English for Prostitutes


January 9, 2013 by Willy Cardoso

I wanted to start the year with a very positive, motivational, ‘nice’ blog post. But maybe next year.

Here’s the story:

Brazilian prostitutes will be given the chance to study English for free in order to better communicate with international clients during the upcoming World Cup.

The repercussion:

Lots of people, many English teachers included, making fun of the situation, showing disapproval, contempt, and indignation. Where did I see that? On Facebook of course, the public forum of irrelevant banter of our time, where everyone has the chance to speak out, where the true democracy of communication happens. Where else?

Disapprovers and mockers attacked all sides of the story. Firstly, of course, is the old ‘this country is [fill in the blanks]’. Then the prostitutes, who are uncommonly included in societal debates of this kind, with remarks like, ‘why would they need this when there are many other important things to invest on?’ Needless to say, there were also plenty of words against the government.

Let’s talk about the latter. The government, in this particular case, has absolutely nothing to do with the prostitutes taking English lessons. To start off, the initiative was taken by the local Prostitutes Association of Minas Gerais (a Brazilian state), not by the Ministry of Prostitution. Another important thing to consider: Everything will be done on a voluntary basis.

We can ask a couple of questions here:

– What are other professional associations in Brazil doing to improve the level of English of their associates? – I don’t know, but if I was a member of the prostitutes association, I’d be quite happy with the initiative and think my association actually does something for me.

– If different news had come out (which it wouldn’t have) about, let’s say, a Taxi Drivers Assoc. doing the same thing, would it cause so much scoffing? — No! Everyone would applaud.

And then people say, but taxi drivers are providing da-di-da-di-da-di-da, you know?

I say, it doesn’t matter. Here are some things we could discuss in this debate:

– Do people condemn language tuition to executives of tobacco companies? (this is just an example ok? I could’ve also said corrupt politicians) Of course not, especially because they might pay well for such service. Are they doing any better to society than prostitutes? Well, they’re all fucking someone in their own way, but draw your own conclusions.

– If you are a teacher and you’re willing to volunteer, would you teach prostitutes? Why (not)?

– Trying to formulate a hierarchy of priorities about who needs English and who doesn’t, in this case, is pretty useless. If you’ve ever travelled to a country where you didn’t speak a word of its language, and got a taxi whose driver didn’t speak a word of yours, I can bet you managed to make it to your hotel. Do taxi drivers really need English to work during the World Cup? — I don’t know, maybe some do, a whole bunch don’t. Nonetheless, when I was in Brazil in July I saw some newly published books of ‘English for Taxi Drivers’ and stuff like that. If you ask me, I think some people will make lots of money out of the situation (the World Cup) while others will keep on not learning English. Like it’s been forever.

Back to prostitution, an important fact:

It is not illegal in Brazil. Exploitation and pimping are.

Not that this information has anything to do with language lessons.

Some questions I asked myself after reading this news:

– In Brazil, how many soap opera heroines were prostitutes? — I don’t know, I don’t watch soap operas, but I can bet highly there have been a few. And there are few things more pervasive in the Brazilian culture/mindset than soap operas.

– Could learning English raise the profile of these prostitutes hence making them earn more? Or, could English, in case they learn it, give them other job opportunities, e.g. hotel receptionist?

– Why some people read online tabloid newspapers as though they were serious papers? Meaning, they take a shit piece of news and want to respond to it like it was something worth discussing? (a bit like I’m doing now)

– Why do some teachers who are apparently for democracy, equality, humanist ideals and other buzz, react so negatively to news like this? (the answer to this one is pretty easy)

The humour:

I do appreciate humour by the way, and many of the comments on the topic were pretty funny, like ‘imagine the words they’ll practice’, ‘repeat after me: penis, penis, penis’, ‘lots of oral practice’, etc. Ok, funny! But it kind of makes me sad a few seconds later that the other half is just speaking contemptuously about the whole thing, especially when they are teachers!

So if you are a teacher, do you thing any demographics should be excluded from learning a foreign language? I’d be interested to know which.


If you’re a Brazilian newspaper or person and wants to take it on the preparations for the World Cup, have a go on your tax money being stolen in fraudulent overpricing of public constructions, and leave the prostitutes alone.

If you’re an international newspaper publishing the story, with your subtextual tone of ‘haha look at what those third world idiots are doing’ (well, you wouldn’t be reading this blog, but), maybe you should mind your own gun-killings, obesity problems, or what have you, and … yeh, leave the prostitutes alone.

Well, it seems I asked many questions here, so if you feel like discussing any of them, or anything else, please leave a comment below.

The news in Portuguese: from Folha de S.Paulo
The news in English: from CNN.com

27 thoughts on “English for Prostitutes

  1. Leo says:

    Hilarious! And an instant eye-catcher 🙂
    Just seen something like 8 retweets of this post in the last minute!
    Have a great year!

  2. I don’t have a problem with this. Everybody needs training. I would hope my teaching would entice a few prostitutes to want to get out of the profession to become teachers of EFL too. A lot of people have problems with it because prostitution is illegal in many places. People also probably think money should be spent on getting men and women out of prostitution, not to do more business. This could be an interesting debate topic in an EFL classroom. Conundrum!

    • hi Didi
      I agree, it’s a good topic to be debated in class. The fact that prostitution is illegal could be a point against the argument, but perhaps a weak one. Who really knows what all their students do outside the classroom? A couple of them will be certainly doing other illegal activities, and maybe using the language to carry them out.
      There are always at least two ways to approach a situation. If a teacher finds out a student is selling drugs, for example, s/he can refuse to teach the student or try to help him.

  3. Rick says:

    Hi Willy!

    Interesting post, great questions, and I, as usual, enjoyed your way of presenting your arguments. I just feel that sometimes people might be, well, just really making fun of the situation as I don’t think this is news material. Well, then again I don’t think BBB or Messi’s latest picture while on holidays or similar things are also news. Yet, these all fail to give us the immediate chance to laugh a bit at the beginning of the day. Some may just have had some fun and moved on…

    Anyway, if this were to lead to anything that could potentially help someone change (if one wants to) jobs, it’d be noteworthy. However, if you had a chance to look properly at any of the materials that have been published and the quality of the crash-courses for the world cup, you’ll see that this is below A1 level… heck, it could even be below A0 if that existed. As you said, this has been going on forever and ever, and the chances are that some will take advantage of the situation to make money quickly with a 1-year business and that’s it. In the meantime, we stick to what we currently have in Brazil English-wise: very low-quality with many teachers even in top schools being unable to pass an FCE exam…

    By the way, have a wonderful 2013!! I saw a while ago that you were thinking about giving up on blogging… Well, let’s hope not! I pretty much had an off year in 2012, but I’m feeling a lot more interested in getting things going this year.



    • Rick says:

      Willy, if I may add another question to your post:

      – What do you see as more important – teaching them a foreign language or teaching them their own language first given that many prostitutes, according to news reports every now and them, have not even finished primary school and many are likely not to know how to read and write?

      I mean, obviously, it’s all a matter of economic interest. They do have the necessary command of Portuguese to talk to costumers, so it’s probably better to worry about giving them the chance to speak with foreigners for a very limited amount of time (the world cup). The point is, the ones who are likely to be knowledgeable in their own language, and most likely the ones that will have their services advertised (goodness me, I was one given a booklet full of names, pictures, phones and such in a hotel in São Paulo – by the hotel itself), are the ones less likely to need this.

      If the association is truly trying to do something to help them progress, aren’t they simply turning the blind eye to what should really be done? How about classes on safe sex? Sexual diseases?

      Sorry… I’m not against it, it’s just that these questions came to mind once I read the comments. The truth is, I honestly don’t think this is going to be helpful, nor will it be done seriously.

      I’m looking forward to your visit to Brasília!


      • Hi Henrick

        It’s been a good start to the year blogwise, I’ve read both your posts with interest, though I still lack time to comment.

        You raise good points. Shouldn’t they be developing Portuguese literacy? Well, we could pretty much ask that question to anyone studying English who isn’t at C2 level in Portuguese (since you mentioned the CEF), but as you said, and using up-to-date business jargon, where is the ROI? — return on investment — which is not too bad an idea actually.

        For example, recently, some family members told me they wanted to study English and I asked why. The answer was because they would like to better communicate when they travel abroad (once a year). My answer, which could’ve been taken as a bit cruel, was ‘you don’t need it, invest on something else’. Okay, it’s a different situation, I know these people and I know it would take them about 4 years to reach the level they want to be at and that their actual life style will increase that to 8; and in the end they would give up the course and lose money. But more than that, they would still be able to travel and do (more or less) the things they want to do. On the other hand, after my discouraging comment, some of them after second thoughts still argued it would be a good idea to study; in turn, I helped them find a good strategy — turned out they didn’t even start. So, I reckon in some situations we are in a position to judge the utility of other people’s investment on education, but the least we need to do so is to know who they are.

        Re: your comment on the association turning the blind eye to more important problems, as far as I know just from reading the papers, this association also counts on volunteer doctors and psychologists. So apparently they are doing stuff. But more than defending what they do or don’t, I think the point I tried to raise in the post was that we, news readers and commentators, need to pay more attention to when our critical reading escapes us — it’s vital that we suspend judgment for a moment to ‘read’ what has not been written.

        Thanks for provoking more thoughts on the topic — even if I deviated a little, sorry.


  4. eflnotes says:

    first heard of story so maybe twitter folk are less salacious than facebook folk 😉

    it’s interesting when stories like these are reported which involve minority groups and a very social-political issue such as language. e.g. the story of footballer Joey Barton (from a working class background) and his so called French accent. often they say more about the corporate press than anything else.

  5. Brent says:

    Very interesting discussion point. If I were working as a volunteer English teacher in an area that had similar programs, I would absolutely teach them. The idea of not teaching someone because of their job is an interesting world view that has everything to do with moral worldviews and nothing to do with professional standards.

    As English teachers we have to be flexible and accepting of other people’s cultures – it’s a part of the job description. I’d be very interested to see who wouldn’t teach these people who are working to improve their condition.

  6. Loved this post, Willy! Liked the way you treat the subject, but even better I like all those questions you raised. I’m not even going to attempt to answer all of them–not sure how well I could hold a novel together 😉

    However, some thoughts. First of all, if I was asked to teach these ladies, I’d certainly do it. I think that the teacher would also have a lot to learn from this situation. If nothing else, perhaps about the reality of the world’s oldest trade. I’m sure a lot of people would benefit from being in such a situation.

    As for the naysayers, who’s to judge what slice of the population is “worthy” of almighty English lessons? Saying that the prostitution industry is at the bottom of the list because of the nature of their work sounds discriminatory and a denial of the reality of the different types of commerce that come with events like the World Cup. Like with the taxi driver, I’m sure the client and prostitute could come to an agreement without having to actually speak English, but doesn’t dialogue make us human?

    Just for the sake of picking an argument, let’s try to understand why a teacher wouldn’t want to teach prostitutes English to help them do their job. This is going to require a lot of imagining, but let’s say you speak the language of some remote tribe and a group of missionaries wants to go spread their religion to that tribe. You just happen to speak this rare, exotic language (come on, imagine!). So the church/mosque/temple/etc. asks you to teach the language to the missionaries so they can do their work more efficiently.

    You personally don’t want them to do their work because you disagree with the moral nature of it. Facilitating communication between the missionaries and the tribe means facilitating corruption of a culture, religious imperialism and all that junk. And you certainly don’t want to be part of that. So you’re against it on the grounds that teaching them the language would make it easier for them to engage in an activity that you morally disagree with.

    Like I said, not my point of view at all, but after reading Chia’s post on professional development resolutions and the bit about trying to understand a point of view that you don’t agree with, just thought I’d try it out! Helps me try to understand why someone would be opposed to teaching English for the sex trade, but I’d still do it!

    And I agree the media just picked up on this story because they could put “prostitute” in their headlines! Free lessons for taxi drivers…who wants to read about that?

    • Hi Christina, thanks for commenting on this.
      I totally understand not wanting to teach someone if the teaching will help them do something one considers morally wrong. But morality and hypocrisy sometimes go hand in hand. That’s why I raised the question of how many would refuse to teach in the tobacco industry, or to the receptionist of an abortion clinic for that matter. It’s very easy to show off our morals when the subject regards marginalized demographics.
      I’m in no way expecting teachers to accept anything, but just, at least, to ask a couple of critical questions before pointing the finger at some initiatives.

  7. Good commentary, Willy. Good class discussion, I’d say. I’m sure some of the scoffs regarding this were due to the (mis)informed opinion that the money spent on these English lessons could go to some other more needy individuals i.e. World Cup-related employees who work with the public. Two flaws obviously here: 1) money isn’t being diverted from one group to prostitutes. 2) World cup-related employees aren’t improving their English/already know English well enough to be working there.

    Best contextualised line: “Well, they’re all fucking someone in their own way…”

    • I think that’s how a lot of these stories end up making the ‘news’ in various countires around the world – some journalist, editor or other ‘newsperson’ thinks ‘english classes for prostitutes? What?’ and then relies on the rest of the world having the same reaction. Nobody really bothers to look into facts like where the money is coming from, the status of prostitution in that particular country and how/why this is being done (beyond the superficial ‘for internaitonal vistors to the World Cup’). So, good on Mr Cardoso for giving us the background.

      As for the jokes, I would find the funny except we all know that in truth the English course will be designed to follow a set syllabus that completely ignores the students’ background and reason for learning the language and instead focuses on verb tenses and phrasal verbs (there ‘s a joke in there somewhere too).

      • David, I didn’t mention it, but in the news report they said the students would learn names of fruits and vegetables — that in itself probably generated half the jokes out there. And proves you point, the content is not entirely tailor-made.

  8. ICAL TEFL says:

    I guess it boils down to our personal views on prostitution and whether we think that by teaching them we are somehow endorsing their work. Personally I wouldn’t have a problem with it and my view is that pretty much all education is beneficial regardless of who is receiving it. And again, personally speaking, if they want to be prostitutes well good for them – I can think of far worse jobs.

    I was once invited to give a series of language lectures to a group of military officers (teachers) in a country with very poor record on human rights. Now that is a moral problem! Do you teach them and in doing so try to put across another point of view; or do you teach them without any moral judgment or influence; or do you not teach them at all? Who knows, perhaps an increased knowledge of English will open them up to alternative opinions and the wider world of more enlightened views?

    So when it boils down to it, on the graph of morally questionable students I think prostitutes are well into the safe end.

  9. Carolyn says:

    Huh, interesting! I taught sex workers in Thailand, but it was to qualify them for other work. I never even thought about giving them a better ability to communicate with clients. Oh well, they learned it, and however they chose to use it was up to them. Love your posts!

  10. Very interesting post Willy and the post-post (?) discussion is great! I would teach if the students were motivated to come along and as a previous post said, it wasn’t just someone/group using it as a money-making scheme. I loved what Christina mentioned about where you might draw your moral line in the sand. I’d like to think, in this case, I’d go with the students; if they wanted to learn, I’d teach. The Dogme approach would be perfect, no?

    I think before I could make a decision on how I truly feel about it, I’d have to put myself in the teaching context and experience it firsthand, talking to and working with my students. How could I truly make up my mind without meeting these students?

    Will be interesting to follow this story in the news and thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    • Hi Emma

      I never know what kind of post-post discussion I’ll find here, if any, so I’m glad this is an interesting one, thanks for contributing.

      I think a Freirean critical pedagogy approach would be perfect in this case.

      I agree with you that it’s better to understand more about the context before judging it, to make a decision to volunteer or otherwise.

      I gotta tell you a follow-up to this story will not headline anywhere. Unfortunately. That’s how the media works, at least in Brazil.

  11. I will also try to find it on FB,



  12. Hi Willy,

    Great post.

    I first saw this posted on Facebook and must admit that a smile crossed my face. It was linked to a piece in the Daily Mirror in the UK so I knew not to believe anything about it. I think an article like this is perfect for an organisation like The Mirror or The Sun. It has football, sex and conforms to ignorant stereotypes. Titillation is the (rather unfortunate) word that springs to mind I don’t think most people reading this in the UK would have cared less about where the money was coming from.

    Personally, I have taught executives from Philip Morris, Nestle and various banks. Is it honestly any worse to teach some prostitutes? I think having the ability to communicate better in English might open horizons, if not doors. I can also envisage a context in which having a few words in English might actually save someone in that context from getting a beating or being ripped off.

    • We never really know how our teachings will be used later, do we? We can only hope it’s for something good.

      About the papers which reported this. It was quite frustrating for me to see Folha de S.Paulo act like they were The Mirror, especially because on their web version they also had two other articles written from some really moronic points of view, and I can’t still believe how they had the courage to publish those.

  13. Really enjoyed this post and all the comments. Somehow I managed to miss the flurry of retweets when it first came out, so am joining the discussion a bit late!

    Liked what you said about how morality and hypocrisy sometimes go hand in hand. I’d only question the ‘sometimes’! 🙂 I also think people are quick to confuse morals with more general taste or preference. I don’t like smoking, for example, and would probably prefer not to teach in a tobacco company, but it’s not a question of morality – that’s too strong a word, with too complex associations.

    Also just as with bankers, footballers, teachers, or any other occupations, it seems quite unfair to judge prostitutes by their professional roles alone. A whole person is more than the sum of his/her professional duties. But when it suits people to generalise [aspects of] a particular industry they dislike to every other aspect of any person who works in that industry, they’ll do so (e.g. politicians). When it suits them to do the opposite, they’ll do so (e.g. religious figures). People are fickle.

    Though making a big news story out of all this does seem a bit over-the-top, I can understand why people get up in arms about teaching prostitutes English. They disagree with the job they’re likely to use it in. They don’t want to collude in that industry, in any way. But then I think the answer is – fine, don’t. Let someone else do it. As you pointed out, prostitution in Brazil is not illegal. For the purposes of this discussion, it’s an industry like any other. If English is their lingua franca, then someone’s got to help them use it.

    I do, however, find justifications along the lines of ‘educating these poor women in English will help them build a better life’ a bit condescending and self-flattering. Maybe they’ll use English at work, maybe they’ll use it in other ways. As you say, we never really know how our students will later use what we’ve taught them. I’d add that students don’t necessarily learn what we set out to teach them, anyway! I wonder, has anyone actually asked any prostitutes themselves what they think of all this?

  14. Adam Simpson says:

    This situation says as much about what counties are prepared to do to host one of these large tournaments as it does about anything else. I say this as this situation follows on from the last European football championships in Poland and Ukraine. In those countries sex workers were for all intent and purpose trucked into the cities hosting matches and told in no uncertain terms to prioritize visiting fans. I fear that any countries holding one of these wretched international events are selling their sporting souls to do so. This is just one example of how they have to figuratively bend over backwards to charm the likes of FIFA.

    While I scarcely have a patriotic bone in my body these days, I dearly hope that England never earns the dubious honor of hosting the football World Cup ever again.

  15. […] English for Prostitutes – Willy Cardoso starts his blogging year by inviting us to look at a piece of news that an association of prostitutes in Brazil will offer English classes to its members with the aim of helping them during the world cup in 2014. He asks just the right questions to help us look at things from a much broader perspective really go beyond what the media (or a first glance) might suggest. […]

  16. T Bestwick says:

    An interesting article! I guess a lot depends on whether you actually see them as prostitutes when they’re in the classroom or as people who want to learn a foreign language to advance in their career. No sarcasm intended. But another factor to consider would be the target language – I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable doing an intensive course of “English for Prostitution”, but teaching general English (including role plays on how much thiings cost) would be fine.
    I think it also depends on the reason behind them being prostitutes – are they happy in their chosen line of work. If so, who am I to judge them?

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