Rio Part 2: A Little Portuguese Goes A Long Way

By Dave Guenther, Roadtrips Inc.

Rio De Janeiro
Rio De Janeiro is a world-class destination that regularly captures headlines because of its glamour, stunning beauty and exotic vistas. However, it is not a place where you’ll find much English spoken. The language of Brazil is Portuguese and outside of the major hotels, it can be a challenge for visitors to communicate. Many restaurants have only one or two English-speaking employees and after your introduction to the hostess they will be quickly summoned to practice their halting ingles with you.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you won’t get by. It’s amazing what grunts and hand gestures can accomplish. Plus you’ll be thrilled to see how much your party skill charades achieve when accompanied by whatever you remember of high school ‘Spanglish’. Personally, I only learnt introductory French in high school and when misunderstood I like to add a foreign accent and repeat again in English; often with extra volume. While not effective, at least I’m entertaining and appear determined!

Don’t fret. If this is you, too, you’ll probably end up with lemon instead of lime, a spoon instead of a fork and an extra item or two that you didn’t know you were ordering. No worries, those things are easy to smile at and move on from. However, when you know you’re going to be hosting your best clients at an absolutely top tier event, you want to do significantly more than just get by.

Since Roadtrips will be in Brazil for the next four years working on the World Cup and the Summer Olympics, I have determined to do better. After my second visit to Rio I ordered a ten disc “Intro To Conversational Brazilian Portuguese” program to listen to in the car on the way to and from work. I am sure those driving beside me have enjoyed watching me talk to myself each morning. On my third visit to Brazil last Fall, I tested out my limited abilities and I was excited to see how warmly my somewhat feeble efforts were received.

Now, back here in Rio for the fourth time and on an extended visit I have committed to three hours per week of private lessons. It’s amazing what a difference a little Portuguese makes to life in Rio. For one, my confidence as a consumer is way up. I’m still just piecing things together but I know my numbers, basic salutations and am starting to collect nouns and simple questions to help get what I need. Restaurants are becoming easy and shopping more fun.

Of course, I’m not fooling anybody. They all still know I’m a gringo. However, I can truly see how much they appreciate that I’m trying as I’m often rewarded with plenty of smiles and warm interactions. It actually feels like my efforts are generating better service, too. But it’s those smiles and what happens after that are making me feel more and more connected to Rio. Cashiers, wait staff or whoever I’m interacting with often want to help me out a little extra or want to try and respond back to me with the odd English word that they know. Along with the smiles, come laughter and many earnest well wishes as I continue on my way.

Despite the fact that English is hard to come by, many Brazilians are very interested in learning the language. Signs for English classes are everywhere; on buses, along the beach, and it’s widely accepted that English is a path to a better job. I’m not a great language learner but as I’ve learned a little, I’ve benefited a lot. Plus, there has been bonus byproducts: I feel more comfortable and secure, the people seem friendlier and I’m discovering a warm and open Rio that is eager to host the world.

If you are thinking of joining us in Rio for the World Cup or the Summer Games, I’d encourage you to consider learning a bit of the local lingo. Of course, you don’t have to. Roadtrips will have multi-lingual local staff working alongside our normal crew and there are quality English-speakers in the top hotels. If you’re not interested or able, there’s no need to worry; we’ll provide all the help you’ll need. It’s just that I’d like you to also discover the welcoming Rio that I’m learning about. If not, find me and I’ll help you order your eggs the way you like them or get you that perfect refreshing drink. It will be on me!

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Incredibly pleased how organized the trip was - on-time pickups, helpful local hosts and great tours. It's rare that I feel completely rested after a vacation but you guys did a great job all of the planning which allowed us to just enjoy ourselves. Of course, Brazil was a great destination and everything was amazing - tours, food, accommodations etc. Thank you!
— Alex Wong, 2014 World Cup