Brazil's linguistic preparations for the Olympic Games 2016

August 3, 2016
Brazil's linguistic preparations for the Olympic Games 2016

Brazil is certainly no stranger to hosting international visitors. In addition to the FIFA World Cup in 2014, the country hosts some 500,000 foreign visitors annually in Rio each year, for the world-famous Carnival. Now, the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games are once more drawing the masses to the sun-kissed South American country. 

Back in 2014, we looked at Brazilian efforts to learn English in advance of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Now, with the Rio Olympics about to launch, we examine Brazil’s linguistic preparations for the Olympic Games 2016. 

Languages spoken in Brazil

99% of the Brazilian population speaks Portuguese and it is the country’s only official language. However, Ethnologue estimates that 210 languages are spoken or signed by Brazilians, of which 180 are indigenous. 

The figures may at first indicated an exceptionally multi-lingual population, but in fact the Sociedade Brasileira para o Progresso da Ciência has found that just 40,000 people actually speak one of the indigenous languages. Considering Brazil has a population of over 200 million, that’s just 0.02% of the population. 

English is studied in many schools in Brazil and French is also popularly spoken as a second language. Many Brazilians can also understand some written Spanish (particularly written Spanish), as it is to some degree mutually intelligible with Portuguese, though this of course does not mean they can speak Spanish. 

Overall, Brazil has actually slipped down the world rankings in recent years when it comes to language proficiency. When we looked at the country’s linguistic preparations for the 2014 World Cup, Brazil ranked 38th on the Education First English Proficiency Index. It has since slipped to 41st place. 

Olympic language learning in Brazil 

Despite sliding down the global ranking, Brazil has actually undertaken a massive language learning programme in advance of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. The Rio 2016 Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games and Education First have been working in partnership since 2014 to train more than one million Brazilians to speak a second language. 

The training courses began in 2015, with Education First teaching school children, organising committee staff, contractors and candidates for the Rio 2016 volunteer programme the basics of a second language in advance of the Games. The one year language courses included English, Spanish and French, as well as numerous other options. 

The programme was designed not just to facilitate the smooth running of the Olympic Games, but also to leave a lasting legacy for Brazil as the host country. Rio 2016 President Carlos Nuzman commented: 

“This programme will provide many thousands of volunteers and staff involved with the Rio 2016 Games with the language skills necessary to warmly welcome athletes and visitors from all around the world. The skills will also benefit these individuals in their future lives and careers, providing a positive contribution to society well beyond 2016.”

Benefits for everyone

Even those not eligible for a place on one of the language learning courses can benefit from Brazil’s Olympic legacy, with the country offering a basic English course online in the run up to the Games. 

Education First has worked with the Olympic Games to promote language learning since 1988, when it was involved in the preparations for the Seoul Games. The company is the official language supplier for the 2016 games, just as it was for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. The company’s mission to promote international friendship and exchange is something that has left a legacy around the world. 

Final thoughts

Have you been brushing up on your Portuguese language skills in advance of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games? Do you think host countries should do more or less to promote language learning in the run up to each Games? Share your thoughts via the comments section. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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