SOON after the Mercosur free-trade agreement (between Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay) went into effect last year, professors at the Brazilian Embassy in Buenos Aires were flooded with calls from Argentine business executives and government ministers requesting Portuguese-language instruction.
Trade with Brazil was soaring, and few of their employees could answer in Portuguese the faxes and sales orders flooding into their offices every day. Forced to send documents to translators, officials were wasting valuable time and energy. They needed a quick solution. Instructors at the embassy came up with one: intensive crash courses in Brazilian Portuguese taught on-site in classrooms set up for the occasion.
Today, the program is booming, with officials at the Ministry of Economics, Foreign Relations, and the Central Bank, and workers at dozens of private companies all gathering in large numbers, taking time out to study the subtle difficulties of their neighbor's tongue.
"We can no longer afford not to know the language," says Moises Lictmajer, coordinator of Mercosur trade relations at Argentina's Ministry of Economics, after an afternoon grammar session. Mercosur, the Spanish acronym for the Southern Cone Common Market, was signed in 1991.
With their economies growing more and more connected - at $6.3 billion, trade between Argentina and Brazil more than tripled last year - people from all fields are finding that increasingly they need to do business in both Latin tongues. Lawyers need to submit bilingual legal contracts to corporate bosses working with suppliers across the border. Engineers must build a new plant using a foreign crew. While the two languages are similar, the differences are enough so that many seek more instruction.
Signs of the booming demand are everywhere: in the Sunday classified ads for tutors and native teachers; in document centers, where orders for translations pile up; and in university education programs, where enrollment in Portuguese and Spanish teaching majors is booming.
"The demand here in Buenos Aires for Portuguese and in Brazil for Spanish is remarkable," says Sylvia Oliveira de Estevan, vice director of the Brazilian Embassy's Center of Studies, which has been flooded with new students, more than 2,500 for the coming fall classes.
Today's rush to integrate comes only seven years after rival military dictators bent on expansion brought both countries to the brink of war. For several years, beginning in the late 1970s, tensions rose as generals locked horns in an arms race.
Now, instead of pumping up defense budgets and pointing cannons at each other, new civilian governments in Brazil and Argentina are investing resources to foster greater communication.
Hoping to prepare future generations for the demands of a bilingual marketplace, government leaders are making public school language instruction one of their leading priorities.
To accelerate the changes, Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem, a charter signer of the treaty, issued a decree last year making Portuguese-language instruction mandatory for all students.
Another initiative launched last year is an exchange program of workshops at designated universities in which Brazilian and Argentine business partners can meet for cultural and language interchanges.
"Knocking down barriers, that's really the key part of integration," says Edith Dacal, a trade lawyer attending a workshop held at the University of Buenos Aires. "Putting aside our differences and working together to spur the economic production of the region. That's the challenge we're trying to face."