Rio de Janeiro: Language

I consider myself fairly well-traveled for my age. When my brother and I were kids, our parents felt that travel was an important part of our social education, so we were lucky enough to see much of the US, as well as parts of Canada, Mexico, Italy, Switzerland, and England before either of us were in college. On a college choir tour, I got to cross Hungary, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic off my list.


Apparently I loved to travel before I even knew I did.

You’ll notice, though, that on all of those trips I was either a kid with my parents in a fairly English-friendly country, or in a large group (something like 200 students) with tour buses, guides, and a very specific agenda that involved many hours of rehearsals and performances. All in all, I’ve never had to struggle with the language in any country to which I’ve traveled.

Really, I’ve always been good with languages. I studied Spanish in high school, I’m self-taught enough in Italian to be able to carry on a conversation, and I can fake my way through German thanks to my musical and operatic studies (though most of the words I know have to do with love, nature, death, or technical musical terms). Plus T studied German in college and can hold his own.

All of a sudden, though, we found ourselves in a country that didn’t speak any of the languages with which we’re familiar, including English. Turns out that despite its touristy/spring break-y/Carnaval-y image, almost no one in Brazil has even basic English skills. Hello, culture shock.

Happily, we had two things going for us:

1. Friends who live in Brazil, one of whom grew up there, and speak Portuguese. Though neither of them would classify themselves as fluent, they obviously knew much more than we did and were able to translate pretty much everything for us for the first several days we were there. We wouldn’t have survived the trip without them.

2. Portuguese lessons on Duolingo. Having been fairly successful using Duo to teach myself Italian, I decided to do some basic Portuguese on it in the weeks before we left. It ended up being really useful because I became familiar with the sound of the language and the somewhat counterintuitive pronunciation rules in addition to learning some basic vocabulary, and I was able to use what I had learned once T and I were on our own for part of our trip. (Consider this a plug for Duolingo as well––it’s a fairly comprehensive learning system that feels like a big game, and it’s free.)

In T’s words, “Know the sounds, not the words.” If you’re aware of and can recognize the pronunciation rules and the ways that they differ from Spanish or Italian (assuming you’re familiar with either of those languages), you’ll probably be able to figure out more than you’d expect. Here’s a basic pronunciation guide that was sent to me by Julie, my friend who lives there:

“r” at the beginning of a word: “h” (real, the currency, is pronounced “hay-OW”)
“rr” in the middle of a word: “h” (Barra, our friends’ neighborhood, is pronounced “BA-ha,” like Baja California)
“o” at the end of a word: “oo”
“a” in the middle of a word: “uh” (morango, “strawberry,” is pronounced “mor-UHN-goo”)
“t”: “ch”
“d”: sometimes “j,” but not always
“e” at the end of a word: “ee”
“ch”: “sh”
“j”: “dzh”
“em,” “en,” or “in”: the final consonant is pronounced like a swallowed “ng” sound

Here are some of the words and phrases we found most useful:

Estou aprendendo português (es-TOH ah-pren-DEN-doo por-too-GUESS): “I am learning Portuguese.” We said this at the beginning of many of our interactions with locals, which instantly made them smile and become much more willing to help us out.

Você fala ingles? (vo-SAY FAH-lah een-GLES): “Do you speak English?” This usually followed right after the above, and almost every single person responded with an apologetic head shake.

Água sem gás (AH-gwa same gahs): “Water without gas,” or non-fizzy water. In the US we call fizzy water mineral water, but in Brazil mineral water just means spring water that’s safe to drink. We had to specify that we wanted water without gas (I had done this before in Europe, so it was no surprise).

Obrigado/a (oh-bree-GAH-doo/dah): “Thank you.” Almost always shortened to ‘brigado (if you’re male) or ‘brigada (if you’re female), and sometimes even with the final vowel dropped off. This was definitely the word we used more than any other words combined.

Não (hard to write out phonetically because it’s a nasal sound): “No.” Combined with “obrigado,” we said this a lot to the beach vendors walking by every five seconds trying to sell us food, drinks, ice cream, frozen juices, jewelry, hats, sunglasses, clothes, henna tattoos…

Sim (seeng): “Yes.” No explanation necessary.

Conta (CONE-cha): “Check.” We didn’t have to use this one often, but it’s helpful to know how to ask for the check when you’re done eating and tired of waiting on less-than-stellar customer service.

Banheiro (bahn-YAY-roo): “Bathroom.” Don’t use “banho,” pronounced like Spanish “baño” or Italian “bagno,” because that refers to an actual bath or shower.

Barraca (ba-HA-ka): “Umbrella,” like a beach umbrella. You can rent them at the beach.

Cadeira (ka-DAY-ra): “Chair,” like a beach chair. You can rent these at the beach along with your barraca, and in fact no one brings their own chairs to the beach.

I would also recommend knowing the numbers one through twelve or so. We only knew a few and did a lot of finger-holding-up, but it would have been better if we had known the words for them.

The bottom line is, you can’t rely on people knowing English in Brazil, and I’m very glad I took the time to learn a little bit of Portuguese on my own in advance. The Brazilians certainly appreciated the fact that we were at least trying to speak their language, and it made them much more sympathetic to us. In my mind, that’s part of achieving perfect harmony: being willing to work at integrating into a different culture, even if it makes you feel a little uncomfortable. Isn’t that what you’d expect from a foreign visitor to your country?

Looking for more info? Check out my list of important things to know before you go to Brazil, as well as a cool area to explore once you’re there.

7 thoughts on “Rio de Janeiro: Language

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