A few years ago, I got a taxi in Santa Maria (a college city in the heart of Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state in Brazil). The taxi driver and I were making small talk when the fact that I teach English came up. The driver then told me he was thinking about having English classes or even have it taught to someone else who would work for him. His rationale was that being able to speak the basics of English would be good for business, especially with passengers who happened to be foreigners. I said it was a good idea, but added that maybe he should focus on Spanish, considering that Santa Maria is surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries. Moreover, the city seldom gets an influx of English-speaking tourists that possibly could justify learning it for that specific reason. After some thought, he agreed that I was probably right.
This story helps me to make the case for when you should not invest your time and resources in learning a language. However, sooner rather than later: it’s always beneficial to learn a new language for a multitude of reasons (cultural acquisition, cognitive training, ability to understand more and faster what the world offers us, etc.). What I’m saying here is past that, it is meant to people who have limited time and resources and need to make decisions based on that. This is pretty much the situation for 99% of us, so let’s start from this common ground.
English is far from being crucial for a variety of contexts in Brazil. A lot of jobs never require you to interact in or understand the language. Even some technical-driven college courses do not require more than a limited range of vocabulary for daily activities. The taxi driver story I told illustrates it, and so is the case for a lot of other professions depending on where you live/work and how often English-speaking tourists visit your city.
We can go further and think about the main topic of this text: specific linguistic abilities such as speaking. More times than I could count, professors and researchers whom I taught would be fairly proficient in their paper writings without having more than a basic (A2/B1) command of spoken English. If it’s not part of their plans to speak at international conferences or to teach in English, not being proficient in speaking is not a big deal (most of the time).
When speaking is important then?
If you simply think of the opposite of the previous examples, you should have an idea of when speaking English is relevant. The real challenge here is not when, but how long it takes.
Quick answer: it takes forever. But here is the fun — and logic — of it: why would you learn how to speak a language if not to use it again and again? So the quick answer means precisely that you will be investing forever in your speaking skills. You could call it “speaking the language”, which is correct, but technically you’re “learning the language” over and over. The same goes for our native language (have you ever heard lecturers whose speech and ideas-organization was poor? I have, and it might be because of lack of practice), it just seems effortless because you’re surrounded by it.
And this is where the challenge resides: I’m assuming most reading this piece are Brazilians. Although the following might be the case of many other countries, I’ll focus on Brazil: speaking in English in 99% of the contexts in Brazil is almost impossible, hence the metaphor in the title. If less than 6% of the population acknowledges knowing some English — and this is highly concentrated in middle and upper classes —, it’s really difficult to have the opportunity to interact in English. It’s to swim against the tide, or an uphill battle as I said elsewhere.
Picture it: virtually all visual clues in the cities are in Portuguese (how often are you inside an airport to get to see those bilingual signs?); coworkers, instructors, and professors speak in Portuguese; all media content in broadcast TV is in Portuguese, and a lot of paid channels too; most of everyone’s friends, family, and significant others probably speak Portuguese. If you don’t make an effort to create situations to practice your English, you’re not going too far.
Once I did the math for a student: we usually had 2 hours of English practice a week; this is about 9h a month, 99h a year considering 11 months of class. On the other hand, if you were living and studying in an English-speaking country (or in one where English is a second language), we could assume you would be interacting in English for about 8h a day, 48h a week (I gave you Sunday as rest), 216h a month… almost 2,600 hours a year. So it’s about 2,626% more. I know, maybe 99h a year is a very modest estimation. How many more hours a dedicated learner could include in their routine? I think anyone can get the idea.
These are the p(l)ain facts then. Make room in your routine for conversation, English-speaking settings, people who (want to) speak the language. If it is not part of your life, it becomes Latin: many people know some words in Latin, but it is a dead language.