An Overview on the Study of English and Other Languages in Brazil

*Mirian Fuhr

This article briefly describes and discusses people’s attitudes towards both English and other languages, such as German and Spanish, looking at some aspects of their status and roles in Brazil, through my own experience as a teacher of English as a foreign language and learner of foreign languages myself. There are connections to some literature and some general reflection on the spread of English in South America in general. The text illustrates the issue of learning other languages in schools and in private language institutions. It also presents some reflection connecting the learning of another language to real-life needs, such as professional development due to working demand, and on the other hand, the learning of another language linked to personal desire. This reflection allows the conclusion that learning languages in Brazil other than the mother tongue is connected to social class and to each individual’s perception. Furthermore, there has been an increase in the demand for English learning, at the same time as there is a lack in the learner’s efficiency when communicating in the language.

Keywords: Brazil. Teaching. English. Status and roles of foreign languages.


Brazil with a population of 204,260,000 (Ethnologue, 2016) is one of the largest countries in the world and the biggest in Latin America. However, it is the only country to have Portuguese as the official language, while the others around speak Spanish. Besides this, as many people migrated from Germany and Italy in the past, many regions have a huge influence of these cultures and languages. Some public regular schools, mostly in the countryside, where the German dialect Hunsrik is usually spoken by some people, equally to some private regular schools do teach Standard German in their curriculums. Besides, there are still some evidence of Indian natives who try to keep their cultures and the use of their indigenous languages inside their communities at least.

Last but not least, the spread of English can also be identified in South America as mentioned by Rajagopalan (2006). Although English was probably first introduced in Brazil in 1809, after Portuguese colonisation, especially for political reasons. This assignment then focuses on describing some aspects of the status and roles of English and of other languages in Brazil, reflecting also upon people’s attitude towards them based on some readings, and on my own reflection through my own experience as a teacher and as a learner of foreign languages myself.  

Other languages spoken and studied in Brazil

Differently from nowadays when only a few people study French, it was originally the first foreign language taught at Brazilian schools, as stated by Gil (2009). Out of the school context, there were other languages being spoken at that time, such as German and Italian. There are still many people who speak a Brazilian dialect of German and Italian languages, as confirmed by the National Curricular Parameters, a document known as PCNs (Brasil, 1998), especially people from the countryside. However, these languages do not have a high status in the country. On the other hand, because of the existence of many international companies, there can be some value given to German language speakers mostly, although those companies usually tend to use English as a lingua franca in order to communicate and to do business among their partners. There is a certain influence of Spanish at the borders with Uruguay, for example, and also because of the trade organization MERCOSUL (Brasil, 1998), people usually speak Portunol, defined by Rajagopalan (2006: 147) as a Portuguese version of Spanish that can be understood by people who speak Spanish. In reflection to this, teaching Spanish has become mandatory at regular schools (Brasil, 1996).

When chatting about the issue of learning foreign languages in Brazil with some students, some parents and to other teachers, it is possible to infer that there is a variety of opinions, depending on the context in which these people are inserted. Unfortunately, the opinion towards other languages is related to social class and to the individuals’ perspectives and future intentions. In this sense, we can agree with Cox and Assis-Peterson (1999: 438) who say that the language is not neutral since it comes with political and socioeconomic issues which should be taken into consideration by teachers. Nevertheless, if we consider the PCNs document (Brasil, 1998: 20), it is written there that the number of people who need speaking abilities or skills other than reading in their work is just a few, saying that learning speaking abilities is not socially relevant.

For some people who are not willing to have much personal and professional development, considering their current situation good enough for them to keep on living, usually will not consider learning other languages. Some people, normally from lower level social classes, might even say that they do not even speak Portuguese well, why they should then try and learn another language.

On the other hand, there are people who consider learning other languages in Brazil very important as it can make a difference at work, study and work exchange programs around the world. These people potentially need to use that foreign languages at work or for their studies or when travelling, especially English. Some people, having realized the importance of learning languages also have expectations to improve their knowledge of another language, increasing the possibilities of communication when meeting people and knowing new places, besides being updated for the working scenario.

Nowadays it is possible to affirm that more and more people are looking for personal and career development, and some businesses demands force employees to learn another language. The drawback of this situation is that sometimes the person does not really like that language that they should learn, or they do not have enough time to dedicate to their studies, because most of them work, study and some have family, and it influences directly in the learning, making students feel lack of confidence to communicate in the target language and there is also the case of students who keep on going to classes for many years, but still make a lot of mistakes, sometimes already fossilized, and hesitating to use the language.

According to Gil (2009), English is indeed the language most taught in comparison to the other languages, with the largest number of books, teachers’ associations and trainings. Nowadays, though, there has been an increase in the search for learning Mandarin, as a result of the development of the business in China, and as it is spoken by 1.39 billion people (Noack and Gamio, 2015). If we consider the Brazilian sign language, it is also playing an important role in the society nowadays that we have so many changes and improvements for people with special needs, being also included in the list of the languages spoken in Brazil (Ethnologue, 2016).   

English in Brazil

There has been also a great influence of English, especially in the last few years. American English is by far the most popular among schools and students, followed by British English. English in Brazil is still generally used as a foreign language, even though there is a new trend which tends to call the learning of English as an additional language, since it adds to the learner’s first language, situating the country as part of the expanding circle of the spread of English around the world, terminology used by Friedrich (2000: 215).

The fact is that English specifically is present in the means of communication, on the products people purchase – mainly the ones linked to electronics and technology -, and even inserted into Portuguese, for example, everybody knows the word shampoo and use it instead of using the Portuguese version xampu for that. Another piece of evidence of the growth of the role and status of English is that many advertisements are using English to communicate to their target public. For example, when there is a bargain, the stores will use words such as “off”, and “sale” instead of using the Brazilian Portuguese equivalent word for that. People are listening to a wide variety of songs in English, most of the films people watch come from the international cinema, although most of the times people will watch the movies with subtitles due to the lack of English language knowledge. According to Rajagopalan (2006: 151), English can be seen in billboards and in shop windows in some South American countries.

In the last few years, there has been an increase in the number of bilingual schools, which are usually private and teach all the curriculum subjects in English. The demand for these schools is already relatively high, showing that parents want their children to have contact with the language and learn from the very beginning, at a very young age.

Similarly, respondents to Friedrich’s (2000: 219) study answered, believing that people who know English have advantages in their jobs and studies, Brazilians in general, as mentioned before, also link the learning of English to employability and working demands. Students usually expect to understand and to be understood by foreigners inside and outside Brazil. This necessity of learning English makes sense when considering that it is spoken in 101 countries, while Portuguese is spoken only in 12 (Noack and Gamio, 2015). In addition, as for Friederich (2000: 216), this student is interpreting English as an international language used for international communication. This idea of connecting the learning to work needs also matches with what Rajagopalan (2006: 148) states in his study about the growth for learning English after the Second World War. The same piece of information is registered in the PCNs document (Brasil, 1998) and in a study by the British Council (2015) about the learning of English in Brazil.

English or any other languages that Brazilians try to learn in Brazil is difficult, as most of the schools do not really have a good basis for teaching foreign languages. Unfortunately, according to Gil (2009), this is a sad reality for most of the regular schools. Moreover, as for the students, it is necessary extra effort and persistence from whoever really wants to learn. In my opinion, this is certainly one of the reason why there is an increasing demand for the teaching of languages in private language schools, the context in which I have been teaching for some time already, mainly for English courses and so states Gil (2009) and the PCNs document (Brasil, 1998).

According to the national PCNs document (Brasil, 1998), ideally, learning a foreign language would help students reflect about themselves as human beings and to act in the society. As for the PCNs document (Brasil, 1998: 15), the most use of English is via reading. The document also promotes interaction and brings up the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), developed by Vygotsky (1978), when it mentions that a student can interact with a more competent partner. The same document (Brasil, 1998: 65) states that some students do not feel like learning another language because it is not meaningful for them, taking into consideration the social context they are in, which intensifies the role of the teacher even more.

There is also the case of some students who love English and who try to keep in touch with the language, studying on their own, taking courses etc. One of the biggest issues these students might face is not finding other people to talk and practice the language outside of the classroom environment. These students will potentially search for a private language institution in which they can make more improvement in the learning comparing to regular school classes. These kinds of students who do not connect English directly to their jobs are usually concerned about the role of English in their own lives, and, as Friederich (2000: 216) states, these students take into consideration time and their effort in order to learn English, and not only that but also their desire of learning.

What I feel from my experience as a teacher and from what I could share with other teachers from different contexts is that far from what the national documents that try to systematize the education, such as the PCNs document (Brasil, 1998), want from a foreign language classroom and propose to the teachers, there are several problems at the schools which make the learning of English not as efficient as expected. Gil (2009), the British Council (2015), and the PCNs document (Brasil, 1998) exemplify this by saying that sometimes there is a lack of confidence regarding the teachers, there are political issues as well such as deficiency of resources and infrastructure in the schools, sometimes difficulties in managing big groups, and little exposure to the language.

For the British Council (2015) and for many teachers and students, the reality is that in some schools, most of the students see the learning of a foreign language as something mandatory, not really something they would be interested in doing and choosing for doing as a leisure activity or for enjoyment. On the other hand, when considering the private language schools, students are there learning to like the language and they end up learning and living the language, as it is useful in their lives, such as when playing some games or at work, idea also shared by Bayyurt (2016: 473), who says that English is used for gaming and socializing mainly among youth.

Having all of this in mind and based on some other studies in the area of teaching and learning of languages (Gil, 2009; Rajagopalan, 2006), I believe that it is extremely necessary to raise awareness of the importance of the languages to the whole population, a critical thought about the teaching and learning and also of the languages themselves. 


Having reflected about this issue arisen in class made me realize that I do not know much about my own country and that I need to study more about its history to understand the history of the languages as well. Besides, another pressing issue while writing this assignment was that it is possible to infer that the legal documents desire classes which would make the students reflect critically about the foreign languages and reflect about their own language. However, this is not really what happens in most contexts, differing the projects from the actual reality, based on readings and the students’ opinions.

The general feeling is that the country as a total is not prepared to welcome foreigners taking into consideration the fact that only a few people, comparing to the whole population, can really speak in English. In summary, it is possible to affirm that there is still much to improve regarding the teaching and learning of other languages, especially concerning critical thinking to understand the languages and their learning. In other words, it is important for students and teachers to understand that the language comes with its features and is embedded in cultural and political aspects which must be taken into consideration and not set aside when teaching and learning a language.

Fortunately, not only has the status of English increased in the Brazilian context, but also the focus of learning only reading and maybe writing has also changed, for an intensification in the need of communicative abilities, also connected to work and travelling needs. Other than that, students nowadays are much more globalised, especially because of the use of social networking. This all means that Brazilians need to communicate in other languages with different people and for various purposes, motivating them to seek for foreign language classes. Although many citizens still do not have contact with other languages, cannot afford for classes or do not see it as important, while others relate the role of English only to employability.


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Noack, R. & Gamio, L. (2015). The world’s languages, in 7 maps and charts. WorldViews. April 23.

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mirian*Mirian Führ: Is a Brazilian Hornby Trust scholar 2016/2017 taking a MA in English Language Teaching at University of Warwick. She holds a degree in Languages – Portuguese and English, a specialism in Teaching and Grammar of Portuguese, and in Teaching and Learning of English. She has been teaching English in private language institutions and in regular schools for 9 years.



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