As Brazil is the only country in Latin America that adopted Portuguese as the first language, some tourists doubt whether it is necessary to speak Portuguese to visit Brazil.
As a general rule, you don’t need to speak Portuguese to visit Brazil, but having some knowledge of Portuguese or even Spanish will make your travel a lot easier. English is not widely spoken in Brazil, except by hotel staff and in some cities, such as Curitiba, Belo Horizonte, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro.
Portuguese is the official language in Brazil, but knowing a little Spanish can help because the languages are very similar and Brazilians can understand Spanish when spoken slowly. To learn more about traveling to Brazil and receive some special local tips, keep reading.
Do I Need To Speak Portuguese To Visit Brazil?
Brazil is a gigantic country with different cultures and levels of education within the same territory. That’s why is so common for some people to travel to Brazil and come back saying that Brazilians are great English speakers and others may say that is impossible to communicate around here. The truth is both are right. Depending on the city that you are in you’ll be able to get around only with English or Spanish, some places even with German (very rare).
This is why there is so much confusion between information posted on the Internet. But as a Brazilian born a bred I can assure you: you can travel to Brazil without knowing a word in Portuguese, but It’ll be hard and sometimes even dangerous. Even so, I have some great tips for a non-Portuguese speaker to get by in Brazil.
1) Choose Your Destination Carefully
The first tip for someone that doesn’t speak Portuguese visiting Brazil is to choose your destination carefully. That sounds obvious but I’m not talking about safety issues or best destinations in terms of the cost of the benefit, etc. I’m talking about traveling to a place where there’s more chance for you to find people that speak your language at a good level.
If you’re an English speaker (which I imagine you are since you’re reading this blog), the best cities for you to visit even if you don’t know a word in Portuguese are the ones with a higher level of proficient English speakers. In this case, the best cities to travel to are, in order:
- Belo Horizonte
- São Paulo
- Rio de Janeiro
2) In Tourist Hotspots You’ll Be Fine
The second tip to calm down your worries about being trapped in Brazil forever for not knowing how to communicate in Portuguese is visiting big cities and tourist destinations. As I said earlier, there are certain cities where is easier to find English speakers (check the list in the section before), but those are not the only places where you’re going to find people that can communicate with you.
In touristic destinations such as Rio, São Paulo, and Florianópolis for example, despite these cities not being the highest-ranked in terms of English proficiency, they receive 95% of the international tourists every year. This way, most of the hotel staff, waiters in restaurants, and even some of the street vendors will be able to somehow communicate in English. It helps a lot!
Letting to you only some impossible missions like doing groceries in a supermarket where every label is in Portuguese and the attendants don’t speak a word in English. But hey, this is what Google is for right?
3) Non-Verbal Communication And Apps
An alternative for travelers that want to visit Brazil without speaking Portuguese is using non-verbal communication and language apps. Let’s start with non-verbal language. We Brazilians have mastered the art of improvisation and we are very friendly people. So whenever you find yourself in a situation that you can talk your way off, don’t be ashamed, use your body.
Just shake your hands, point out to stuff and remember two basic signs: thumbs up and thumbs down. Those signs are not considered rude in Brazil (the OK sign can be misunderstood around here so avoid using it). Using thumbs up for yes and thumbs down for no and you can probably ask for food without saying a word only pointing out stuff in a menu.
Also, technology evolved so much for you to be afraid to travel just because of the language barrier. Make sure that your smartphone is updated and that you’ll be able to access the Internet in a different country and you have the only tool that you need to communicate in any idiom on the planet inside your pocket.
4) Knowing Some Portuguese Can Save Your Life
Well, last but not least, a little personal story to make a point. On my first travel to the United States, my wife had a serious health problem. She passed out and started to convulse in the hotel room we were in Orlando and this was one of the scariest moments of my life. I helped her with first aid as best I could and immediately called 911.
At that time, my English was not as good as it is now. Plus, I was very nervous. Even so, my abilities were good enough to explain the situation and in less than 2 minutes the ambulance was there to help us. Maybe If I needed to call someone from the staff to translate or make the call she would not be here anymore.
So my last and most important point is: you can travel anywhere without knowing the language, just relying on apps and improvising, but the best and smartest decision is to study at least some basic words and sentences before traveling. That can literally save your life in situations like calling an ambulance, explaining a food or a medicine allergy, etc.
Can I Get By In Brazil with English?
As Brazil is the only country in South America that speaks Portuguese as its first language, many tourists are in doubt as to whether it is possible to travel to the country only knowing English.
As a general rule, it’s hard to get by in Brazil with English, as most Brazilians don’t speak the language. But there are some cities where English procifiency is higher, such as Curitiba, Belo Horizonte, Brasília, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In these cities, you can get by easily only with English.
Usually, in these cities listed above and touristic destinations is easy to find people that can somehow communicate in English, especially in hotels, good restaurants, and shopping malls. It’s not ideal, but it’s enough to make your life a little bit easier during your time in Brazil.
Can You Get By in Brazil with Spanish?
It’s crazy how many people don’t know that the official language in Brazil is Portuguese and not Spanish. Even so, there is good news for Spanish speakers that want to travel to Brazil.
It’s possible to get by in Brazil with Spanish very easily. As Portuguese and Spanish are similar idioms, most Brazilians can understand the language. There’s even a popular idiom in Brazil called Portuñol, a mixed version of Portuguese and Spanish. It’s not perfect, but good enough to communicate.
With Spanish and a little bit of patience (and maybe memorizing some keywords in Portuguese) will be able to travel to pretty much every city in Brazil. There are thousands of people living in the country that started their lives here talking only Spanish.
Articles That May Help You
Is English Spoken in Brazil: https://whataboutbrazil.com/is-english-spoken-in-brazil/
What Language Do They Speak in Brazil: https://whataboutbrazil.com/what-language-do-they-speak-in-brazil/
Can I Live In Brazil Without Speaking Portuguese: https://whataboutbrazil.com/can-i-live-in-brazil-without-speaking-portuguese/