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Welcome to Brazil

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Businesswoman against the Sao Paolo skylineRobert McLarty, Publishing Manager for Business English and ESP at Oxford University Press, discusses the language challenges facing Brazil with the upcoming World Cup and Olympics in 2014 and 2016.

From the minute I arrived at passport control at Guarulhos airport in Sao Paulo earlier this year I acted rather like the stereotypical British tourist assuming that everyone speaks English and if they don’t, then all I have to do is say the words slowly or loudly and they will get my drift. It doesn’t work.

At my hotel I was shown to my room but language problems began as soon as the explanation for the air-conditioning started. When the chambermaid wanted to clean my room I resorted to hand gestures to make myself understood (I will leave in 10 minutes!). In the supermarket the check-out assistant pointed out that my three pack of yoghurt was a broken six-pack and wondered whether I wanted the other three. This particularly difficult conversation held the queue up for a good five minutes but no one got impatient as they might just have done in Oxford if my equivalent (zero beginner Portuguese) had been holding up the line at Tesco. Ironically the worst breakdown came in McDonalds where I pointed to a McChicken, and said “McChicken”. Unfortunately the McWorker was so overcome by the sight of a gringo in her restaurant that she lost it completely and started to giggle. When I took a taxi to the airport the next day to fly to Belo Horizonte, the driver was extremely polite and friendly but even “forty reais” was beyond his active vocabulary.

All of the above will be repeated a million times over by other tourists with both the World Cup and the Olympics to be hosted by Brazil in 2014 and 2016. So how can a country of over 190 million people improve the English language ability of this key segment of employees particularly when so many of them do not have high school education and are probably not our typical language learner? What kind of training do they need? How will they respond to a direct or a communicative method? How important will translation be? How much can they cope with in one lesson? These are important questions which must be answered and acted upon – soon.

Our new series, Welcome to Brazil, tries to address some of these issues. With teachers in Brazil we have talked about the need for very small doses of new language, the need for continual revision and recycling, the need for drills and constant controlled practice, the anxiety students will feel if the lesson is too difficult and the very real question of how long it will take them to get to a respectable level of English where they can ask and answer simple questions, give little bits of information, explain basic procedures and essentially add a little zest of the English language to their innate sociability and charm.

In many ways Brazil is in a fabulous position. They are the major country in South America, have a growing economy, are among the world leaders in aviation, beverages, coffee, oil and gas, are innovators in recycling and ecofuels and have enormous growth potential as a tourist destination. To be totally successful, however, they will need to find the solution to their English language conundrum.

What do you think? Should English-speaking tourists expect a certain level of English language proficiency among the native service industry workers of another country? Share your thoughts below.

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Author: Robert McLarty

Robert McLarty is Head of Professional Development at Oxford University Press. Prior to that he was Publishing Manager for Business English and ESP. From 1986 to 1998, he managed ILC Paris and ran courses for the pharmaceutical, oil, finance, insurance, and construction industries, as well as DELTA and CELTA courses. From 1998 to 2004 he was the Principal of Oxford English Intensive School of English, one of the world’s leading ESP course providers. He is also the co-author of Business Basics, Quick Work (Elementary) and Business Focus.

16 thoughts on “Welcome to Brazil

  1. English-speaking tourists should definitely expect a certain level of English language proficiency among the native service industry workers of Brazil once the country is hosting 2 major sports events!

  2. The upcoming international events will demand from all the service workers at least basic commands of spoken English so they will be able to supply quality services for everyone coming to Brazil not only in 2014 and 2016, because knowledge is a lifetime asset.

  3. I see it as a matter of professionalism, above anything else!
    If I run a business connected with tourism or services, I should think that the expected quality standard of my business comprises staff members, at least some of them, being able to communicate in English to ensure good service / assistance for foreign tourists.
    As a tourist, I’d expect to be assisted in English at a hotel, airport, restaurants and some places where foreign tourists are likely to go.
    For English language teachers, that’s an opportunity, because we see everyday on TV comments about the need for preparation of our country, and this is not only about infra structure, but also the service providers and their skills to communicate effectively with foreigners.
    I’m happy this has been brought up, because raising the level of education of our workforce would be fantastic, not only because of the sporting events to come, but because on a daily basis this would make a big difference in the lives of people and businesses in our country.

  4. What to expect of a country where the average number of books read in a YEAR is 0,6? It is one thing to have Brazilians using basic structures to make themselves understood, but it is a whole new ball game when the tourist actually starts speaking and the little Brazilian Joe gets lost for words.
    A people that has little or no control of its own language cannot expect to learn much of a second language.
    Call me a pessimist, but time will tell.

  5. Definitely, Brazil lacks of English speakers with a reasonable level of language proficiency that enables him or her to communicate the most elementary ideas. In fact, making a simple request or asking for general information in English will demand from an English-speaking tourist a grat deal of patience and persitence to get through.
    Brazil’s public administration must put into action a serious and huge plan to get the country back on the tracks as far as many social issues are concerned.
    Nonetheless, what’s unfortunately been hapenning here in Brazil is that most politicians are solely concerned over developing unthinkable ways of stealing public money and, indeed, will never truly take effective measures to reduce Brazilians’ illiteracy unimaginable stats.
    Thus, when you arrive in Brazil or any other nation in which education is not considered a top priority, be willing to carry a good bilingual dictionary anywhere you go so as you can understand and be understood by the locals. You might not want to consider depending on the Brazilian politicians’ sense of altruism.

  6. I agree with all the comments made so far. I find it odd that the authorities in Brazil really do not seem to understand that Brazil is the only major country in the world where English is still very much a Foreign Language, and not spoken sufficiently well by enough of those engaged in tourism, exports and international trade etc. Perhaps at one level there is a sincere political dilemma over how to allocate resources: the political debate over developing the Mercosul by encouraging the uptake of Spanish as a counterpoint to teaching English and trade with the English-speaking world. The response of other countries is to encourage their people to be multi-lingual. So too should Brazil. Massive investment of public funds in language teaching would be nice of course but so too would be a sustained campaign at all levels of government to encourage people from all walks of life and all ages to learn one or two other languages to at least Council of Europe B1 level.

  7. ”What do you think? Should English-speaking tourists expect a certain level of English language proficiency among the native service industry workers of another country? Share your thoughts below.”

    Unfortunately, not. Most of our service industry workers barely know their own language – with some exceptions – and think that with a very rusty pronounciation of some memorized sentences in English everyone would understand them. What will happen is the same that has already happened in other countries whose 1st language is not English: good will will do the trick. As it might have happened in Africa, Russia, etc, where there have been world events with people speaking multitude of languages and with no knowledge of English managed to make themselves understood.

  8. I strongly believe that service industry workers should have at least a competent and communicative use of the English language, since it is a global language and in events as the ones mentioned before such ability is fundamental.

  9. I think that, as native speakers in the host country, Brazilians involved in tourism should try and do their best to help tourists out, especially during the upcoming events, but I also think anyone leaving their country to go somewhere where people speak a different language should be prepared (beforehand) to say and understand at least the basic “survival” sentences in the target language.

  10. I’m not sure whether tourists should always expect a certain level of English language proficiency among Brazilian workers or whether they should study a little bit of Portuguese before getting here. Maybe both things.

  11. Marcelo Angelo

    This workforce is a sea of opportunities for English teachers. Above all many of taxi drivers
    are cable TV subscribers and they’ve got their children with internet access home.

    I’m sure that Welcome to Brazil series is the tool which will help us fill this gap and definitely
    give our workers decent English to deal with everyday situations.

  12. Unfortunately Brazilians lack, amongst many other things, proper formal education in many areas. However, I’d like to share an experience that I went through in Germany. When I learned that I was going to spend a year in that country the first thing I heard was people telling me not to worry about language, since “all” Germans could speak at least some English. So, it was a big surprise for me when I arrived at Zoo Banhoff in Berlin, the main train station, and I headed to the information desk and none of the ladies could speak English. At an information desk??? In one of the most cosmopolitan European capitals? I could go on and on with plenty of other example situations, in other European countries as well. Nevertheless, I surely hope the authorities in charge of organizing such events will work to their best to minimize the poor English command of most people involved in the service industry. I hope that foreign tourists won’t get demotivated to come down here. Afterall, communication eventually takes place!!!

  13. I do not expect people to speak English EVERYWHERE when I travel abroad. I find it alarming, but rather odd, to hear about communication issues at Brazilian hotels. But I find it even more alarming that no one has rebuked the idea that English should be spoken at supermarkets, and the like. This is called cultural inperialism. Tourists should try to learn a little bit about the country they’re visiting, of course. I, for once, pretend not to speak any English whenever people approach me in English – I find it quite disrespectful to say the least. In France, refusing to speak English is called resistence; but in Brazil, because it is a third-world country, it is called ignorance. Rather alarming indeed.

  14. I believe that a recent travel experience of mine will illustrate the importance of having English-speaking staff. I flew from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Miami on September 30. Two hours into our flight, I saw on the interactive map that we had turned around and were flying in the direction of Buenos Aires instead of Miami. Several announcements of the public address system had been made, but since all of them were in Spanish and I don’t speak Spanish, I didn’t really understand what was going on. I believe that I was the only passenger on the flight who spoke only English, and all the passengers around spoke only Spanish. After we landed again in Buenos Aires, and we were deplaning, I asked the flight attendant why we had returned. She looked at me with complete surprise and asked, “Didn’t you hear the announcements? We had a bomb threat on board.”

  15. Well, many cities here in Brazil is working hard to prepare people for those events. We have english and spanish courses for free( in Nova Lima MG) and, people is interested in learning. Tourist wil have a good support here in our country.

  16. For sure English is a worldwide language, and because of that we assume everywhere we go we can count on people with a reasonable level of the language. Which in fact is really good! However if the major population does not have this ability I clearly think the owners of turists services, restaurants and commercial places should be prepared and develop their employees helping them studying English!

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