Ok, ok, calm down, the title is clearly not true (probably), but it does raise an interesting point in relation to the following tweet:
The article the tweet is linked to refers to research by the English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), an organisation that ranks countries by the ability of its inhabitants to speak English. Unfortunately for Brazil, of the 54 countries in which the research was carried out, it came 46th. Surprisingly, it was also one of South and Central America’s lowest rank countries, with Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, El Salvador, and Ecuador all finishing above it.
Now, before we go any further I’d like to point out that as a Brit I’m in no position to criticise any country about its ability to learn languages. The British are amongst the most stubbornly, arrogant refuseniks when it comes to learning languages. I can struggle to think of anyone I know who was born in the UK that speaks another language – unless they were born into a family in which one or both parents speak English as a second language.
Equally, I’m not saying that the rest of the world should just be done with it and learn English, although this would make my life much, much easier.
However, what’s undeniable is that Brazil’s lack of prowess in English doesn’t seem to be doing it any favours. For example, a report by the Econimist Intelligence Unit notes that Brazil is amongst the worst at coping with language barriers when it comes to business transactions, and that 74% of Brazilians surveyed admitted that their business had suffered as a result.
Equally, with Brazil about to host two of the biggest events on the planet (the World Cup and the Olympics – duh, wake up!), the inability of Brazilians to communicate with its guests is obviously going to be a bit of a problem.
Where does the root of the problem lie then?
Well, it’s hard not to start by looking at the education system. Whilst Brazil’s economic boom has lifted millions out of poverty in the last ten years it has yet to invest as heavily in its infrastructure, including the education system. For example, according to Ruchir Sharma, students in Brazil, “remain in school for an average of just seven years, the lowest rate of any middle-income country; in China, which is much poorer, the average is eight years.”
So, whilst all Brazilian schools are required to offer a foreign language to all students that start in the 5th grade, it’s also the case that the overall standard of the public education system is unlikely to provide a fertile environment in which to teach foreign languages. And to be fair, there are probably more pressing concerns in Brazil’s public education system (e.g. 10% of Brazil’s population is completely illiterate). Besides, where good teachers and teaching environments exist, they are more than likely to be found within the country’s private rather than public schools – and these, of course, are not within reach of much of Brazil’s population.
As a result, it’s also not surprising that Brazil is massively short of skilled workers, including those with a good grasp of a foreign language. An example of this can be found at one of the major banks in which I go to teach English in São Paulo, a company where a significant proportion of the senior and technical staff are hired from Europe or the States.
And this brings us back to the title of the post, because the intriguing thing (and I’m not sure if this is Brazil-wide or not) is that whilst in the UK we have a pub on most street corners, in São Paulo it’s more likely to be an English school.
For example, in my northern borough of São Paulo, a very local and decidedly gringo-free-zone (except me) in which I can’t imagine there being a huge demand for English speakers (apart from to serve me), I can think of at least six English schools within a 5 minute walk of our apartment.
This seems to be a fairly recurrent theme across the city. They’re bloody everywhere, yet there are still so few English speakers.
Well, here are my thoughts:
Firstly, the teaching standards seem a little suspect. For example, when I first arrived in February I went to a local school to see if I could get a job teaching English as something to keep me occupied. Alarm bells started ringing when the school’s coordinator said I might have trouble working there because I didn’t speak any Portuguese.
“Hang on a minute”, I thought, “wouldn’t I be teaching English?” More worrying was the fact that her own English was, quite frankly, pretty crap. “If she’s the coordinator”, I pondered, “what are the teachers like?”
A good example of this can be seen on Michael Palin’s travel doc about Brazil, in which during the first episode he’s given a guided tour of the northern city of São Luis by one of the city’s English teachers . As I watched with my wife she turned to me and said, “Blimey, if he’s an English teacher imagine what his students’ English are like?”
And yes, she did say “Blimey”.
The point is is this: having an English teacher whose own English is a bit dodgy is basically like me teaching someone Portuguese – in other words, pointless.
However, that’s not to say that a non-native speaker of English cannot be a good English teacher. There are actually many benefits to having a non-native teacher, one being that they actually have an understanding of English grammar. How many of you native speakers can remember learning grammar at school? Phrasal verbs and modal verbs anyone?
Native speaking teachers then, can often be more of a hindrance than their non-native colleagues. Just because English is your mother-tongue doesn’t mean you’ll be a good teacher – as I quickly found out. Fortunately for me one of the few benefits of ‘teaching’ businessmen is that they’re advanced or very proficient so I’m effectively just tweaking things or making conversation (Yes, that’s right, I get paid to make small talk).
Secondly, teaching methods typically seem to consist of working or reciting out of books, which is precisely the way of learning that has left me with zero French or German despite studying them at school for 3 years.
Thirdly, from talking to other teachers it seems a fair number of students (I’m talking about kids here) get pushed into going by their parents. As such, in some cases it doesn’t really matter if the teachers or methods are shit because some of those students probably couldn’t give a toss anyway – and so the function of some of those schools is to just feed a captive market of pushy parents.
Anyway, despite all of the above the thing that puzzles me is why Brazil is ranked lower than so many other countries in South or Central America? Are the education systems really that much better in Ecuador or Venezuela than Brazil? I find that hard to believe. Perhaps the EPI study wasn’t fully representative of all the countries that it surveyed.
Anyone got any better hypotheses?