A language app is getting Brazil’s taxi drivers in shape for the World Cup

Brazilian cab drivers are already keen on using apps to find passengers, and now they’re using one to learn English.
Brazilian cab drivers are already keen on using apps to find passengers, and now they’re using one to learn English.
Image: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes
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The World Cup is just weeks away, and nothing seems to be ready. But at last one group in Brazil may be prepared: the nation’s cab drivers.

99Taxis—essentially the Uber of Brazil—has partnered with language-learning platform Voxy to offer free English lessons to 40,000 cabbies. The 2,000 who signed up received three months of free instruction. Voxy’s chief education officer Katie Nielson says that’s plenty.

“What makes us different, is that we’re a needs-based language learning program. We don’t start with ‘basics’ and build up,” Nielson told Quartz. “That’s not the best way to teach a language, especially not to adults. The bottom line is that people learn when what they’re learning is relevant to their needs.” Voxy uses news stories, audio, and video content to teach its users based on their interests and needs. Even tweets are fair game.

For Brazilian cabbies, that means lessons built around real-world taxi scenarios. Voxy went out and recorded tourists interacting with English-speaking Brazilian drivers to suss out the English phrases that tourists would use with drivers.

And what were those magic phrases? “It was taking Google directions and turning them into lessons,” Nielson says. “Stuff like, ‘after the exit you need to take the first left,’ and ‘keep going straight,’ along with words like meter, driver’s seat, and trunk.” Their first words in English may not be glamorous, but Nielson says that the drivers will learn the rest of the language more easily than if they’d started with “see spot run.”

Voxy’s service is available to individuals for a fee, but the partnership with 99Taxis probably won’t be the company’s last. “We’re very interested in developing a program that teaches English to software developers,” Nielson says. Voxy is working on a program for the overseas employees of English-speaking countries. “Those engineers need to know how to communicate effectively with colleagues, and that education should be personalized.”