Nearshore Americas

A Startup Seizes on “Below Average” English Skills in Brazil

For a native English speaker – whether from Winnepeg, Canada, Oklahoma City,  or the suburbs of London – it is not hard to tell the difference between the verbs “do” and “make.” But that is not an easy task for a Brazilian. Simply because in Portuguese both words have just one translation: “fazer.”

“Brazilians also have difficulty pronouncing the l and r the way they’re spoken in English, and to recognize the differences of pronunciation of words such as “hit” and “heat,” and “beach” and the female dog word,” says Ben Lowenstein, an American who has a degree in neurobiology with a focus on the evolution of languages.

After traveling for six months through Latin American countries and improving considerably his Spanish, Lowenstein paired with Lee Jacobs, a former product manager at Comcast Interactive Media who has a business degree, and founded Colingo, a new startup focused on helping Brazilians improve their English skills.

The example that opens this story is just one of many that reflects how tricky it can be for Brazilians to learn English, Lowenstein explains. It is not news that the lack of qualified workforce that speaks English well is one challenge for the IT industry in the country to grow as a provider of global IT services. It’s a different situation from India, which had once been a British colony and therefore has a considerable number of English-speaking professionals. Brazilians speak Portuguese as their mother tongue – and not Spanish, like most of their neighbors – and have to study English for most part of their lives.

According to the Business English Index released earlier this year, Brazil scores a below-average grade in its command of the language. “The challenge for Brazilian companies that want to compete and thrive on a global basis is to enhance their English capabilities,” says José Ricardo Noronha, Brazil team leader for Global English Corp., which compiled the study. The index measures the use of English in “real-life business situations,” he says.

Even though hearing the language is common in the daily lives of many Brazilians, through cultural contacts like American movies and music, being fluent in the language and able to communicate easily in it is a challenge for most, even those who have had access to good education and have higher-level jobs.

As Julio Mosquera-Stanziola, who is Talent Acquisition Senior Manager for Dell, told Sourcing Brazil: “If you are looking for talent to support markets in other languages, then there’s a challenge. Very few Brazilians speak English, more speak Spanish, but still not in large enough numbers or sufficient quality that you can build a strategy around it.”

English classes are mandatory in the Brazilian elementary and high school curriculum of the national educational system. But most time, classes are focused on grammar structure. Children of the upper classes usually pay for language schools, which typically have classes twice a week – but the speaking part of these lessons are usually not enough to make the students fluent in the language.

“Brazil has a growing economy and big population, and most people have difficulties when listening and speaking English more than when reading or writing,” says Jacobs, the business brain of Colingo. For business reasons, the country has to improve its level of English skills.

Tutors Online

Colingo lets students choose a tutor by type of accent.

Lowenstein and Jacobs paired up six months ago in California to come up with this startup focused on improving the English of Brazilians through the web. Their site uses Skype‘s voice services. They gathered a group of English-speaking tutors from all over the world – “therefore learners can choose the accent they want to be in contact with,” Lowenstein explains.

During their online sessions, tutors and students converse about different topics of life. Tutors take notes about the mistakes made by their Brazilian pals and afterward offer advice on how to avoid those mistakes. “It is different from a class that uses the traditional methods of language learning,” Lowenstein says.

The Colingo service is currently running in a beta version, and the plan is to charge subscriptions to use the site.

A tech-guy and co-founder of a boutique software development firm, Lowenstein devised algorithms that recognize, during conversations between students and teachers, the most common errors made by Brazilians when speaking English, both in terms of pronunciation and grammar.

In Silicon Valley, the Colingo partners met Dave McClure, of 500 Startups, who put money into their idea as an angel investor, and Bedy Yang, from Brazil Innovators, considered one of the most influential people in the Brazilian innovation scene today.

Along with Yang, they came to Brazil for the first time since the launch of Colingo to participate as mentors at the São Paulo Startup Weekend, an event focused on boosting entrepreneurs in the country. (Here’s our report from the Rio version earlier in the year.)

Perfect Student Prototype

“It has been very rich for us to know the demands of our users, and to understand more of Brazil,” says Jacobs. During the event, they met some of Colingo’s users in person and had the opportunity to approach a few potential students.

Victor Bachman is a good example of the type of audience Colingo wants to reach. This 25-year-old systems analyst works at Whirpool, a multinational American giant, and uses English in his daily activities. He has studied the language for years, but has never had the opportunity to live abroad and practice it enough to be fluent at it.

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His girlfriend already knew Colingo, and urged him to check it out. “It is very nice to be able to talk to someone with whom you can make mistakes without having to worry,” he says, referring to the tutor (and presumably his girlfriend too). “And you can do all that while wearing pajamas at home.”

To get closer to some other “Victors” and learn more about the “Brazilian way of acting and thinking,” Jacobs and Lowenstein spent two weeks between Rio and São Paulo, and met with local entrepreneurs interested in using and spreading the word about Colingo.

Whether most Brazilians will quickly grasp the difference between “do” and “make” by using Colingo is a good question. But it is easy to recognize that this idea, born in the United States, is a good example of how much Brazil – and its differences and deficiencies – have become a priority to Americans in a way that would not have happened in the past. Both sides have lots to learn.

Now if there were only an easy way to get more Americans to study Portuguese.

This article was originally published on Sourcing Brazil