Language – Part II – Hello??? Speak to me please!

“Can someone help me please?  Is there anyone here that can speak English?” I found myself asking this a number of times as I truly expected more people to speak English than what I encountered over the 8 months that I lived in Sao Paulo.  Brazil is proudly 95% Portuguese and barely 2% speak fluent English or have a basic understanding of the language.

The Brazilian people greatly admire anyone who speaks English but most often they shy away from speaking the language themselves for fear of sounding ridiculous or just plain saying the wrong thing. Every where you go when you approach the locals, they will either back away and nod, não Inglês (no English) or you will hear the odd person say, ‘No speak English or I speak little English.’  However if you are supportive, they welcome the opportunity to speak the language.  I must warn you though!  They call ALL English speaking persons, American, so beware.  I had to clarify the fact that I am from Bermuda and that I am British numerous times during my stay, and it often ended with a bit of an embrassed apology and a laugh.

Apparently English is taught in the public and private schools, but only the “well to do” are able to afford English classes beyond high school in an effort to become more fluent in the language. This is unfortunate because I often found myself walking into a ‘brick wall’  when I went into stores and more specifically when I went into restaurants and bakeries.  Most stores do not have an English speaking sales staff and the general consensus is that it is not necessary.  This attitude was also reflected in restaurants where over 95% of the time, they had neither an English/American menu nor was there an English speaking person available on staff who could tell me what I was about to eat.  Because the vast majority of the Brazilian menus contain pork, this often presented a problem for me since I am not a pork eater.  So it is critical that one knows key Brazilian words such as ‘frango’ (chicken) or ‘queijo’ (cheese) or ‘batatas’ (potatoes) or several portuguese names of your favorite foods.

My solution to this problem was to use google translate –  So I suggest that you use any of your favorite language translation sites to interpret what you want, write it down and to give it to the staff member, bus driver or whomever, to read so you can get whatever you need.  I had to do this in general merchandise stores, in the print store, in the post office and even on the bus.  It works and took much of the headache out of dealing with the language barrier.  I must caution you that this can put you at risk because it immediately identifies you as a tourist or someone not familiar with the language or the area.  This revelation may possibly subject you to the whims of criminals, including taxi-drivers, vendors etc. who may take advantage of the fact that you ‘do not know.’  Additional details on this subject will be covered under the topic of ‘Crime.’