In Brazil, learning real English from virtual conversations

A new "Speaking Exchange" programme at a language school in Brazil is giving students in Sao Paulo a chance to chat online with retirees in Illinois in the United States, about everything from their family lives to engineering.

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In addition to improving the students' English, the experience has also created unlikely new friendships between American seniors and South American youth.

Developed by one of the world's largest advertising companies, the pilot programme has been implemented by a language school with nearly 600 branches throughout Brazil.

"Speaking Exchange" harnesses technology to bring together two groups which, despite their distance, were made for one another: English language learners eager to test drive their newly acquired skills, and retirement home residents tickled by the prospect of chats with peppy youngsters.

The two connect via proprietary Skype-like software that allows the interlocutors to see one another while they speak and also prompts them on possible topics, should the conversation lag.

"We talk about our lives, families, day-to-day routines, hopes and dreams," said college student Marcelo Akimitsu Oya, 22, who's been taking twice-weekly English lessons for the past year and a half in order to get an edge in scoring engineering internships.