53 comments on “São Paulo: A city with more English schools than English speakers?

  1. To an extent, I think larger countries struggle more with foreign languages. The truth is that many people in Brazil never have to deal with another language, for work or in their personal lives. Even if they travel, their are many places to go in Brazil (and it’s been historically cheaper than traveling abroad). There are many immigrants but, with the exception of food, they’ve assimilated Brazilian culture more than the other way around.

    I imagine that’s similar to a place like the US (how many Americans speak another language – or the old criticism: have a passport?). It’s not a good excuse, just an added difficulty that smaller countries like Costa Rica (or Holland) don’t have.

    I think there are so many English schools because there’s a belief that speaking English is important, especially for business, so it gets used as a recruitment tie-breaker. The person with better English skills (on paper anyway, never mind that they will probably not have to use it at all) gets the job. Net result: everyone studies English “para ingles ver” (no pun intended).

    • Some good points but then there’s Argentina (South America’s second biggest country – and 8th worldwide) which sits at the top of this study (in South and Central America anyway). So this would seem to contradict the old saying that Brazil looks towards the States whilst Argentina looks to Europe.

      I think the English schools serve a variety of purposes for a variety of people (young and old), but they just don’t really seem to be very effective.

      • Good point about Argentina. I don’t know how to explain that. I wonder if it’s the size of the population (rather than the area) that matters. In any case, a lot more could be done to improve English literacy in Brazil. Maybe improving literacy in Portuguese would be a good place to start. 🙂

      • The thing about Argentina is that it is historically and culturally more “Europized”. Their culturally identify themselves more with European countries than latin american ones. So that can be a partial explanation for a better understanding of foreign languages.

      • They do say that Argentina looks towards Europe whilst Brazil looks north to the US. It’s quite funny quite how much Argentines want to be European!

  2. Nice post.

    Yeah, Argentina doesn’t pose much of a problem to your theory in my opinion. It may be a lot of land but the population is small, and overwhelming concentrated in one city (about 28%).

    I don’t find the statistics so surprising – although I did find Brazilians comparative lack of English very surprising when I traveled around South America. At the time I just put it down to the importance of tourism to local economies but this is probably quite an arrogant supposition. And if I’d been going on my personal experience alone Argentina wouldn’t feature so highly.

    I was amazed by the number of people that speak English in Peru – and not just the ones that know enough to sell you an Inka Trail package. Restaurant owners around Lima all wanted to explain their dishes in English and even the alcies in their drinking dens at midday managed to reel off a decent tale about something or other without too much trouble – and more than a couple of taxi drivers as well.

  3. Great read. It might be good to note that this also happens in a lot of major cities in Brazil. Most of the schools illustrated in your post have branches in many different cities, it is really a huge market and as you can imagine it makes a lot of money.

  4. Perhaps the inability of Brazilians to speak English properly is due to the fact they have no ability to speak Portuguese – I mean writing skills and even spoken. :/
    You can’t imagine what an university professor must read his/her students final essay for graduation … 😦 They say no single thing about nothing in Portuguese…
    That’s my hypothesis.
    Sorry for my mistakes… 😉

  5. It’s the educational system that’s flawed as a whole, with the bad basic educational structure reflecting on the formation of individuals incapable of absorbing new technical skills, something that’s clear when you hear that Brazil has a short number of PHDs comparing to the other BRICs countries. It’s said by the elders that public education, at least here in São Paulo/South, was pretty decent until the seventies, when the military dictatorship destroyed the whole system, and nowadays teachers get a miserable salary to teach in schools without the proper structure. That’s changing, but unfortunately it willl take sometime to a foeigner be able to find easily people who talk other languages in Brazil.

  6. Lot of good comments already, so I’ll have to repeat some. Having taught English (or made small talk as Andy said) in SP for the last 18 months, I’ve picked my students’ brains enough to know that the education system is definitely one of the culprits. With the best grade schools costing big bucks, most Paulistas can’t afford to give their kids a high-level education, and without a high-level school, you’re not going to get good language instruction, in English OR Portuguese.

    I also agree with the comment about SP not needing English as much as other cities. As far as big cities go, SP isn’t swarming with tourism 24/7 like Rio or other non-Brazilian hot spots. Only recently with Brazil’s growth are people starting to realize the advantages of conquering English. It’ll take time to notice any real change.

    Lastly though, I wanted to add one thing to the argument. I’m always confounded at the lack of bilingual speakers in SP, especially when you consider how many had every opportunity to learn a 2nd language at home. I’m talking of course about my students from Japanese and Italian backgrounds. Maybe the fact that I lived in NY or Miami makes it stand out for me more than others, but I think these two things are connected. If Brazilian culture can swallow a family’s Japanese or Italian language/culture whole, devaluing the importance of English is a walk in the park.


    • I think your point about the absorption of cultures is a pretty interesting. London is pretty much the same as NY in that the culture of a migrant sits alongside that of their ‘host’ country. Here it’s amazing how it just seems to be sucked up into this big blur of ‘Brazilianess’.

      • hmmm… some good points! The main problem is there isn´t any standard or control. Anyone can open an English school. There is simply no control. So, the result is you get good and bad teachers in different schools. As for the gringo knows best… hmmm.. as a native speaker with a degree and background in education it amazes me how a non-teacher with almost no knowledge of their native langauge , thinks they can simply rock up and be a great English teacher… hmm maybe I will just move to …. Italy and be a doctor! An English speaker is very different to an English teacher!

  7. So glad I stumbled upon your blog!

    We are South Africans, moving to Pirracicaba (in Sao Paulo state) for a year and I’m completely overwhelmed. Trying to do as much research (culture, food, ettiquete etc) before we get there in January. Yes, I’m the kid who actually reads the instruction manual… Anyway, we’ve just started portuguese lessons (with a teacher from Mozambique!) and it’s crazy. I know when we are immersed in the language it will be a lot easier but it’s pretty daunting now.

    I’m hoping the culture shock won’t hit too hard, my husband has told me that it has a very similar feel to SA, being a developing country. But reading your log posts has really helped get my brain around it all.

    Thanks so much and look forward to more info to devour!

    • I hope the Portuguese lessons help (some must be better than none, right?) but it sounds a bit like having English lessons with a teacher from Glasgow before moving to South Africa. I think you might find there are some differences. 🙂

    • Well, I’m glad the blog has been of some use to you….although I hope you haven’t got the wrong impression.

      I reckon you’d be fairly right in assuming SP and SA are similar so I don’t think the culture shock will be too bad at all. The only thing which will be difficult is the language and whilst as Andrew said, Portuguese outside of Brazil is very different, at least you’re going to have some basics which is always a good idea.

      Anyway, if there’s anything specific you’re worried about just let me know. All the best with your move!

    • You already have a Piracicabana accent!
      Piracicaba is famous for its caipira accent that stresses the ‘r’ just like you doubled it when writing.

    • Can I recommend Michel Thomas as a way to teach yourself Portuguese. The audio books are great for many different languages

  8. I’ll add my two cents. I’m a Brazilian, born and raised in the greater SP area (meaning the ABCD cities in my case). Coming from a middle income family, I did have the opportunity to go to one of these schools, and I believe I was fairly lucky with the third teacher I had (after hopping schools 3 times, finished at FISK and got my TOELF there too). I was one of the kids with a pushy parent, tho, I absolutely didn’t want to, yet she made me. Anyhow, the reason she did push me to was exactly to be able to land a job, perhaps move away from here. And, mom was right, as time seems to vindicate them all. I’m working as a translator today, so I’ll be able to pay (starting next year) my college towards my Journalism degree. And, this is where it gets interesting.

    I do not have a degree in translation, yet I learned well enough to be able to translate back and forth, and have been working with it since I was 20 (was on another college, Game Design did not work out for me). I’m 23 today and I’m at the youngest at my new job at a translation agency, which prides itself as one of the biggest. I’m also actually the only one without a degree in English Translation. And guess what? I’m the only other main reviewer we have. I routinely have to correct such translations (Eng -> Pt) as “Poor environmental conditions” that, in Portuguese magically transform into “Condições ambientais escassas” (it does not exist, should be “adversas”). People who have no idea what does it mean to strike a match, what is a running account or how, and these are my overseers, do you say it’s “véspera de feriado.” They freaking don’t know how to say X-mas eve. They are all my seniors by at least 4 years and they have had their degrees since they were 22-23, mind you. It’s not just the basic education that sucks, it’s all across the board. And, yes, many Brazilians see no reason to learn any other idiom, but then again, they don’t see any reason to read books either. You just can’t expect it from a population that is making grounds in illiteracy rates, mainly by waiting old people in the N/NE areas to die. And I’m not joking, I just can’t get the link here of it being touted as one of the main factors, since I’m at work now.

    Anyhow, yours is a great post man. Keep it up.

    • My wife is also a translator and she is also unqualified although she’s just about to finish her degree at USP in Letras so she will be soon(ish). From the way you write you are clearly as fluent as she is (although she does have the advantage of having lived in London for three years so she should be!).

      Anyway, everything you say is absolutely mirrored by her own experiences. She translates for a company and often has to correct a load of translations done by other people who are, allegedly, suitably trained to do the job. however, they’re clearly not…

      Anyway, thanks for reading and good luck with your degree!

  9. We don’t have to speak english. And if you’re in our country, be sure to learn portuguese, because no one here is obligated to put a red carpet under your gringo’s feet. I prefer one million times the bolivian and nigerian immigrants, who came to São Paulo, work hard and always show gratitude to the city of São Paulo and the chances it gave them, to European and Americans, who only complains about my city and Brazil as general, showing a huge load of prejudice and hypocrisy, as i see by working with them and reading the expats blogs. I don’t want to sound xenofobic, but we brazilians are in the lamelight because of the Olympics and World Cup, and we’re getting tired of being treated as savages, while at the same time helping USA and Europe recover by spending millions in your countries.

  10. Yep, I learned English because I lived in England as a kid but except for the Internet (and some specialized job like foreign commerce) there’s no need for us to learn another language.

    I don’t know how old you are Andy, but what did you know about Brazil when you were a kid? Get it?
    The same way you probably didn’t know even a little bit, we didn’t need to think about going elsewhere, much less learning another language.

    And to be fair, in the end most people will just know ‘Internet English’, ‘Internet Portuguese’ etc. as there’s no time any more to spend on cultural idiosyncrasies (including languages) any more.

    • I appreciate that there hasn’t been a need in the past for Brazilians to learn languages, but surely given it’s current ascendancy (and even more so over the next 50 years) economically and politically, this will become more important?

  11. Great site, and an interesting post. As someone who has taught English in the past, it seems like Latin/Hispanic countries tend to have a lower base knowledge of the language than Northern European and Asian countries. Now whether this is to do with the point previously raised that people from larger countries – or those which share common languages – feel less pressure to learn a language I don’t know. Certainly the majority of the English speaking world seems happy enough to get by with the occasional ‘por favor’ or ‘merci’ when venturing abroad.
    For Brazil in particular, I think that travelling to Europe is a relatively new development, as is the heightened Euro/American investment in Brazil. From what I’ve heard, the education system doesn’t seem to produce fluent English speakers either, although I guess that may change in the future.

  12. Great site indeed, and a very interesting post. First of all, I was born in Albania (Eastern Europe), lived there for 10 years, then immigrated with my parents to Athens, Greece where I lived for another 10 years. Afterwards, lived and studied Engineering in the US for 8 years, finished my BS and moved to Brazil in order to live with my wife, who is Brazilian, and daughter for a couple of years. Now I am back in the US. In other words, I speak and write fluently Albanian, Greek and English and speak and read Portuguese in an intermediate level. Learning a foreign language has always been an ability of mine.
    It took me about 6 months to be able to learn how to communicate freely with the correct Paulista accent, which it turned out to be a much harder language than I thought it would be. I had two years of French in high school and it did help a lot recognizing the basics in Portuguese. Also, I would like to confirm that Portuguese from Portugal sounds really funny to Brazilians and me, just like Scottish sounds to Americans.

    From my own English teaching experience, I would say that about 10-20% of the business people that I met and taught English to were actually fluent in English and could keep up in a normal or business oriented conversation. As a European, it might seem as a very low percentage, since we are used to speaking at least two languages; however, here are the five main reasons that contribute to this percentage:

    1. Brazil borders only with countries that speak Spanish (surprisingly Spanish is not that famous in SP as well)

    2. Especially in Sao Paulo, there aren’t many places or people that you could practice your English with.
    3. Pronunciation-wise English is really difficult if Portuguese is your native language.

    4. The origin of the native language determines if another language is easier or not to learn.
    (There aren’t any sounds or diphthongs in the other three languages that I speak that don’t exist in Albanian, thus giving me a huge advantage over a Portuguese speaker in learning English)

    5. Until probably the 90’s or even later, there were no business reasons for Brazilians to speak English, it’s not like in Europe that the majority of countries border with at least 3 other countries who speak totally different languages and you still have to do business with them.

    In other words, just because you are enrolled in an English school, it doesn’t mean that you will actually be fluent in English after even 5 years of attending classes unless you are able to practice it daily.

    In order to relate better to my argument, if you live in the US, how many of us English speaking residents speak fluent Spanish? In case you didn’t know, Spanish is increasingly becoming as useful as English here in CA. Our kids take years of Spanish in school and still cannot fluently speak it or in some cases can’t say a word. Therefore, we could make the same argument about why the majority of Americans do not speak Spanish, not even a few words, since there was never need for it.

    In the next few years, there is going to be a considerate increase of fluent English speakers in Brazil due to the World Cup and Olympics.

    • Neuza Araujo – From Charlotte North Caroline, USA
      Wow, I don’t even know what to say…..I am a Brazilian who has lived out of Brazil for 24 yrs. I am just glad we are talking about it….therefore, there is hope for future generations to come!
      I still have family in São Paulo and right now I am trying to assist my nephew with his admission to a university in São Paulo. I was hoping to be able to assist him with choosing a good English School. However, after reading all of your comments, I am afraid there is no such school…..
      Any suggestions???? Thanks in advance!!!!!
      Best regards

  13. Hi Andy,

    very interesting post. I’ve just moved to SP and my impression is exactly the same: the number of English schools already competes with the number of bakeries in the city – and you know what that means, if you’ve been living in SP long enough!
    I pay particular attention to this phenomenon because yes, I am an English teacher. A professional, fully qualified, non-dodgy English teacher. And, on top of that, I’m Brazilian. Yeah, I know, right? Hard to find. I’ve literally just got back from living in Australia for 3 years, a few days ago, where I got a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics with major in TESOL (yes, I told you, I am qualified indeed!). Therefore, when I moved back to SP, the first thing I did was looking for English schools where I could teach. And then, I realised one or two things that might add to your post.
    Firstly, there is an extreme urgency for Brazilians to learn English. It took them way too long, and now they’re lagging behind – badly. That probably accounts for the high number of schools around: high demand, high offer. The boom in the numbers of English schools is likely to have caused qualified teachers to be scarce, which means the schools started hiring what we call “Mickey Mouse teachers” – those of us who go have a working experience in Disneyworld for 3 months and come back as English teachers, as if they could’ve learned any English at all in Florida! That means that teachers have no teaching qualification, poor or very informal English, and the job is seen as a part-time thingy used to pay for their beer while in college. A very few of the teachers see that as a professional career – it’s just a means to make some money while they study something “real”.
    Secondly, the salaries paid for teachers in these schools make me laugh. No, really, literally, I feel like laughing at the coordinators’ faces when they have the guts to tell me that they are going to pay me R$15 an hour to teach there. I mean, do you know how much money I’ve put into my master’s degree in Australia? Do you know how long I’ve been in college, studying like crazy, to really know what I’m talking about? The salaries are only good enough for Mickey Mouse teachers; therefore, Mickey Mouse teachers is what they get. And Mickey Mouse-level of English is what they teach, and what the children of pushy parents learn (unfortunately, they cannot avoid to learn; kids are like a big sponge. They make a huge effort, but they end up learning anyway).
    In a nutshell: there are indeed a few of us who actually know what they’re talking about – I taught with many of them (at the same time that I taught with a lot of Mickey Mouses, too), but teaching, in Brazil, is not a very prolific, not to say profitable, career. What ends up happening is what is happening to me right now: I love teaching, am good at it, have studied heaps for it, but I’m trying to find a job doing anything – and I mean ANYTHING – else that pays me more for the knowledge I have gathered up over these years. And yet, even though Brazilians who speak good English are few and far between, it’s still hard for me to find a job that values this trait of mine. Everyone needs to speak English, but the ones who do are not getting any recognition for it.
    Anyways, all that to give you some clues into why the phenomenon you’ve noted occurs. I believe it has a little to do with all this. But that’s just my opinion. I’m sure you’re getting rich teaching high-profile executives in companies – despite not being covered for any labour laws, not getting any paid leave, sick leave, bonuses and so forth… I hope you’re getting the dignity you deserve, at least… 🙂

  14. Just a bit of background, I am a person who has lived in Japan for 18 months, in a house with 30 odd bedrooms, filled with English teachers from around the world. That was years ago. Since then have lived with foreigners on and off for years, have lived and worked in Canada, Singapore, London, and traveled to quite a few others. Now in South America again, and back in Brasil where I have alt of friends who I lived with and friends of friends etc. I have never worked as an English teacher professionally. Have however helped alot of people, and recently took some Spanish classes in Chile, a so called immersion class. My view is that unless you have some understanding, immersion classes are useless. I dropped out of the 4 weeks I signed up for less than 2 weeks in. Why? Not having anything explained meant I was getting absolutely nowhere. I have done Japanese lessons (many years after I left Japan – never learnt anything while there) and had an Australian teacher who spoke it, being married to a Japanese, and lived there for years. Was best class I had. Also did some classes in Australia for Portuguese, native speaker, but fluent English speaker, and teacher. Very good. Immersion class however was useless. I explained to staff there, and they said it was immersion, it is how you learn the best. I started talking Japanese. Repeated myself a few times, and then asked what I had said. They had no idea, I explained that it was Japanese immersion, and they are going to struggle to convince me that immersion works for me, if it doesnt work for them :-). Immersion for a foreigner is everywhere outside these schools when they are in a foreign country, and without any previous language skills, then I class having a class in just one language to be a cheap way of teaching. I agree with having a local teaching locals, that way they can explain things easily, but a native speaker may be better for continuing students. Having a foreigner who speaks only English teach people with little skills already is just an easy way for schools to offer classes, and for foreign teachers to get work. Thats my take anyway 🙂

  15. Man, I don’t get tired of saying it’s amazing your perception. So rare to understand well a different country/culture. I’m still learning about Canada/Canadians. You did your lesson about Brazil. Stunning post! 🙂
    I started studying English when I was nine. I wanted. I wasn’t pushed by my parents like most people—and honestly it makes a lot of difference. Some teachers don’t really know what didactics is. When I was about to start my classes, one said I wouldn’t keep up with my classmates because I was two years younger. Recently I heard I wouldn’t get the Toefl score I aimed because I only had 10 weeks to study.
    It’s rare to find language schools that teach English without using Portuguese. Shame, but true. When is this gonna change? :/

      • Not as good as I’d like cos I aimed 100. But I’m perfectionist, which is not helpful lol. It was good enough to apply for the program I wanted. It required only 86 overall, minimum of 20 per ability.
        I studied once a week with a teacher doing listening and speaking exercises. The rest of my 10 weeks, I studied by myself, doing mock tests to get used to the tricky aspects of the test and time pressure.

      • That’s quite similar to the student I teach, and that’s a good score. The speaking in particular is quite difficult, mainly because in a lot of cases you have to think of something on the spot to say, and without much time to prepare it!

      • Oh replied from my phone. Hadn’t logged in. It’s Glauce.

      • Well, maybe 90 is a good score, but when I think the max is 120, it seems so low haha. As for the speaking section, I partially agree with you. Since I always have something to say, I didn’t feel the pressure of saying somethin on the spot haha. It was more the clock on the screen that was stressing me out. But I agree that our personality can play an important role in this case 🙂

        PS – I have to tell you something: what was a trouble was the British accent haha. I studied all my life listening to the American accent, so I had to study hard both accents to do well.

  16. I’m curious if anyone knows someone (or has their self) tried using computer programs to help them learn English? I heard of a program called Voxy that is supposed to be good. Has anyone tried it? Or Duolingo, OpenEnglish, and Cultura Inglesa? Something that is not a classroom but is helpful in learning.

    • Not sure how effective those programmes are. I think they’re ok up to a point but I think it’s best to have a face-to-face teacher personally.

  17. Hey Andy, I was reading your posts and I would like to know if you teach English?

  18. I know this article was written more than a year ago, but I don’t really agree with this research. I’m a college student living in Curitiba and what I observe is that almost all of my colleagues are able to keep a decent conversation in English. This kind of thing I couldn’t see when I traveled to Italy (talking about Europe), for example. I do think that we Brazilians have to improve our English Skills, but here is not that chaos! I’m sure if a tourist need help and try to talk in English with any college-age person he will have no problem.. it may not be a fluent conversation and there is also the accent, but still. Not judging the research method, but I just saw that Chile is classified as having a “very low proficiency”… Well… again, I’ve been there and had no problem talking to people in English, so.. yeah..

    • I don’t know about Curitiba but the demographic you talk about (‘college-age person’) seems to be a very small drop in a very large ocean. I don’t know any Brazilians, unless they were privately educated, who speak English, so expecting tourists coming for the World Cup to rely upon chancing upon a ‘college-age person’ when they arrive is probably not going to be that helpful.

  19. You sound like a nut. how can u teach english to them when you dont know portuguese?

    • I disagree that English instructors need to know their students’ native language to succeed. My best teachers never spoke Portuguese.

  20. Wow, liked your post. Fell upon it while trying to recruit English and Spanish teachers in Brazil. Are you still in Sao Paolo? If so, our British company based in Paris France is looking for English and Spanish teachers for clients based in Sao Paulo (yes, confusing). Are you interested? Or do you have any insight where I can post my ad.

    BTL, Business & Technical Languages, requires EXPERIENCED English (EFL) and Spanish TEACHERS in Sao Paulo, Brazil for a variety of interesting assignments teaching business professionals .

    Required: TEFL training/experience, excellent communication skills, English mother tongue. Business experience, good IT skills and French a definite plus.

    Salary details on application
    send CV and motivational letter to coordination@btl.fr

    Shelli Chavet

  21. In Miami a brazilian couple asked me questions in an awful portuñol. Real struggle. I told them: Pó pará You two can stop (the suffering). Your spanish, eh?! They thought i was praising their sad spanish and told me, proudly: We speak good spanish ’cause we teach spanish in public school in Recife.
    ¡Ay, Caramba! Saudações Corinthianas.

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