Goals, Grammar, and Great Expectations – Brazil Prepares for the 2014 World Cup



Brazilian language learning materials are known for one sentence that became so famous it was turned into a hit song: “The book is on the table”. This classic example of useless fabricated textbook-ese stands side by side, though more modestly, with le singe est dans l’arbre (the monkey is in the tree) from a 1970’s French textbook and “the philosopher pulled the lower jaw of the hen” from Guy Cook’s seminal article on ludicrous invented sentences for language learning. ‘The book is on the table’ comes from audiolingualism, a methodology in which students repeat thousands of grammatically possible and totally implausible sentences, while trying desperately to stay awake.

As football fans everywhere get ready for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, native taxi drivers, bellboys, and, according to CNN, ‘street workers’ have been learning English in huge numbers. Many books on many tables. Language schools are booming, and the Brazilian Ministry of Tourism even created a training program called ‘Hello, Tourist’ to help tourism professionals learn English and Spanish. Brazil, it seems, waits with open arms to greet its guests.

But which English have they been learning, and does it matter? And will they be ready to communicate with the 600,000 fans expected from overseas?

Varieties of English

In the past there was only one type of English: British (see here for a discussion of retronyms). Now, of course, there’s a smorgasbord of ‘Englishes’: American, Australian, Indian, ELF (English as a Lingua Franca), even Globish, which sounds like something out of ‘Lord of the Rings’, but is actually a simplified version of English which is popular in Japan.

This variety didn’t always exist. The world used to be divided into non-native speaker segments that chose to learn a particular type of English. Because of business, tourism, and educational opportunities, Brazilians typically wanted American English. For similar reasons, European countries would generally prefer British English, while many African countries learned British English for historical reasons, i.e. the legacies of colonization.

But are the distinctions so relevant these days? The truth is: different varieties of English rarely cause much confusion. The vast majority of words in, say, U.S. and British English have the same meaning and usage, and if the pronunciation of these words differs, the differences are usually minor. In any case, context, along with body language and paralinguistic features of speech – pitch, volume, intonation – usually help us to decode the message even when it contains unknown vocabulary.

In addition, varieties of English are becoming more intelligible because of increased exposure. Hollywood films are everywhere, but so are British actors and British TV series. ‘Sherlock’ is enormously popular in the States – a quintessentially British offering down to the hero’s brogue-clad toes.

It's everywhere.

It’s everywhere.


Another issue pertinent to cross-linguistic and cross-cultural communication is the concept of multicompetence. Multicompetence stresses the idea that speakers operating in foreign languages often use more than one language while conversing. They find a way to communicate by code-switching (jumping between languages, often in mid-sentence) and using cognates (e.g., the Japanese and Korean words for newspaper are shinbun and sinmun; the German wasser means water). Argentinians visiting Brazil and Brazilians visiting Argentina communicate in ‘portunhol’, an improvised blend of Portuguese and Spanish. Danes in Norway and Norwegians in Denmark, in order to be understood, use their native vocabulary while mimicking their hosts’ accent.

For those who possess this multicompetence, features that used to be seen as errors – for example, strange-sounding vocabulary choices and idioms that deviate from the native-speaker norm – may now be seen as elements of communicative competence. If you’re creative enough and aware enough to know that a combination of gestures, target language vocabulary, guesswork, and mother tongue words will get the message across, you’re multicompetent.

Não pisa na bola!

Não pisa na bola!

Não pisa na bola!

As for Brazil’s linguistic readiness for the World Cup, a few mistranslated signs have hit the Twitterverse: at a football stadium in Salvador the exit gates were marked Entrace. This is a rare example of a mistranslation and a misspelling in the same word! And translations of Brazilian menus are as haphazard as ever (anyone fancy the ‘Meat in Barbie Kill Sauce’?). But Brazil will make the tournament a success. There is a Portuguese idiom that describes a slip-up: pisar na bola (literally, step on the ball). Brazil won’t do this. Leaving aside national stereotypes such as Brazilian joie de vivre, the country is too heavily invested in soccer and in the nation’s burgeoning position in global affairs to fail. It promises to be a great tournament and an epic mix of international language and culture.

One Comment on “Goals, Grammar, and Great Expectations – Brazil Prepares for the 2014 World Cup”

  1. Nicolas Dawson says:

    For EFL-ese look at the beginning of The Bald Prima Donna by Eugene Ionescu written when he was learning English in the USA. I love the meaningless utterances generated by practice exercises:- “Where’s Arthur?” “He isn’t anywhere.” Hilary Maxwell Hislop loved a sentence generated from a “passive voice” exercise “The pyramids were painted by Giuseppe Verdi.”

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