Before World Cup Kickoff, Brazil Gets an English Assist Brazilians Take Crash Courses in English to Communicate With Foreign Visitors


Updated June 12, 2014 11:35 p.m. ET

An English student in São Paulo. Only 5% of Brazilians speak it fluently. Marla Dickerson/The Wall Street Journal

SÃO PAULO—As Brazil rushed to finish building the infrastructure for the World Cup, a less-known scramble was happening inside classrooms, where Brazilians are taking crash

courses in English to better communicate with an e timated 60  ,000 foreign visitors.

Mall employees are learning the difference between subway and Subway. Cab drivers are practicing directions. Restaurant workers are training their ears to the cadence of “HAMburger” instead of the Portuguese “hamBOORgair.”

Even so, foreign visitors would do well to keep dictionaries or translation apps handy during the monthlong tournament. Brazil, which has the world’s seventh-largest economy, is

a laggard when it comes to English proficiency, trailing nations such as Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Only about 5% of Brazilians speak it fluently, despite the nation’s polyglot mix of people and export commodities trade.

“People here are not prepared to receive the amount of tourists we will have,” said Fernando Pinto, director of São Paulo-based Twin Peaks Language School. His company offers private lessons as well as corporate programs to train employees on-site. He said demand has surged about 30% in the months leading up to the cup.

English is taught in many primary and high schools in Brazil. But a lack of qualified teachers keeps most students from mastering it, experts say. Neighboring countries speak Spanish, the closest thing Brazil has to a second language. Few Brazilians study abroad or have access to higher education.

The English deficit is one of many problems holding back Brazil’s development, said Roberto Padovani, chief economist at Votorantim Corretora in São Paulo.

“Brazil’s low English proficiency level is a symptom of our low productivity and closed economy,” he said. “We need to invest in the qualification of our workers.”

Changing the educational system could take decades. Determined not to miss out on a windfall from the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, some employers are digging into their own pockets to prepare their staffs to deal with English-speaking foreigners.

On Avenida Paulista, a main thoroughfare in São Paulo, waiters at Café Creme have learned to say, “May I take your order?” and other phrases, thanks to eight months of employer-paid study, said owner Luiz Carlos Aires Lourenço.

Shopping Metrô Itaquera, a mall located near the Arena de São Paulo where six World Cup matches will be played, hired the Twin Peaks school to teach rudimentary English to about 150 workers, including customer service staff, security guards and janitors.

On a recent afternoon, Ashish Tanna, a gregarious, whippet-thin teacher from South Africa, put nine students through their paces in a training room in the mall’s administrative offices.

“Where is the subway?” he asked a succession of workers, most of whom replied with sheepish smiles.

England-born Peter Branch, who coordinates classes for Twin Peaks, said the biggest hurdle for many Brazilians is overcoming the fear of making mistakes.

But when coaxed by a reporter, Marilda Castro de Almeida, a cleaning assistant at Shopping Metrô Itaquera, confidently ticked off a string of English words: “Welcome to

Brazil, between, opposite, goodbye, good morning, good afternoon, yes, no, family room, baby changing.”

Like many working-class Brazilians, Ms. Castro de Almeida said she didn’t retain much English from her school days, and she can’t afford to take classes, which in São Paulo can easily run 100 reais ($44) an hour for a one-on-one tutoring session.

Still, the market for private language schools is growing fast because of a burgeoning middle class that sees English as necessary for upward mobility, said Leonardo Cirino, marketing director at Wise-Up, a language school group based in Curitiba, Brazil.

He said revenue at franchised schools is growing 10% to 15% annually in Brazil, where the market is now estimated at 3.5 billion reais.

Digital English-learning is also expanding in Brazil, due in part to the challenge of finding enough skilled teachers.

EF Education First, based in Switzerland, has teamed with Olympic organizers in Rio de Janeiro to provide online language training to around 110,000 volunteers for the 2016 Olympics, according to spokesman Adam Bickelman.

99Taxis, a popular Brazilian taxi cab app, is helping its drivers bone up on English for the World Cup. It contracted with New York-based to provide online English lessons that can be accessed from a smartphone, according to Paulo Veras, Chief Executive Officer at 99Taxis.

About 5,000 drivers across Brazil have signed up, including São Paulo driver Enaldo Gonzaga Almeida, who said he has learned useful phrases such as, “Are you going to the airport?”

Mr. Almeida said he works six days a week and doesn´t have time to take a conventional English class. But he recognizes the value. He’s paying for his 13-year-old son to attend weekly lessons at a private academy.

“This will be essential for him in the future,” Mr. Almeida said.

Write to Luciana Magalhaes at