English for Speakers of Portuguese

As a teacher of English, I started to run into an interesting phenomenon.  A lot of my students were speakers of Portuguese.  I was curious about how this could be.  After all, Portuguese is one of the world’s premier languages.  Thanks or no thanks to colonization and trade, it is spoken everywhere from Brazil to Macau.  As Portugal’s world power fortunes waned from the 17th century onward, there was still a mass of Portuguese speakers in key places throughout the world.  It was not entirely clear to me how centuries of tradition and trade could lead to me assiduously teaching someone in Sao Paolo the English language.

One key reason was that English became the default language for business through the 19th and 20th century.   The British empire, followed by their protege the American empire.  Each of these capitalist societies promulgated their practices and methods throughout the world faster and more efficiently than the Portuguese.  It reached a crescendo in the 20th century because the United States effectively took the lead in world affairs after World War II.  Britain’s population remained just under 60 million for the last half of the twentieth century.  Additionally, their “subjects,” those in formerly colonized nations, did not take kindly to all aspects of British influence and power.  Contrast is the “soft power” of the United States as it spread its mastery of technology, finance, and entertainment worldwide.  English became the dominant language of business.

One of my students was literally a native Portuguese speaker who worked for an American publishing company.  We had several discussions to improve his use of technological terms.  It was all in preparation for a meeting with French employees of this same company.  The meeting was set in France.  No native speakers of English would be present.  Yet the default discussion language was to be English.  This could be for the ease of transcribing notes and communicating results to superiors, but I am not so sure.

There is no mistake that Portuguese, and yes, French as well, is a beautiful language with a rich cultural history.  It is extremely pleasant to speak, and one of the epitomes of human existence might be ordering a drink in Portuguese while relaxing a beach in Portugal.  However, I think for the time being and for many years to come it will be important for Portuguese speakers to learn good business English, and especially how to fluently talk about technology.

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