Languages for Expats in Brazil

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: June 2014

The sole official language of Brazil is Portuguese. It is the first language of a large majority of the population and is spoken by almost everyone. There are more than 220 other languages spoken in Brazil. The vast majority of these are indigenous; the most important native language is Tupí-Guaraní. Some Brazilians have Spanish as a mother tongue, and smaller numbers speak French, German, Italian and Japanese. Only about 5% of the population speak English fluently, mostly as a second language. In general, it is only in the main cities that Brazilians speak other languages, and even then, not everyone does so.

If you choose to associate exclusively with fellow expats, you may be able to get by with only basic Portuguese for a while. However, the longer you stay in Brazil, the more likely it is you’ll find yourself in a situation where fluency is required. Murphy’s Law decrees that this situation will be tricky – for example, you have a leaky pipe and all the plumbers speak Portuguese. Furthermore, institutions often require you to write in Portuguese, and often the information you need to get through everyday life is only available in the local language. Hence, if you are serious about staying in the country long-term, becoming fluent in Portuguese is imperative.

Portuguese is closely related to several other European languages, including French, Italian and Spanish. Of these, Spanish and Portuguese are particularly similar, especially on paper. Differences are greater when the languages are spoken, though South American Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese are pronounced more similarly than other varieties. English speakers will also find many familiar words, though this is more the case with advanced vocabulary.

For speakers of other languages, learning to speak, read and write Portuguese should still not present any serious difficulties. Understanding spoken Portuguese is likely to be more of a problem, as native speaker tend to drop single sounds and even whole syllables during their normal speech. To overcome this, listen to Portuguese whenever you can, using real-life conversations, TV, radio, podcasts, films, etc., and you will find that comprehension will start to come.

If you have previously learnt European Portuguese, it will take little effort to adapt. Brazilian Portuguese differs from European Portuguese in that it has borrowed many words from indigenous languages, chiefly Tupí-Guaraní. Other than this and some minor spelling differences, the two varieties of Portuguese are very similar. There are plenty of learning materials in Brazilian Portuguese, so you should seek these out wherever possible. There is also little dialectal variation of Brazilian Portuguese, so you should be able to make yourself understood throughout the country.

The best way to learn a language by far is to be surrounded by native speakers. Your current author can personally testify to this, having been thrown right in the deep end in China back in 2002. When you are in this ‘sink or swim’ situation, you learn because you have to. Fortunately, unlike the Chinese, the Brazilians will normally appreciate your efforts to speak their language rather than laugh at them. Remember that there are other ways to learn than just by speaking. If there is no-one else around, you can still try to read Portuguese, for example on adverts, signs, even product labels.

Additionally, you may want to take up a language course. Portuguese language courses are widely available on the internet as distance learning projects and can enable individuals to achieve the necessary standard. The BBC website ( offers free courses in Portuguese and provides useful information about the language. Meanwhile, Open Culture ( lists a number of websites that offer Portuguese language tuition.

Once an individual has gained a basic knowledge of the language, another way to improve on this is to participate in language exchange sessions. Language exchange can be carried out in meetings or over the internet. It usually involves between two and four people speaking in their mother tongue for half of the session and during the other half using the language they are learning. Some expat websites offer opportunities for language exchange, as does My Language Exchange (, which offers free membership and provides opportunities for exchanges in Portuguese and 114 other languages.