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Latin America Blog

Lost in translation: English in Brazil

Brazil is considered a 'low English proficiency' country, and ranks among the lowest in the world for workplace fluency, putting the emerging economy at a disadvantage, writes a guest blogger.

By Rachel GlickhouseGuest blogger / May 24, 2012

Laborers work on the renovation of the Mineirao Stadium, one of the venues of the 2014 World Cup, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, April 18.

Washington Alves/REUTERS

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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

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One of the main challenges leading up to Brazil's mega-events – including the Rio+20, the World Cup, and the Olympics – is a shortage of English speakers in key sectors, including tourism, transportation, and hospitality. For those who spend lots of time in Brazil and speak Portuguese or hope to become fluent, this is actually an advantage, which can allow for more immersion. But for one-time visitors or those dependent on English as their only language or the only other way to communicate outside of their native language (such as Chinese, Russian, etc), it can prove to be a problem.

On global English rankings, Brazil does not fare well. EF, a global English education company, released its international English proficiency index for 2011, showing that Brazil ranked as a country with "low English proficiency." Though it was among the lowest ranking countries, Brazil scored above the "very low proficiency" countries such as Panama and Vietnam. Released in April, the GlobalEnglish Corporation Business English Index ranked Brazil among the lowest in the world among countries with the least amount of English fluency in the workplace, which puts the country "at a disadvantage." An Economist Intelligence Unit report released this month indicated that Brazil is one of the countries that struggles the most with the language barrier in international business; nearly three-quarters of Brazilians surveyed said their company had experienced “financial losses as a result of failed cross-border transactions.”

Brazilian surveys reflect this issue, showing low levels of English knowledge at all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum. A Catho survey from late last year found that only 11 percent of Brazilian job candidates could communicate well in English, and only 3.4 percent of all candidates could speak fluent English. A 2009 Catho study found that 24 percent of Brazilian professionals speak fluent English, and that only 8 percent of Brazilian executives speak fluent English. A lack of English speakers even in high-tech fields has hurt Brazil's competitiveness in IT and outsourcing like call centers. According to a Data Popular survey released this month, the "new middle class" in Brazil will spend R$28.1 billion (US $13.8 billion) on education in 2012, but only 1 in 5 members of the so-called C class knows how to speak a foreign language.

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