Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


Welcome to Brazil

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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