Each day a group of seven comes to this small classroom in downtown Rio de Janeiro on lunch break. The energetic young teacher, Natália Correa, runs a drill of simple English sentences by snapping her fingers and clapping her hands to keep up a fast call-and-response beat.
“Ask me how much the pants are!” she demands.
“How much the pants are?” many of the students respond enthusiastically, if not correctly, forgetting to invert the question.
Their little cluster of learning includes a lawyer, real estate agent, IT specialist, and civil servants. And it would be nothing extraordinary, except that this kind of gathering was hard to find just a few years back.
Rated at the bottom of a new list released this week on English proficiency in a 54-country survey, Brazil is now rushing to play catch-up on the linguistic front after decades of low priorities placed on English – and Spanish – learning. With its vast size, the language barrier placed between the Portuguese-speaking nation and the rest of Spanish Latin America, and two decades of military rule that ended in the 1980s, Brazil was for a long time very inward-looking, closing its door to outsiders.
But experts say that’s changing – albeit slowly – as the world eyes Brazil's booming energy sector, its public works projects, and its plans to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. And with a rising middle class, millions of Brazilians are today beginning to treat English classes not as a privilege for the rich but as a commodity, not unlike a gym membership.
“It’s part of the day-to-day of the growing middle class to have English as an activity,” says Rone Costa, the manager for development for Cambridge ESOL Examinations in Brazil, which tests and certifies students’ English proficiency.
The market for English
Brazil already has some 6,215 franchises of more than 70 language schools with names like Wizard, Yes!, Wise Up, and Cultura Inglesa, according to the Brazilian Franchising Association. And that number doesn’t include private teachers who give individual courses and small group lessons across the country.
Their market is large: About 4 of 5 Brazilians in the middle class, which accounts for more than half of the country, do not speak any foreign language, according to 2010 research by the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics. That's approximately 100 million Brazilians.
And for those who can't afford private courses, the government is putting new attention on English learning. In 2009, after Brazil won the bid to host the Olympics, it began to require that public schools in Rio de Janeiro teach English to all children between ages 6 and 8 in a program called Criança Global (Global Child).
'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.
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].”