You've probably read about how different cities in Brazil are preparing for the World Cup by offering English courses to certain groups, from taxi drivers in Rio to prostitutes in Belo Horizonte. With a year and a half left before the mega-event, some are scrambling to teach foreign languages--especially English--in preparation for the expected flood of foreigners in the next few years. There's also growing consciousness about the fact that the lack of English speakers in Brazil means the country is losing money, not only in tourism but business, too.
Unfortunately, a lot of the focus on expanding the pool of foreign-language speakers has to do with Brazil's upcoming mega-events. A very amusing report from Correio Braziliense, for example, found few English and Spanish speakers in Brasilia, where a McDonald's employee pointed a Spaniard to a bathroom after he asked for a vaso (cup, in Spanish), and a host at a fancy restaurant simply hung up after discovering he was unable to understand the foreign caller. Meanwhile, the Belo Horizonte sex workers story made instant headlines around the world. But tourists aren't going to just be lost during the World Cup or Olympics; this is a problem now, and will be after 2016. And even more importantly, the shortage of English speakers adds to the so-called "Brazil cost," a combination of factors that makes Brazil less competitive, across the spectrum of industries.
Luckily, President Dilma Rousseff and some in her administration understand this: Brazil's language gap is a bigger, long-term problem. In late December, Brazil's Education Minister Aloizio Mercadante announced that the government will launch "English Without Borders" in March. The program--which echoes the government's STEM initiative to send students abroad to study science and technology--aims to benefit half a million students over the next year. Initially, 100,000 students with high marks on the country's college entrance exam will receive access to an online English course ("the best in the world," Mercadante says). Students will take the TOEFL exam to see which level they qualify for, and 10,000 students with high scores on this test will receive preferential access to English courses at federal universities. Later, the government hopes to expand the program to Spanish, German, and Chinese. According to a brief report on the plan this week, it's the most ambitious English-language program ever launched by the government.
Still, key questions remain. Will distance learning really be effective? Will the classroom courses have qualified teachers? Will the program be extended past 2014? One certainly hopes so.
But like with many of Brazil's education challenges, an even better approach would be starting much earlier--on the elementary level, as well as the secondary and university levels. It's the difference between CEOs who cannot communicate with foreign colleagues and five-year-olds who have never been to an English-speaking country but speak like California natives. They both exist now. If a government initiative was created for elementary students, particularly in public schools, imagine what the difference would be in 20 years. Hopefully, English Without Borders is the start of more expansive foreign language programs to come.
Image: Acariquara. Shirt captured at a Walmart in Bahia. The first dialogue bubble reads: "It's coll."