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Wanted in Brazil: more English speakers

Brazil placed near the bottom of a 54-country ranking of English proficiency this week. But with floods of tourists expected to attend the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, more people are signing up for English classes.

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'Thousands of tourists'

Brazil could host hundreds of thousands of tourists and engineers in coming years. Some 700,000 jobs will be created in the tourism industry between 2011 and the 2014 World Cup, according to the Ministry of Tourism. As multinationals keep tabs on the energy and infrastructure sectors, foreigners are increasingly doing business in Brazil, with many even relocating.

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And as Brazil gets more press as an emerging economy member of the so-called "BRICS," it wants to remain competitive as a major world player. A push is under way for authors to translate works to English and to send Brazilian students abroad through government-sponsored programs.

"Brazil is such an entrepreneurial society and produces a lot of quality research, yet many people don't realize this since information is rarely in English for non-Portuguese speakers to have access to,” says Mary Risner, associate director at the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies.

'Not just a phase'

As is the case across Latin America, the elite are much more likely to have language skills. “It really depends on your social class. In my house, no one speaks [English],” says Valdson Rodrigues Maia, a civil servant at the lunchtime English course. His classmates add that the course per month costs about $340, nearly as much as Rio's monthly minimum wage.

But Brazil still fares poorly compared to other nations in the region, despite its reputation as a regional political leader. The private research firm Education First ranks its proficiency in English as “very low,” behind Mexico, the second-largest economy in Latin America after Brazil, and its neighbors Chile and Argentina, the only country in the region to fare well in the rankings worldwide. Brazil, on the other hand, sits at 46 out of 54 countries.

Ms. Risner says there is not just interest in English, but Spanish, too. Even though many Portuguese speakers can get by understanding Spanish, the opposite is often not true. And English is a different story altogether.

“The greatest problem we have here is pronunciation,” says Ms. Correa, the teacher.

Mr. Costa says he hopes that the commitment to English learning, even if slow to start, is not fleeting.

“We have to have a consistent change, so that when [English proficiency] comes, it comes to stay, so that it’s not just a phase,” he says. “This can’t pass [after the Olympics are over].”

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