The Blog

Brazilians Speak Portuguese - Not Spanish!

Whisper it, but Brazilians speak Portuguese - not Spanish. It's a common mistake...Despite the belief of many English speakers that everyone around the world uses English, it is not common to find very many people who can use it well in Brazil.

In my last blog I explored some of the issues facing those who want to move from their home country to Brazil - particularly from English-speaking countries where it is unusual to ever learn Portuguese. The following text is an extract from my book 'Reality Check: Life in Brazil through the eyes of a foreigner' (Pub. Sep 2013) exploring some of the linguistic issues for those of us who have moved (or want to move to) Brazil.

Whisper it, but Brazilians speak Portuguese - not Spanish. It's a common mistake. Take a look at this video of the Today show on Channel 9 TV in Australia. The entire presenting team can't decide if Brazilians speak Spanish or Italian and make a good job of looking like fools.

Brazil is one of the main economic superpowers of the world and these TV anchors don't know this kind of stuff?

Despite the belief of many English speakers that everyone around the world uses English, it is not common to find very many people who can use it well in Brazil. Of course if you have just checked into the Copacabana Palace hotel in Rio then the front desk staff will be able to handle your check-in in English, but try getting a taxi from outside the hotel and you are back in a very non-English world.

But the slight advantage English speakers do have is that our language has been adopted as the global language of commerce and is the dominant language used in international pop music, thanks to the success of the American recording industry.

This means that it is much more likely to find English speakers in a place like Brazil than to find Thai or Welsh speakers - apologies to Thai and Welsh friends. Pink Floyd and The Beatles sold millions of records all over the world meaning that even non-English speaking Brazilians know what 'help' or 'money' means. Do you know how to say 'money' in Portuguese? See what I mean...

Large international companies, such as IBM or HSBC, will generally use English as their internal language. So people hired in France, Brazil or Mexico all need to be able to use some English because the company is global and will expect interaction between their employees in different countries.

I have worked for large German and French companies in London and I observed this behaviour almost with a sense of embarrassment. Can you imagine being French, applying for a job in Paris and being told that a condition of getting the job is that you can speak another language? It seems unthinkable that a British company in London could demand that all of their staff be able to speak French as a condition of getting a job. And yet this is normal across the world for the English language.

For those of us who grew up using English as our first language it is a remarkable blessing.

But the majority of people in Brazil don't work for large multinational firms, and even those who love American or British rock and can belt out the chorus to 'Smoke on the water' don't necessarily have the ability to engage in a conversation using English. I once saw a concert by British band The Cure in São Paulo and the audience were singing along as loudly as I would have expected back in London, but I don't believe that I was surrounded by 35,000 English speakers.

I'm not pontificating about my expertise in Portuguese from a very high position though - I'm still not very fluent. But today I've been out shopping, I needed a screwdriver and some hinges, so I talked to the shop employees about what I needed - and got the products. Then I went out for lunch and had a chat with the waiter.

I'm capable of most functional situations, but my bank blocked my Mastercard today when I tried using it to make an online purchase - I'm going to let my wife try sorting that situation out!

Learning a new language is never easy, but I never even started trying to speak Portuguese until I was 40. After several false starts and some long periods where I never studied at all, because I was more focused on getting my business running, I've reached a functional level and I can feel my abilities getting better all the time. I do have a strong desire to continue improving, because this is the place that I now call home.

What is important to remember is that different methods work for different people. Some people want to dive straight into the grammar and an immersion class, and some want to learn at their own pace.

But no classes or courses can beat the urgency of just being in Brazil and needing to communicate. When you find that your postman can't speak English, cab drivers can't speak English, and the waiters in your local café can't speak English - and most importantly, all interactions, formal and informal, between Brazilians and you will happen in Portuguese - then that's the best incentive to start learning the local language.