Poor ingles? No problem for Brazil's diplomats

Brazil lowers the language skills required of potential candidates in a bid to democratize its diplomatic ranks.

In Brasil, the importancia of ingles has been reducido. For diplomatas, speaking the language of Bush and Blair is not as essencial as it once was.

Across the world, English is recognized as the language of commerce, entertainment, travel, and much else. But thanks to a decree issued earlier this year by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, prospective diplomats no longer need to be fluent in English to win a place at Brazil's diplomacy school, the Instituto Rio Branco.

Supporters are hailing the move, saying it will democratize entry. Critics call it an indictment of a failing school system.

Under the government's old four-stage process, applicants who did not speak first-rate English were not even considered. Under the new rules, candidates who do poorly in English during the early tests may be accepted if they excel in other areas like law or economics. The government says it can teach English later to those with a basic grasp.

The government says the move counters the former "elitist" approach. "Affirmative action is the state taking the responsibility that it wasn't able to take before, of giving everyone an adequate education," Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said in a newspaper interview. "[The objective] is to broaden the array of people who can become diplomats."

Critics say that objective is admirable but not feasible in a country where English instruction in state schools is poor. Brazil's Foreign Office, known as Itamaraty, cannot hope to welcome pupils from state schools because only a tiny number learn the language there, says Mike Thornton, the head of English-language teaching at the British Council.

"A minority of English teachers in state schools speak English," Mr. Thornton says. "The kids are being taught by people who can't speak properly. English is not a priority subject here."

Lula's decision to deemphasize what Brazilians charmingly call "the language of Shakespeare" comes just four years after a congressman tried to ban English in public places. That move was sparked by a fear that English was becoming too common, to the embarrassment of those who cannot read signs declaring "personal banking," "sale," or "express delivery" at shops. The law never passed.

Some interpret Lula's decision as a clumsy move by a staunch nationalist. "The decision reflects the strong position of the nationalists in Itamaraty," says Riordan Roett, director of the Western Hemisphere Program at Johns Hopkins University. "They believe that the American Empire will decline, if it is not already doing so, and that Itamaraty should be prepared for a more ... multilateral world."

Mr. Amorim stresses that English skills are indispensable. Diplomats who need it will get special tuition, he says, and no one would go overseas until they had learned enough to argue their case with native speakers.

But not everyone is reassured. "People studying to be diplomats ... don't have time to go through all their training and take English lessons, too," says Jose Botafogo Goncalves, a former ambassador to Argentina. "It's fine to want to democratize entry into the diplomatic corps. But Brazilian diplomats have always been an elite. The government is making a big mistake."

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