Is Brazil Ready to Communicate at the Games?


The Brazilian government is trying to increase the number of English translations on public signage, but they aren’t doing this very successfully. In a recent opinion article in The New York Times, contributor Vanessa Barbara cites that the exit gates to a newly opened football stadium in Salvador, Brazil were labeled “Entrace.” So they basically mislabeled and misspelled the sign simultaneously. And did I mention this stadium was built specifically for Salvador to be one of the host cities of the 2014 World Cup?!  Barbara goes on to say, “Brazilians are so nervous about what will happen when tourists descend for the World Cup, we’re practically wishing we could call it all off.”

One barrier to communication can be language itself.  It is extremely difficult to communicate verbally when the two people do not share a common language.  This is normal to run into when you are a tourist in a foreign country.  It also raises an interesting question for a monolingual speaker of English such as myself: Do many countries in this world of ours have adults who are proficient in the English language?

The most recent edition of the Education First English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) ranks 60 countries around the world according to the number of adults in those respective countries who can proficiently speak English.  The adults took English tests in 2012, and the results were analyzed to create the updated rankings.  Data was collected from nearly 5 million adults over the past six years.  The overview of rankings can be found here at the EPI website.

photo credit to NY Times

The English language has become a very important communication tool throughout our ever growing global economy. In the business world, it seems that knowing English is a huge advantage.  Brazil, whose official language is Portuguese, is currently ranked #38 and shows “low proficiency” at a score of 50.07 on the scale.  To give you some perspective, the #1 ranked country is Sweden with “very high proficiency” and a score of 68.69.  Actually, all the countries in the top 10 are European.  While Brazil’s proficiency levels have risen since the results of the previous edition of the EPI (up 2.80 points), I still do not think they are at a sufficient level to be prepared for the upcoming 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.  I’m not trying to say English should be the norm or “standard” language, but worldwide events such as the World Cup do raise pragmatic issues.


What better way to learn about what communication is truly like in Brazil than by speaking to Brazilians? Thanks to Professor Fernandez I was able to communicate with two of her colleague’s students at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG) in Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Marcus Valdares and Adriana Barbosa.  One of Marcus’s observations was that many people do speak English, but those that do are in an academic environment.  He has informed me that there are initiatives being put in place to teach English to people with jobs such as taxi drivers, servers, police officers and shopkeepers (hopefully in time for the influx of tourism expected due to the World Cup).

Adriana shared with me that there are a limited number of well instructed second language instructors in the public school system in Brazil, which she thinks is the main cause of the lack of English proficiency.

World Cup poster for Belo Horizonte, Brazil-one of the host cities for the games

World Cup poster for Belo Horizonte, Brazil
-one of the host cities for the games

She said something else that I found fascinating, “The upcoming World Cup seems to have boosted the business of English teaching. But to me, that is all. Business. Lots of schools popped up in the market but many are there only to benefit from the current ‘learn English fever.’” I do agree, unfortunately, that learning a second language has become a money maker more than it has become an educational interest or hobby. Just look at how well Rosetta Stone is doing! A major cause of people not learning any second language, not just English, IS money after all. According to Education First, “private tutorials with native English-speaking teachers cost 30 to 50 US dollars per lesson, more than 10% of what a minimum wage earner makes in a month. You try spending over 10% of your income on something you can live without.  Understandably, many people in the middle class just cannot afford it.  How horrible is that!

My hope is that the people in Brazil receiving English lessons for the purpose of training for the World Cup receive these lessons for free (or at least a sharp discount).  The major communication gaps outside the stadiums themselves need to be filled if Brazil wants their time as host to the games to go smoothly and be a pleasant experience for its visitors.  The government is definitely making an effort to get there.  There will always be some bridges to cross when it comes to communication across cultures so as long as everyone is patient and listens, the World Cup will be a great experience for all.


A special thank you to Adriana and Marcus for sharing what they know about this topic!

For a full discussion on the FIFA World Cup, visit Nick’s blog, Sports Weekly here!

Here is a link to the FIFA website

To read the New York Times article in its entirety, click here

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