In late January, I was in Rio de Janeiro. Walking along the New York-style streets of the Leblon neighborhood (condo towers, boutiques, heavily booked restaurants, wine stores), a few blocks from the vast beach full of “fute” volleyball players (no hands), sun-worshipping families, and serious exercisers (runners, bikers, walkers, and bodybuilders of all shapes and ages and skin colors), I was looking for my favorite bookstore (a spacious one-floor shop with beautiful real books, CDs, and a coffee shop) when I noticed a billboard on a news kiosk:
ann arbor curso de idiomas
A language school named for Ann Arbor with an address and phone number in Rio!
At lunch with a Leblon resident who had learned some advanced executive skills at the Ross School of Business and a New Yorker from New Orleans who lives half the year in Brazil, I mentioned the billboard. They said the school was only a few blocks away and gave me directions.
Afterward, I walked to Ann Arbor: Avenida General San Martin, 1.226.
Ringing the buzzer, I asked for a person who speaks English. Patricia introduced herself and asked how she could help. I said:
“I’m from Ann Arbor.”
So she told me the story. About forty years ago, Neiton Machada de Oliveira, a young man from a lower-middle-class Rio family, became such a brilliant student that he earned a scholarship to study abroad. After some research, he selected the University of Michigan, where he earned a PhD in linguistics. He returned to Rio to direct a prominent language school.
He missed Ann Arbor and his friends and colleagues there. He missed the seasons, even the football season. He insisted that he must return. When his friends realized that his longing for Michigan was sincere, they promised that if Neiton would agree to stay they would help him create Ann Arbor in Rio: a language school of his own, named for his favorite city in the world.
Neiton Machada de Oliveira died in 1990. Since then, the school has been managed by one of his founding partners. On March 9, Ann Arbor (Brazil) celebrates its thirty-third anniversary of teaching English, Spanish, French, and Italian to Brazilians and Portuguese to foreigners. Its students include adults, teenagers, and even two-year-olds. With partner companies, it offers language courses in other countries: the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Canada, and Spain.
It’s a successful and well-respected school. Its fifty teachers and administrators know how to help about 700 students to enjoy learning strange things. For example: the confusing sonic difference between “steak” and “meat.”
Another friend, who lives one block east on Avenida General San Martin, told me she sent her son and daughter to Ann Arbor (Brazil) to learn English. They loved their time there, and they remember it warmly. Her son is now a junior executive in a multinational energy company. His English is often necessary for meetings in Europe or the Middle East. Her daughter is a research assistant at Harvard.
Some of the school’s messages could be adopted verbatim by Ann Arbor, Michigan:
Prepare to conquer the world!
Ann Arbor–much more than a language.
Ann Arbor offers excellent teaching and the joy of discovering a new cultural universe.
The only disappointing thing about Ann Arbor, Brazil, is a complete absence of Go Blue! signs or buttons or T-shirts. But the school’s website includes a thought about another Michigan icon:
The famous Nichols Arboretum, a “living museum,” located on the university campus, preserves the founding spirit of the city, whose name is inspired by its indigenous oak forests.
The website is Brazil’s version of AnnArbor.com — in Portuguese: annarbor.com.br.