U.S. Demand for Portuguese Increasing

As language departments are downsized, or cut altogether in U.S. universities, the demand for Portuguese is growing. Although Portuguese has always been an important world language, it has only recently been recognized as an important language for business and international relations.

The profile of today’s Portuguese student is quite different from the humanities majors, lovers of Brazilian music, or heritage learners of before. Today’s student is interested in Portuguese as a means to get ahead in the business world. Associate professor of Portuguese at Dartmouth College, Rodolfo Franconi, attributes the increased interest in Portuguese to two factors: “One, knowing just Spanish limits them to working in only one side of Latin America and right now, the Brazilian side is becoming more appealing and, two, the growing interest in ‘emerging’ countries on the part of the richest nations, especially U.S. interest in Brazil.”

Other students hope for a cushy expatriate position in a Lusophone metropolis, like São Paulo or Luanda. Dartmouth College assistant professor, Carlos Minchillo explains, “The consequence of Brazil’s economic performance in recent years and the future events to be held in Brazil, such as the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, is that we have more students who choose Portuguese for professional reasons. Some of them are even eager to live and work in Brazil.”

While the demand for Portuguese language training continues to grow, so does the demand for materials that teach Portuguese for special purposes, such as business Portuguese. The market has yet to catch up to the influx of Portuguese language learners. Professor Franconi points out that while there is some dynamic material for beginners, more advanced textbooks leave much to be desired, and “regarding materials for special purposes such as the petroleum industry, just introductory compendiums, reference books, and specialized dictionaries are available.” The lack of adequate intermediate and advanced material leaves a hole in the market that has yet to be addressed by publishers. As more students strive toward fluency in Portuguese, the need for new material will continue to grow.

Universities admit that they are having difficulty keeping up with the increased interest in Portuguese. Last fall, Yale Daily News reported: “With Brazil becoming a global economic power, more and more students are signing up for ‘Elementary Portuguese,’ but Yale’s tiny Portuguese program does not have enough teachers to go around — or the means to hire new ones.”

Many universities have only one or two Portuguese professors, which makes pursuing Portuguese as an undergraduate student difficult, and graduate studies of Portuguese particularly challenging. Without steady course offerings in Portuguese, graduate students oftentimes find themselves filling in the gaps in their requirements with courses in Spanish or other disciplines.

Portuguese immersion programs play an important role in educating language learners and Brazil is hands down the most popular Lusophone destination. Students look for private language courses for summer study and service learning opportunities in one of Brazil’s diverse regions. Colleges are forging partnerships with binational centers and universities to take cohorts of students for more advanced language learning. At some universities, immersion is a mandatory feature of the Portuguese program. At Dartmouth College, for example, students take intensive Portuguese 1 on campus and go to Brazil for intensive Portuguese 2/3 and the other necessary courses that fulfill the foreign language requirement. Students complete the requirement in just two quarters.

Language schools in Brazil have stepped up to meet the demands of international students. Monica Szwarc from Bridge Language, Education and Travel marveled at how the industry has changed in Brazil.

“The interest in business language has been the area with the most growth, we would estimate the numbers have tripled,” Szwarc remarked. “Most are from oil and gas companies and people arriving for work related to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.”

With so much to look forward to in the Portuguese-speaking world, it’s no wonder the demand for Portuguese is surpassing the supply in the U.S. So far, students aren’t complaining that they have to spend time in the land of samba and steakhouses to fulfill their language requirements. It’s part of Portuguese’s allure.

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