Getting by with just English and without Portuguese

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Very few Brazilians speak English

If you're used to traveling in Western Europe where quite a lot of people know English, you'll be surprised to discover that in Brazil the average person does not know any English at all. Brazil is a big self-contained monolingual country. You'll still get by, but be prepared with polite words and a dictionary.

There are certainly pockets of English knowledge — guides at touristy locations, students at prestigious universities, conferences involving Brazilian scientists or programmers, and one or two staff at the reception desk of first-class hotels — but shopkeepers, restaurant employees, and random people you meet will not speak anything other than Portuguese (and not Spanish either).

In schools, Brazilians do study several years of English as a second language. Private schools that teach English are everywhere in Brazil. And you'll see advertisements for English classes on TV and billboards. So why don't more people know English? As far as public schools, think about why most Americans don't speak Spanish and most Canadians don't know French despite having studied Spanish and French in school. Three hours a week of a foreign language in high school is not enough; you don't need it; you don't practice; you're not motivated to learn it; you quickly forget it. The same thing in Brazil with English. And the private schools are for affluent kids, a small segment of society.

Cheat sheet and dictionary

If you don't know Portuguese, take these 3 things:

  1. My cheat sheet (PDF) for Brazilian Portuguese. It's the absolute minimum vocabulary you need to know on a single sheet. This is based on my experience of what's essential before I started to learn Portuguese.
  2. A pocket English-Portuguese dictionary.
  3. A guide to Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation. Every book on learning Portuguese has a 2–3 page pronunciation guide somewhere in the book. Photocopy it.

I find that phrasebooks are useless — there's no time to look up anything and usually you won't find a phrase that's close to what you need, so you'll have to improvise anyway.

I've looked at least 30 different small-size English-Portuguese dictionaries over the years, and the two I liked best are below. Both are pocket sized, but not super tiny. I've never found the Oxford one at any bookstore in Brazil, so buy it in the US or Canada before you go. The Langenscheidt can be found in large bookstores in Brazil.

 Oxford Colour Portuguese Dictionary (Portuguese-English / English-Portuguese)
 by John Whitlam
 458 pages, 2010, ISBN-10: 019860386X, ISBN-13: 978-0198603863
 Size: 6 x 1 x 4.2 inches
 Langenscheidt Pocket Dictionary Portuguese (Portuguese-English / English-Portuguese)
 by Langenscheidt
 720 pages, 2011, ISBN-10: 3468980744 ISBN-13: 978-3468980749
 Size: 6.1 x 3.9 x 1.2 inches

Google Translate for 2-way conversation

Google Translate is great for having a meaningful two-way conversation. If you have a very patient Brazilian to speak with, you can have an in-depth conversation by typing in your respective languages into Google Translate. Google Translate works extremely well with English/Portuguese in either direction. However, it does not differentiate between Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese from Portugal, so once in a while it uses a European Portuguese word that a Brazilian wouldn't know.

For Google Translate you'll need an Internet connection of course. Getting a data plan for a cell phone is a major hassle for a foreign visitor to Brazil, but recently the cell service provider Vivo has been allowing Internet connections on its prepaid voice plan (which is a smaller hassle to get). All hotels in major cities have wifi though it's slow by North American standards. You can occasionally find wifi in coffee shops and such, but much less often than in Canada and the USA.

Contact Info

Corrections and comments about this article are welcome. Please email to:

dacanada [at-sign]

© 2014