55 comments on “The quirks of being a foreigner in Brazil.

  1. I have also heard this theory from a couple of Brazilian friends. I particularly remember attempting to buy a latte in Starbucks, they were totally baffled by what I was asking for till I eventually changed my pronunciation to latch-ay. However I have almost without exception found Brazilians tolerant, and supportive of my language difficulties, but it was unexpectedly hard at the start. Another great post.

    • Thanks! Yes, thankfully Brazilians are very patient and curious when it comes to us gringos speaking their language so badly. Which I guess helps if they have no idea what we’re saying!

    • Jon, I have no idea what you are talking about and even if I did it was all a very long time ago so I can’t really remember….ahem.

  2. This post is very true! What I find funny is how I will come across people (like people who deliver my food to my house) and I will speak to them in portuguese and they can understand me, but I must give off a very gringa Americana vibe because they always feel the need to either thank me in english and say good night or good bye to me. It must be my neighborhood but I think they find me like a local attraction…who knows. I don’t mind though.

      • I guess they’re only trying to make you comfortable, as most foreigners can’t read portuguese.

      • The ones who live here? I’d say they probably find reading one of the easier things when it comes to Portuguese.

  3. The same thing happened to me many times! And I concluded the same thing. In London, I am so used to hearing English being spoken as a second language, and tuning in to the different accents and emphasis on words that inevitably comes with it. In fact, I think English is spoken more as a second language than by native speakers now worldwide. Admittedly, different accents can make a difference even in your native tongue. Glasweigan is still an issue for me, and I had to watch many episodes of The Wire before I could understand that Baltimore accent.

  4. You’ll never be Brazilian but you were instantly a paulistano. It seems that ‘my’ theory is correct since lots of people seem to have thought of that. In some cases all you have to do is forget about the right way to speak English and embrace the hotchy doggy :-)

  5. Andy, I don’t think it’s so much ‘dodgy’ Portuguese that’s the problem. I think it’s down to education. Without fail, the better-off and better educated Brazilians have no trouble understanding me, but those that originate from the poorer areas DO have trouble.

    This was really highlighted for me when I was trying to speak to the (basic public school educated) mother of an ex-girlfriend. I said something to her and was greeted with a blank face – she hadn’t understood a word I’d said. Her daughter then repeated word-for-word what I had just said, and – BINGO! – her mother understood.

    Unless you say something using exactly the same sounds as they are accustomed to, to many of the more poorly educated you may as well still be speaking English!

    • Good point Greg, but do you reckon it’s down to the fact that poorer people have less contact with us gringos and therefore are less used to hearing a gringo speak Portuguese? Undoubtedly, education has a role though.

      • I think you two may be on to something. I find the same to occur in Canada in rural/remote areas. My partner is Japanese and sometimes people cannot understand his Japanese accented English. They are confused and all too often frustrated in trying to communicate with him. When in fact many of the people he interacts with don’t speak English properly themselves, have a limited vocabulary, and have not encountered many different accents. So I don’t think this experience is unique to Brazil and Portuguese.

  6. Excellent article, depicts it brilliantly, but I wonder if the theory is correct. Once, I have watched at the Borders Authorities at Guarulhos Airport, a “gringo” attempting to explain (with an English accent) calmly the number of days spent during his previous stays in the country. His portuguese was much better than mine, after six months here (and Spanish is one my two mother tongues). He was unable to get understood by the girl at the desk, who then called the officer who was in front of me. The gringo had to repeat once again is whole explanation and was then interrupted harshly with the following reply: “Speak portuguese. I don’t speak foreigner”… it is not like these officers are not used to have contact with foreigners: they may see like 100 of them coming from the whole world every day.

    • That just sounds like any jobsworth who gets a bit of power – i.e. they want to make life difficult for you just because they can. I don’t know if you’ve ever visited the UK but I reckon the immigration guys at our airports are amongst the rudest and purposefully unhelpful I’ve ever come across. They give my wife grief every time we go back.

      • Well, I did not need a visa myself for UK, but I had the opportunity to work with asylum seekers during 6 months in London (more specifically, at the Home Office in Croydon) in 2003. I must admit that you are right.

  7. I second Greg. Less educated Brazilian people have received bad quality education and became functional illeterates. They are not able to understand written pieces of formal language, have limited vocabulary, poor writing skills. Now, imagine what happens when they are supposed to contact a foreigner with an accent they are not familiarized with.

    • When you put it like that it explains it perfectly! Still, it remains really frustrating when you are trying so hard and it also really knocks your confidence about speaking.

  8. You’ve hit the nail on the head there with your (wife’s) theory! ;) So many times I have tried to say something in portuguese and got that completely blank look in return, as though I spoke russian. As someone from London who’s used to foreigners speaking english, it baffles me that there seems to be no attempt to try and guess what I might’ve been trying to say! Often its my in-laws who are on the receiving end of my portuguese, and they’re too polite to say anything, so I fear sometimes they just smile and nod…

    • Yeah, that’s one of the things that annoys me a little too (and also ruins my confidence to speak Portuguese). Clearly I’m a gringo and perhaps I’m struggling a little to pronounce a word correctly but at least try to guess what it is. Really, how many ways are there to say bloody “Metro”?!

  9. Perhaps the most interesting part of the article is the fact that you live at Zona Norte!! haha!! jokes aside, enjoying reading and must admit your knowledge about São and Brazil are becoming better and better.
    Funny to note the I sort of go through that “I don’t understand you” issue at work here in NY, majority of my co workers are not world travelers and does not speak a second language, so every time someone calls in or show up with the slightest accent who do they call? Me of course… that’s my job for you, walk through NYC and you will hear 1000 different English accents, and they all understand one another.

    • Haha! Zona Norte = free living with the in-laws so I’m happy with that arrangement!

      Yeah, I know what you mean. In London, speaking to people who speak English as a second language is very normal. However, venture a bit outside of the capital and people have difficulties. I remember the receptionists trying to answer the phone to the kids I worked with. It was excruciating.

    • “Zona Norte. Haha.” What an idiotic comment. Typical of a person who clearly has an inferiority complex and wants to show wealth…which you probably do not have. Sad, sad…

  10. Reblogged this on ExpatBrazil and commented:
    A few days after arriving in Braizl back in 1964, I went to Bob’s at Largo do Machado. I ordered a Chocolate Milk Shake and a Cheeseburger. The order taker couldn’t understand me. Tried twice. Nada. So I stood off to the side and listened to other people ordering. I realized I had to Brazilianize my English. Got back in line and this time pronounced the order in Brazilian English. Worked like a charm! Even after years here, this pronunciation problem pops up.

  11. I observed that sometimes Brazilians are surprised (which I would expect), but sometimes they are not surprised at all to see such a gringo as I am. One of my first weeks here on some random street far from everything some old senhor approached me and asked something. That time I didn’t speak Portuguese at all so I tried to say something in English. And I was shocked that he was not surprised at all, no emotion, as if he used to meet every day a foreigner over here. (OK, this is an exception, that’s why I’m telling it here)
    But I think people in Russia would be much more surprised. Not like in North Korea, of course. (Look at the boy’s eyes on the picture :)
    [img]http://tema.ru/travel/north-korea-1/_MG_0520.jpg[/img]
    But somewhere deep inside of our Russian souls we do react like this, we just don’t let it be so obvious:))

    Another funny thing that people usually don’t guess where I’m from. This is a huuuge difference from Germany, where people used to guess it even before I opened my mouth. I suspect It means almost no cultural exchange between Brazil and Russia.

    • Haha yes, Brazil and Russia are about as different as I can imagine. I’m guessing though that Russia, like Brazil, will start to become more familiar with foreigners in the coming decades.

  12. Your colorful photo from the ‘islas flotantes’ got me to this post… and imagine, I’m a Brazilian-born serial expat, now living in We’re simply loving our time in Bolivia… so much to see and experience! If you’d be kind to give me your comments on our trip to mystic Copacabana, it’d be greatly appreciated! Thank you!
    http://3rdculturechildren.com/2013/01/28/photo-journal-trip-to-copacabana-bolivia/Bolivia, so, got hooked up on your article! Thank you for sharing! :o

  13. I guess what I don’t understand in my travels to more than a dozen countries is that there is no intuition capability. Many non-English speaking folks hammer badly the pronunciation and a native English speaker more often than not could guess what was meant to be said. Sadly, the oppositie is not true, speaking in a foreign language to a local doesn’t seem to get the same intuition of what was meant to say. You are in a coffee shop, what else would you be ordering? Unless the foreign word for lattle and black coffee are close in pronunciation, I don’t see why getting it close can’t be understood. I have this happen to me all the time and I speak a bit of 5 languages but when traveling to those countries, you have to spot on in order to be understood.

  14. Lol no I tend to fall on the side of believing that it’s mostly because it’s shit. Trust me, there are lots of people who speak unintelligible English. Most gringos in Brazil speak like that, or worse. I mean it’s also a bit tautological to say you’re speaking a language and they don’t understand it. What defines whether or not you are speaking Brazilian Portuguese is if it’s intelligible to a speaker of Brazilian Portuguese.

    • Hey Vincent, I don’t really spend a whole lot of time around gringos so I can’t really say I know how well most of them speak Portuguese – but I’ll take your word for it!

      However, I would like to counter your last point. Back in the UK I lived in London, a city where you can find foreign born residents of a significant proportion of countries around the world. Us Londoners, like say New Yorkers, are used to conversing with people who may speak English in a way that is a bit unusual or takes some getting used to. However, the area I worked in (Surrey, a county just outside London), is largely known for being very white and very middle to upper class – and hence, not used to ‘outsiders’.

      The kids I worked there with as a social worker were from countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Eritrea, and had only learnt to speak English after arriving in the UK. When they spoke to me or other colleagues I had no issue in understanding them – and most of them were fluent, some even studying at university. However, when they called in and spoke to a receptionist or attended an appointment I commonly used to see the people attending to them complain that they couldn’t understand them.

      So, going back to your point. Does that mean that the kids I worked with (including university undergraduates) don’t count as being able to speak English because some speakers of English don’t understand them?

      • The more I follow this discussion, the more it gets clear to me that the chances of people from different origins and with different accents, levels of fluency and grammar skills understand each other adequately correlates with the educational level of participants and the frequency they are exposed to a cosmopolitan llife,highest educational level of listener and speaker. Too long sentence, written by a non-native English speaker. Were you able to get my point, despite my mistakes, LOL?

  15. I was reading an article about an text publicated in a newspaper (Estadao) in 1930 regarding São Paulo’s populational boom explosion on the early 20th century (São Paulo had 50.000 habitants in 1880, and 2.000.000 in 1910, an extraordinary growth). A writer of portuguese origins, who lived in the city when it was still a little village,stated that there were so many italian and japanese immigrants in the city that he couldn’t even find anyone who spoke portuguese anymore. So, here we are, 100 years later, and your text proves that those immigrants became a full part of Brazil, since brazilian portuguese (with our very own paulistano accent, or in other cases the nordestino’s accent) it’s so overwhelming that even foreigners trying to speak it have difficulties in making themselves understood. We transformed Brasil in our very own closed planet, with all the problems and benefits that this brings. Maybe it’s time too leave this system behind, as the sports events are coming, and making ourselves undestood for the rest of the world will be a necessity.

    • It’s amazing how Brazil managed to absorb so many people and with, as far as I am aware, very few social problems or anti-immigrant politics. What will be interesting is how Brazil continues to evolve as immigration starts to increase again. Brazil could be another completely different country in 100 years – I just wish I could be around to see it!

  16. My wife is Brazilian. I mentioned Iron Maiden. She looks at me blankly. What? We go back and forth. Finally she understands me, and offers the Brazilian translation, whch is Iron Maiden with about 5 extra syllables. It’s a gnarly language with little logic. I learned the basics of Farsi – writing and reading – in an afternoon, and was understood in Iran. Never happened in Brazil (with Portuguese, not Farsi).

  17. Good article – definitely true! Here in Belo Horizonte, there are so few foreigners that often it takes a few exchanges of conversation before people realise I’m not Brazilian – even when I’m speaking dodgy portuguese and they can see my blond hair/fair skin (which is much less common in BH).

    I really laugh when I find myself pronouncing English words in Brazilian-English in order for them to be understood (hotchy doggy mentioned above is a good example!).

  18. Late to the game, here, but this post and its comments really resonated with me. I’ve been living in the Zona Sul for three years now, and it still cracks me up when I ask for something that really could never be mistaken for something else (like a litter box in a pet store), and the sales clerk has to go and get someone who understands gringo a little better.

    I’ve concluded that some languages are just more forgiving than others. In English, it’s really hard to produce a misunderstanding by getting the emphasis on the wrong syllable, but your “metrô” incident reminded me of a man with a strong accent in Minneapolis asking me for the location of “Market Street,” which was confusing because that’s in neighboring St. Paul, when he was looking for [i]Marquette[/i] Street.

  19. As a brazilian i can tell you, rich and well educated brazilians will understand ur portuguese, even try to understand you.
    But the poor, ignorant and uneducated wont, and dont try, as long as they have never studied another language, they cant picture themselves in your place.
    Same thing happens to me in China, when I attempt to speak mandarin to them.

  20. Hey – are you still in SP?
    I have lived my entire adult life in London and have just moved back to Brasil, struggling to adapt even though I’m Brazilian. I’d be nice to know how you’re finding it!

    • I am intending to move to Sao Paolo next year and would love to know more about what to expect. I will have a better half who’s the wonder of my life assisting me but she’s from Sao Paolo originally so I was hoping to find out about others’ experiences that are not from Brazil originally. I’m 45 and she swears I can teach English easily for a decent living. I am fairly frugal when it comes to bills, not really needing much except food and exercise. She owns her house so that’s taken care of. Hope you can give me some heads up on what to expect. Thanks as always for the forum!

      Ron

      • I think that if you come with an open mind then you’ll be fine. Try and take everything in your stride and avoid being too critical straight away. If you do that you’ll grow to love the city quite quickly!

        Yes, if you are moving here and are a native speaker then you’ll have no worries getting a job as an English teacher. I had no experience myself but I’ve been teaching for over a year now. Let me know when you arrive and I’ll give you the details of the company I work for. They are always looking for teachers and pay pretty well compared to the chain schools (Wizard, SKILL, etc) that you find on most street corners.

      • Thanks Andy,
        I am really looking forward to living there. My g/f and I have waited for 5 years for this opportunity. I was wondering about an approximate yearly salary to get an idea of what to expect. Most bills are taken care with her having a very good job but I don’t want to be a drain on her finances either. Would a salary of more than $20K US dollars be a lot? I do love teaching and seeing others understand material I explain to them but the opportunities haven’t been there for me.
        I have been in the IT business forever, more than 20 years, and would love to do that there too but I am not sure with my very limited Portuguese that I could do that. I have been a Project Manager for the last 4 years of an IT team. I just have a feeling the teaching English is more probable for me there. Your thoughts?

        Thanks again,

        Ron

      • Yeah, getting a job here other than teaching English is difficult unless you come here with a company or start a business – no matter what your experience might be. Portuguese just adds another layer of difficulty.

        Teaching English can pay a good hourly rate (R$60+ / hour for private classes) but your overall income will vary depending on how many students and hours you get. It fluctuates throughout the year so, for example, between December and Carnaval you’ll
        often have nothing at all. My advice would be to make sure you have about saved up before you come – both to set yourselves up and tide you by during lean periods.

      • Sounds like good advice. She always tells me not to worry about the bills since she is doing well for herself but I can’t help being proactive and wanting to do my part. I often hear of companies needing English teachers but never knew whether that meant they will get them the students or jobs with other companies teaching their staff or how that works. Going by word of mouth would seem to take a very long time to build up a sizable enough student audience since I would be new to the area.

    • Hi Raquel, yes I am still here in Sampa. Whereabouts are you living in Brasil and what brought you back? What’s the thing you’ve found hardest to adapt to?

  21. you forgot to say that african decendent people plays an importan roll in brazilian culturel

    • That wasn’t really what the post was about, but Africans have of course had a huge role to play in the history and development of Brazil.

  22. I live in a small city it happens all the time, especially when you are not feeling confident.
    Also some brazilians are much worse than others and seem very unflexable.
    Canudo/ canuda
    Straw
    Not much of a diference in the overall sound of the word.
    Obrigado/a is understandable.
    Chris

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