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Mass. team will help Brazil learn English for 2016 Olympics

The Christ the Redeemer monument overlooks Mario Filho Stadium (also known as the Maracana) in Rio.

YASUYOSHI CHIBA /AFP Getty Images/File 2013

The Christ the Redeemer monument overlooks Mario Filho Stadium (also known as the Maracana) in Rio.

As Brazil gears up for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, EF Education First is getting ready to undertake what it says is the largest language training effort in history: teaching English to more than one million Brazilians, for free.

The Swiss international education firm, which has its North American headquarters in Cambridge, is the official language training provider for the 2016 Olympics. It has been tasked with teaching or improving the English skills of staff, volunteers, contractors, executive committee members, and more than half a million high school students.

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“The aim is to leave a legacy,” said Enio Ohmaye, EF’s chief technology and experience officer, a native of Brazil who is helping to oversee the Olympics effort. “If you want to become a global player, you have to know English.”

EF has left an Olympic-size legacy before. It provided language training for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul (French and German), the 2008 Games in Beijing (English, including for 20,000 McDonald’s employees), and this year’s event in Sochi (Russian and English). But this will be the 49-year-old company’s largest program, by far.

Brazil has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, ranked seventh in gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. But Brazil is only 38th in the world in English proficiency, Ohmaye noted.

The Brazilian arm of EF is stepping into the void, spending a “substantial amount of money,” according to Ohmaye, for its Olympics training but receiving not a penny in return — save for the vast brand exposure the company is getting for its efforts.

EF, which employs about 37,000 people in 55 countries, has dozens of offices in Brazil.

The majority of the training will be done through online tutorials, including self study and group conversation classes led by native English speakers.

A website with free English tests and daily lessons will be available to the public.

EF will also create an Olympic phrase book and conduct about 100 seminars around Rio for volunteers.

A group of Brazilian Olympic Committee executives will receive private lessons, and those who need more high-level training will attend EF’s language school in Brighton for immersion courses.

For high schoolers, EF will develop content that students can study on their own and digital course materials for teachers to use in classes.

Each trainee will start with an English test and a skills assessment to determine how much he or she needs to learn. A hot dog vendor may need only rudimentary training in order to prepare someone’s lunch or give directions, while judges who have to discuss the complex rules of dressage, for instance, will need a higher level of proficiency.

The content will be framed around the Olympics, from online modules designed for each sporting event, and podcasts and daily lessons on the public website based on Olympics history and terminology.

English is the dominant language of the Olympics, but EF will also train some staff and volunteers in Portuguese, Spanish, and French.

EF’s global academic team, based in Boston, is responsible for creating the material for face-to-face trainings. The team will fly to Brazil and call on staff already based at EF schools there, to identify the needs of teachers who will be training the students, staff, and volunteers.

For the most part, the goal is “communicative competence,” not fluency, said Beata Schmid, who heads the Boston academic group.

It’s tricky because not only will people be starting at different proficiency levels and need training for many types of jobs, they will need to communicate about a wide variety of specific things, from transportation to lodging to the ins and outs of fencing.

“It will be an interesting puzzle to figure out,” Schmid said.

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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