By Maria Lopez Conde, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Although well over a million of international tourists flock to the gorgeous beaches of Rio de Janeiro every year, first time visitors might be surprised to find that few Cariocas speak English, including those working in the tourism industry. In fact, Rio was ranked as a city with “low English proficiency” by an Education First study published last year.
Yet as the city gets ready to host both the FIFA 2014 World Cup and the Olympics in 2016, a number of both private and state-led initiatives are trying to overcome the language barrier between tourists and Brazilians.
For travelers, communicating with taxi drivers can certainly be a challenge. Sally Gissing, a native of Australia in town for Carnival, explains it has been “quite difficult” even though she speaks some Spanish. “It’s been a matter of writing down the address in Portuguese and hoping for the best,” she said.
Like the majority of Rio’s cabbies, Idebaldo Cavalcante, who has been driving a taxi since 1992, does not speak English and admits this makes his job challenging. “It’s very hard. We manage to capture some words, but it’s hard for both the tourist and us, and it happens very often.”
In the last two years however, Cariocas have launched a number of programs aimed at dealing with the language barrier. One of them, Hey Taxi!, created by Rio-based consulting company Meritus Partners in 2012, seeks to teach drivers English to improve interactions with tourists.
Additionally, a number of state-led projects are offering basic language courses to drivers for free. Both the National Program for Access to Technical Education and Jobs, PRONATEC, a partnership between the Ministries of Education and Tourism created to improve tourism training, and the State Department of Traffic in Rio, DETRAN-RJ, are offering language courses in English and Spanish to drivers and airport workers, for free.
Francisco Ivan do Carmo, a taxi driver operating in Rio’s Zona Sul (South Zone), is looking forward to taking classes in the near future. “It’s up to the driver to sign up, but I know drivers who are already taking courses. It’s a course to help us have a notion of the basic phrases. We have to update our skills,” he explained.
While most taxi drivers still do not speak English, the staff at many hotels and hostels do. In most top hotels, including the world-renowned Copacabana Palace Hotel and the Windsor Atlântica Hotel overlooking Copacabana beach, the staff is expected to have some knowledge of English.
These establishments also offer special services to non-Portuguese speaking guests. The Copacabana Palace Hotel, for one, has a Guest Relations department to help guests who do not speak Portuguese with hotel services. The Windsor Atlântica Hotel, among many others offers, confirms they offer The Rio Times Print Edition and other bilingual information to foreigners.
For Gabrielle and Bianca Petrevksy, Australian nationals in Rio for Carnival, getting around Rio without knowledge of Portuguese has not been hard. Bianca explains that at least some of the staff at her mid-range hotel in the neighborhood of Flamengo spoke English.
“Half [of the staff] will speak English and the other half will only speak Portuguese, but they’ll try to help you even if they have no idea of what you are saying, you are able to communicate with them,” she said.
Both taxi drivers and hotel staff have been “really helpful” when overcoming language barriers, Gabrielle Petrevsky added. “We showed the driver (who did not speak English) where we were going on a map and made sure he understood what we said. We have come prepared and always know where we’re going,” Gabrielle said.