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.
Travel writer and fellow Brazilophile Seth Kugel has written about this issue, finding a mixed bag. In March, he wrote about the puzzingly poor translation of Embratur (Brazil's tourism bureau)'s English site, particularly the interactive World Cup section. Some errors were particularly egregious since they simply required a Google or Wikipedia search rather than a translated phrase. At the end of the post, Kugel wrote:
"Obviously, no one is going to decide not to visit Trancoso because of a vocabulary error. But give up visiting a country that doesn't have legible information on its official website? With so many other countries with their eye on the billions of dollars from international tourists? It's not only possible, it's probable."
In response, Embratur said it had hired a third-party company, Agencia Click, to do the site and translation, and that it would release the site with a new translation later this year. The whole thing was quite strange, considering that the agency in question, which is one of the largest and well-respected digital communications companies in the country, should have no problem finding real translators. But it's a symptomatic case in a country where things are often and sometimes unnecessarily lost in translation.
On the other hand, the upcoming mega-events have added pressure to the tourism sector to hire more English speakers. In a recent "review" of São Paulo's Guarulhos Airport, Kugel found that three different information booth workers were able to communicate in English, providing helpful information about hotels and sightseeing. (However, special groups run by judges aimed to solve issues like lost baggage and overbookings at Brazil's biggest airports have only a single English-speaking employee, a recent report said.) Language schools estimate that foreign language courses will grow by 30 to 40 percent over the next four years in preparations for the World Cup and Olympics. Last year, around 120 taxi drivers in Rio received English training in a special course for taxistas--the first of its kind in the country--which inspired similar taxi driver courses from Piauí to Rio Grande do Sul.
My experience is that there are plenty of English speakers in Brazil, but these speakers are sometimes concentrated in specialized fields like finance and web companies. But for me, Brazil's real challenge isn't just going to be finding and training English speakers in key jobs before the mega-events, but rather improving foreign language education at the elementary and secondary school levels so that the next generation has better opportunities in the global economy.
Photo: by me. Florianópolis International Airport, 2008.