Despite all the shortcomings — unprepared instructors,
and lack of labs and multimedia equipment, for example — Brazilians are
trying to learn English in record numbers. English is so pervasive nowadays
that even a collection of booklets aimed at solving Portuguese questions
being published by traditional daily O Estado de São Paulo is
called "Help", in English. This invasion has provoked a backlash
in some quarters and some people are boycotting stores with Anglicized
By Katheryn Gallant
When the New Year rolls around, the most popular resolution of Brazilians
is to learn English. Twenty million Brazilians of all ages are currently
learning the language of Shakespeare — and of international business —
in over 3,000 registered English schools. Never have so many Brazilians
attempted to learn a foreign language. Few of the students, however, find
themselves at year’s end with better English skills than they started.
"English is a hot potato in my mouth…" We are at the theater,
watching a scene of the play Cinco Vezes Comédia (Five Times
Comedy). In it, a woman, portrayed by the actress Débora Bloch,
describes her attempts to learn the English language. "My English
is so bad," Bloch’s character tells the audience, "that when
I got lost in [New York City’s] Central Park and had to ask for help, I
said ‘Who am I?’ instead of ‘Where am I?’ People ran away
from me, thinking I was crazy."
Finally, after trying every kind of English class without success, Bloch’s
character decides to take one last chance. She begins a course called Sleeping
Learning and takes English lessons in her sleep. Her dreams become populated
with people named Peter, Paul, Mary, Bill and Joan, who get her involved
in a mystery that would do Agatha Christie proud. Only in the last lesson,
when she is accused of murder and sent to the electric chair, does the
woman finally become fluent in English. However, it was not a dream.
This is an exaggeration, but Sleeping Learning does exist. It
is a course of 13 tapes which should be listened to every night in the
second half-hour after falling asleep. The tape recorder, which has a clock
attached, turns on automatically. According to Sleeping Learning, students
who faithfully follow directions for 70 consecutive nights will wake up
well-versed in English. "Students learn more while they’re asleep
because their concentration is greater," Luís Carlos Arruda,
director of Sleeping Learning, told Brazilian weekly newsmagazine Veja
in an August 1996 article.
A study conducted by Rajendra Rangi Singh, a South African specialist
in teaching foreign languages to Brazilian businesses, has shown that half
the English schools in Brazil are of poor quality. These schools emphasize
grammar instead of conversation and lack resource materials, such as labs,
multimedia equipment and libraries. Their instructors are poorly paid and
usually do not have college degrees (much less graduate degrees in teaching
English as a second language). Some instructors are tourists from Anglophone
countries who have resorted to illegally teaching English to prolong their
stay in Brazil. It is no surprise that the turnover of the faculty in these
English schools is quite high.
Another 35% of Brazilian English schools are somewhat better, but do
not have enough money to buy many computers or reference books. Singh considers
that only 15% of English schools in Brazil are of high quality. These schools
not only have qualified, well-paid faculty, a low teacher-student ratio
and large libraries. They also have ready access to language labs and up-to-date
software that supplement the lessons.
Students in Brazilian high schools must take classes in at least one
foreign language to graduate. But despite the popularity of English words
(such as house, bus, delivery, big head, yeeeees!) in the slang
of Brazil’s young people, most of them continue to be functionally unilingual.
Every year, about 120,000 Brazilian college-bound students take the English
test of Fuvest as part of their vestibulares. On a scale of one
to ten, the average for students taking the English test is a lowly 3.5.
Alceu Gonçalves de Pinho, director of Fuvest, told Veja that
the poor scores were even worse than they seemed, since "the test
is very easy."
The use of English-language words in names of businesses has become
more common in Brazil. Most of the stores are franchises of foreign establishments.
The exotic names of the stores can even help business, according to Heloísa
Paranhos, 45, an employee of the frozen yogurt store I Can’t Believe It’s
Yogurt! "Lots of people don’t know what we’re selling and come in
just out of curiosity," she told São Paulo newspaper O Estado
de São Paulo.
A backlash has developed against this in some quarters. Maria do Carmo,
a 26-year-old confectioner, does her best to avoid stores with Anglicized
names. "As much as I can, I opt for the national one," she said.
Besides, she sees the rage for foreign words as a superficial gimmick.
"It’s all marketing," she said, using the English expression.
Lexicographer Maria Lúcia Daflon, a member of the team that is
currently preparing the third edition of the Dicionário Aurélio
(whose English-language equivalent in prestige would be the Merriam-Webster
Dictionary), has noticed the increasing number of foreign words in
the Brazilian Portuguese vocabulary, especially in the technical field.
Nevertheless, Daflon believes that the dictionary will not include computer-related
neologisms like printar (to print) and deletar (to delete).
"The tendency is that those words will disappear," she told O
Estado de São Paulo.
Business executives and other people who have the time and money to
learn English abroad have made it an increasingly popular option. In the
past two years, the number of Brazilians who have gone to the US to study
English has increased an average of 60%, according to Veja. In 1995
alone, an estimated 20,000 students of all ages left Brazil to learn English.
According to Celso Luís Garcia, the operations director of the Brazilian
Educational and Language Travel Association (Belta), a month-long English
immersion course in an Anglophone country corresponds to an average year
of English classes in Brazil.
Nevertheless, instructors in English as a Second Language recommend
study abroad only for those who have a basic knowledge of English before
they leave. "A student who doesn’t know the language goes through
so many difficulties that he ends up being traumatized," explained
Irene Felman, of the Associação Alumni (Alumni Association),
a learning and exchange center for Brazilians learning English.
Armando Ambrósio, a 47-year-old sales manager for Johnson &
Johnson, is a typical example. Despite his position in a US-owned business,
he spoke almost no English. After his superiors sent him to a week-long
intensive English course in the US, Ambrósio took his wife to San
Francisco to show off his new-found skills in the language. When they went
to dinner at a restaurant, however, Ambrósio discovered that his
fluency was nowhere near as profound as he had thought. To order a meal,
he had to mimic the sounds of the animals he wanted to eat. "It was
really humiliating!" he recalled. Ambrósio wanted to have shrimp,
but he didn’t know the English word. After some American customers tried
to help him, Ambrósio found himself with a lobster dinner.