning opportunities.

Q: How does this program differ from Portuguese you teach at Princeton?

A: At Princeton, students have different courses during the semester and when I create learning opportunities beyond the classroom, I am aware that my students have other courses and academic activities that require their time and interactions in English.

At Middlebury, however, I have the undivided attention of students exclusively focused on learning Portuguese 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There are no other interests competing for time, attention, and effort because everything they participate in is designed to maximize their learning experience, even as they explore personal interests, everything is part of the process. This makes students advance at an incredible pace.

Q: You are known for being creative. What cool teaching activities are you planning?

A: For the school to be successful, belonging to a supportive community and having a sense of common goal is absolutely essential. So, our classes have small groups, not only so that each student can have all the opportunities and individualized attention, but also to give students the opportunity to interact constantly and create bonds. It is not unusual for lifelong friendships to start at the school. The curriculum is inclusive, which allows for students to bring a lot of themselves to the learning process.

We live together in the dorm and share other spaces on campus, we eat all our meals together, and we have a lot of co-curricular group activities like sports, concerts, choir practice, students-lead many field trips that, beyond being learning opportunities, also provide community building activities and lead to a collaborative and cooperative learning environment.

Q: Can you tell more about the summer session?

A: The school is housed at Bennington College, a liberal arts institution with a focus on visual and performing arts located in a magnificent southern part of Vermont.

We use the entire infrastructure of the college, from the Music Building to the gym, the library to the Visual and Performing Arts Center.

Typically, students have two classes in the morning, one runs for the 7 weeks and focuses on their language and cultural studies, and the other is a thematic course taught by an expert on a particular topic, that run for 2 weeks – students do three of these.

The rest of the day, we have lots of activities, lectures, workshops, exhibits, sports competitions, cooking lessons, yoga, book club, newsletter production, podcast recording etc.

Q: Are there upcoming deadlines?

A: Enrollment started November 1st and 1st Round applications are due February 1, 2nd Round March 15, and Final Deadline on May 15. The school offers very generous grants that I invite everyone to consider, but there’s only one scholarship round and the deadline to apply for that is on December 15.

Q: How are you updating the program in 2023?

A: We are in the process of creating an online platform. This is a very exciting development because it means that there are no materials to be purchased to study at the school.  We can use contemporary materials that reflect everyday life and cultural productions in the Portuguese-speaking world. Students receive real time feedback as they prepare for next day as we can carve a portfolio of activities that allows students to create their own path in their learning experience depending on their goal, areas of study and/or regions or countries of interest. All the material is easily updated from year to year.

Taking the class for Portuguese food tasting.

Q: What do you foresee as the future of Portuguese language teaching?

A: I see the further individualization of language instruction to the personal goals of each student and the use of new technologies to advance the teaching and learning of Portuguese as a pluricentric language, meaning that both students and teachers maintain an attitude of curiosity towards the linguistic variety and cultural diversity of the communities that speak Portuguese.

Language instruction will further be a space where global citizenship is fostered and the shared humanity that connects us all is at the center of what we do.

Q: What is a classroom activity or field trip that students really respond to?

A: Before covid, every semester we went to Ferry Street in Newark, also known as Portugal Avenue, to explore the Portuguese-speaking community that lives there.

Students get a chance to see the monuments that celebrate the Portuguese experience in the city, like the Peter Francisco obelisk, celebrating the Portuguese-American contribution to the American Revolution, or the one remembering the Portuguese-Americans veterans; we go to Teixeira’s Bakery to check out three things: we get to see the handmade and hand painted tiles by Portuguese-American local artist Fernando da Silva; we get to taste Portuguese baked goods; and students get to see Portuguese immigrants perform the ritual of meeting friends in the coffeeshop, taking the time to have a conversation and a midmorning or mid afternoon pick me up espresso with a pastry, slowing down for a few minutes to enjoy being with each other before going back to work. In contrast, to the constant on the go mode the students live in.

We also go to Seabra’s, the Portuguese supermarket, and students go through the Portuguese and Brazilian products, looking at the wonderful Portuguese breads, lupini beans, barrels of olives, all the chouriços and cheese, fresh fish and of course, the bacalhau, the salted dry codfish.

The Sport Club Português of Newark always opens their doors to them and we also visit a few local business and NGOs (non-government organizations) a bookshop where we find books from Portugal and Portuguese-American authors and the Luso-Americano newspaper (to see their archives). Before we go back to campus, we have dinner in a local Portuguese or Brazilian restaurant. This was our most popular field trip, but it was interrupted due to the pandemic, however, we are definitely restarting it next semester.

Q: What is one of the quirky things about the Portuguese language that is difficult to teach or explain?

A: Subjunctive mood is a difficult concept to teach because English speakers don’t really study it in their native language, to the point that students will actually tell you that the English language doesn’t have it.

I have found that starting by having the students understand the subjunctive in English really helps students move forward. When someone sneezes and you say “[God] Bless you!” you are using a subjunctive; if it were a statement of fact, you would say “[God] blesses you.” And this is one of the goals of the foreign language class, as you know the other, you find more about yourself, as you learn the other’s language, you learn more about your own language. As you experience another culture, you start to understand your own culture.

Q: Can you describe how you juggle teaching at Princeton, organizing conferences, research and directing a program? What is your secret?

A: I use Outlook a lot, I write everything in my electronic calendar, that synchronizes with all my devices, and I also use the to-do list feature. I start as early as possible and divide everything into smaller chunks.

Years ago, I did a time management course and there is one thing that is still with me: even if you have only 20 minutes free between two classes, there is always something you can do in those 20 minutes, even if it’s just correcting one essay, at the end of the day it is one essay less to correct. You would be surprised how many 20 minutes we have throughout the day.

Q: Do you plan on teaching the history of Portuguese in the Americas?

A: Yes, students will have the opportunity to explore the experiences of the diasporas of the Portuguese-speaking world in the United States. We are bringing Portuguese-Americans and Brazilian-Americans to campus for some activities, and it is being considered a longer field-trip to visit community institutions that are just a few hours away. We are part of the American experience and connected to different disciplines and all policy areas in this country.

Q: And, finally, who is your favorite Portuguese writer?

A: This is such a difficult question, I have several favorite Portuguese writers but, since we are celebrating José Saramago’s 100th birthday I will share a line and a passage from Blindness.

One is “I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.” and I picked this line because in a world of demagogy and false information, we have to see more than ever, and “You never know beforehand what people are capable of, you have to wait, give it time, it’s time that rules, time is our gambling partner on the other side of the table and it holds all the cards of the deck in its hand, we have to guess the winning cards of life, our lives.” because in the context of language learning, each learner has their own timings.

Contact the Middlebury Language Schools  calling 802-443-5510 or emailing languages@middlebury.edu. 


Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American writer, is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Through Grainy Landscape, 2021 (inspired by Portuguese writings) and Quarantine Highway. Her awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, Creative Capacity, California Arts Council, Foundation for Contemporary Arts (Covid grant). Yaddo, Fundação Luso-Americana (Portugal), and the Barbara Deming Foundation, “Money for Women.” She also curates the popular Kale Soup for the Soul reading series.

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