Brazil is a vibrant, extroverted and growing country which receives around 7 million tourists every year, many of them from the UK and US. It is also popular with travelers and volunteers. But just how widely spoken is English there? Can an English speaking person expect to get by there without knowing any Portuguese?
In summary, English is not very widely spoken in Brazil, especially outside the major cities of Sao Paolo, Brasilia or Rio de Janeiro. Estimates place English literacy at only around 5 percent of the population, with only a small fraction of those truly fluent, a very small proportion mostly restricted to middle class educated people and the major tourist spots.
The vast majority of the population will not speak English and you will need some Portuguese and body language to communicate.
Your best chance of finding English speakers is in the more upmarket luxurious hotels in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, where receptionists may speak it, younger people under 35, and perhaps some bigger restaurants, though even here it is a bit hit and miss.
Sometimes you can get an English menu (ask for “carpadio em ingles”) but waiters often won’t speak English themselves and you will have to point, gesticulate and use some basic Portuguese to get by.
Taxi and bus drivers for example will almost always not speak English, except for maybe the cab drivers who are outside the most luxurious hotels. To save hassle it is best to keep some hotel business cards to give to drivers, and also get the hotel staff to write down destinations in Portuguese if they can. In shops and supermarkets you will also need to point or use Portuguese since very few people will speak English there either.
Even when you do find someone who speaks English, their spoken competency is likely to be very minimal, limited to a few basic words at best. Truly fluent English speakers are very rare in Brazil, so limit any questions to very basic words and sentences and speak slowly and clearly to give yourself the best chance to be understood.
On the plus side Brazilians are known for being very friendly and helpful and will always do their best to help you out in spite of the language barriers, as long as you are friendly and warm in the way you approach them.
See this excellent report by the British Council on the prevalence of English in Brazil.
Why The Shortfall in English in Brazil?
The relatively low number of English speakers in Brazil, and the distribution of these speakers among the population, is reflective of the wider issue of inequality and lack of education in Brazil. Proficiency in English is almost exclusively restricted to the middle and upper classes, and is also heavily skewed towards the younger population. Even basic proficiency is very limited among the poorer and older people. See the report linked above for a breakdown of the stats.
English is now being taught in schools as a foreign language, hence why younger people tend to speak it more. You may also find more English speakers in high tech and international companies in the larger cities.
English is also being increasingly offered in private courses, but obviously only the middle and upper classes can afford these and so the proficiency gap between them and the poorer population who only learn very basic English in the public schools, and do not get much chance to practice, continues to grow wider.
The English that is taught in the state schools is generally not considered to be of a very high standard, and does not allow most Brazilians to be able to really communicate verbally with English speakers they come into contact with.
To get to any kind of level of proficiency, it is considered pretty much essential to enroll in expensive private schools or courses, which of course much of the population cannot afford.
Looking into this, we found the same basic problem that is evident in other countries like Japan and South Korea – everybody studies English but nobody actually speaks it. The teaching emphasis remains on just learning words instead of learning how to practically speak and pronounce English correctly on a day to day level.
Much of the teaching tends to focus on grammar but not on pronunciation. This problem is even more compounded by the fact the Portuguese accent and pronunciation is very different to English and so Brazilians often find it hard to be understood when attempting to pronounce English. Because of this phoenetical difference between the two languages, it is difficult for Brazilians to get really confident speaking English.
See this excellent article on the issues of teaching and learning English in Brazil for more on all these points.
Learning Some Basic Portuguese
Given that the prevalence of English is so low in Brazil, even in the tourist areas, it really is a country more than any of the others we cover where you need to learn the native language a little before you go.
You cannot rely so much on “winging it through” by speaking English, since even in the tourist parts you cannot take English speaking for granted in restaurants and other places as you can through most of Europe for example.
The official language of Brazil is actually Portuguese, with almost the entire population speaking it. The Brazilian dialect of Portuguese however differs from the European dialect spoken in Portugal, with some different words and pronunciation.
Having some European Spanish or Portuguese may help but there are specific words and accents you will need to learn for Brazil. The difference between Brazilian and European Portuguese is often considered similar to the difference between American and British English.
Here are some of the more common phrases you might need when holidaying in Brazil. The pronunciation of some Portuguese words can be tricky to get the hang of at first, but learning a few of the more common phrases is usually not too difficult.
|English||Brazilian Portuguese||Pronounced as|
|Bye||Tchau||Ciao (as in Italian)|
|See you soon||Até mais||Ateh mice|
|Please||Por favor||Poor favoor|
|Excuse me||Com licença||Com leesensa|
|You're welcome||De nada||Je nada
|Good morning||Bom dia||Bom jia|
|How are you?/I'm fine||Tudo bem?/Tudo bem||Toodo beym(?)|
|I'm fine, and you?||Estou bem, e voce?||Estoo beym, eh voh-sey?
|Good afternoon||Boa tarde||Boah tarjee|
|Good evening||Boa noite||Boah noyje|
|Prazer||Nice to meet you||Prazehr|
|Where is....?||Onde fica o....?||Onje fica o....?|
|Where is the bathroom?||Onde fica o banheiro?||Onjeh fica o banyero?|
|What time is it?||Que horas são?||Kay orras so?|
|My name is....||O meu nome é......||O meo no-mey eh.....|
|Take care||Se cuida||Seh cooida|
|How much is it?||Quanto que fica?||Kwanto ke feeca?|
|The check/bill please||A conta por favor||A conta poor favoor|
|Menu in English please||Cardápio em inglês por favor||Carpajio im inglays poor favoor|
Notice that a “d” letter is often pronounced as a “j” in Brazilian Portuguese. Some of the words and pronunciation are actually the same as European Portuguese; others are spelled or pronounced differently.
If you are going to Brazil even for a short holiday, and certainly longer term, it is a good idea to learn some Brazilian Portuguese to help you get by given the low prevalence of English.
If you want to learn a bit more than the basics above, then check out this excellent introductory course in Brazilian Portuguese by Patrick Jackson, with over 4 hours of solid learning material. It is available for free on Amazon with a trial of Audible.
See here for a Portuguese phrasebook for some key phrases to have with you on your travels.