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If English is the language of world commerce, Brazil hasn’t gotten the memo — only a small fraction of its 200 million people have a basic proficiency. Fluency is also rare for other languages such as German, French and even Spanish, despite Brazil being bordered by seven Spanish-speaking countries.
Many of the hundreds of thousands of tourists expected to descend on Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics in a few weeks could frequently find themselves in a linguistic muddle.
Vanderclei Silva Santos, who sells caipirinhas, Brazil’s national cocktail, says he struggles to communicate with foreign tourists who stop at his stand on Copacabana Beach, so he uses his fingers and toes to write prices and shapes in the sand.
Most of the time it works, but trying and funny moments are common, like the time a woman made chomping gestures to ask where she might find fresh corn on the cob. There was also the time a man seemed to be urgently asking for a “banheiro,” which is a toilet, but it turned out he was trying to figure out where to take a “banho,” or shower.
“Communicating is tough. We move our hips, we smile, which tourists like. We find a way,” said Santos, a 39-year-old who hopes to one day take a basic English course, something that until recent years generally was available only for wealthy Brazilians and is still not widely offered.
Attempting over the last year to bridge the language gap for the Summer Games, Rio de Janeiro state, the Olympic Committee and several companies have offered in-person and online English courses to several thousand service industry workers, Olympic volunteers and police — those most likely to come in contact with tourists.
“Do you know the meaning of ‘I’m going to kick your butt?'” teacher Rafael Vianna asked this week to a dozen tourist police in an advanced course aimed at preparing them to help English speakers sort through any issues that come up, from harassment to robbery. “It’s often used in sports and can be interpreted in different ways depending on the context.”
On the blackboard, Vianna wrote and defined some words that tourists in distress may use, such as “mace, malice, mayhem and nuisance.”
Vinicius Lummertz, the president of Embratur, a government agency that promotes Brazil overseas, said Rio will be ready. And he argues that any linguistic struggles will be part of the experience.
“A lack of English is a problem, but trying to communicate with Brazilians who only speak Portuguese becomes a flavor,” Lummertz said. “Do you want a world that is exactly the same everywhere?”
Latin America’s biggest country is roughly the size of the continental United States, which has tended to insulate its people. And vast inequalities permeate every walk of life, including education. Most Brazilians have never had a chance to study other languages.
Virginia Garcia, former head of the British Council in Brazil, said research by the council a few years ago found that only 5 percent of Brazilians spoke English at a proficient level.
Garcia said English instruction in public schools is limited, although several big events hosted by Brazil in recent years, including the Pan American Games, the World Cup and a visit by Pope Francis, have slowly pushed the country to expand language teaching.
“Twenty years ago, only people coming from the high classes could learn other languages in Brazil,” Garcia said. “It’s slowly getting more democratic.”
Antonio Carlos de Moraes Sartini, director of the Sao Paulo-based Museum of the Portuguese Language, said Brazil’s intense focus on Portuguese dates to 1750, when the Portugal’s monarchy made teaching the language mandatory to create a national identity different from the surrounding Spanish-speaking colonies.
At the time, only about 20 percent of people in Brazil spoke Portuguese, while more than 1,000 indigenous languages prevailed. A few hundred of those languages are still spoken, mostly in the Amazonian region, but the vast majority of indigenous peoples now also speak Portuguese.
“The language spoken here today expresses Brazilians’ expansive, affectionate nature,” said Sartini.
That nature often includes having a good laugh when it comes to foreign languages.
Joel Santana, a former soccer player and coach, has parlayed his halting English into a second career in television advertising. In 2010, while coaching South Africa’s national team, he gave an interview in English that was so indecipherable that it became an internet sensation. Since then, he has pitched products such as Pepsi and Head & Shoulders shampoo in commercials, throwing in barely understandable words in English.
Jens Heftoy, a journalist from Norway who has visited Brazil several times in the last decade since marrying a woman from Rio, said that in his experience even Brazilians who have a decent level of English prefer not to speak it unless they work in the tourism industry.
“Three blocks from here, you’ll have problems” in communicating, Heftoy said while walking on the tourist mecca of Copacabana Beach. “It works out, but you have to be patient.”
This article was written by Peter Prengaman from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.