How widely is Spanish spoken in Brazil?
May 18, 2017 8:46 AM   Subscribe

I'm pretty proficient in Spanish but do not speak Portuguese. I will be traveling to various cities on the coast of Brazil. How well will I be understood in day-to-day transactions (e.g. restaurants, taxis, etc.) if I speak Spanish? I can get the gist of written and some spoken Portuguese, but lack the vocabulary and grammar to initiate conversations in that language.
posted by A. Davey to Travel & Transportation around Brazil (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In my experience (which was about 20 years ago), English is looked on better than Spanish -- if you try to speak English, you're just a person who doesn't know Portuguese, but if you try to speak Spanish, you're a person who doesn't even know what Portuguese is.
posted by Etrigan at 8:48 AM on May 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've been to meet my wife's family in Brazil (Sao Paulo area) a few times now, and my Portuguese is unfortunately very limited. I took Spanish in high school/college, and tried to "fall back on" it sometimes when communicating with them, but there's a lot that isn't quite the same. I got some quizzical looks.
Grammar is similar but vocabulary is sometimes wildly different.

As a rule, they didn't speak Spanish, and the further you get from the borders of other South American countries, the less likely you'll find Spanish speakers.
My wife grew up in Brazil and took Spanish classes as a foreign language, just as you'd do here in the US. Even though they're both romance languages, they're not interchangeable. I've discovered Portuguese is more like somewhere between French and Italian, and it's somewhat of an illusion that South American spoken Portuguese "sounds like" Spanish.
posted by jozxyqk at 9:03 AM on May 18, 2017

It's just not the same language. Brazil is the only country in South America where Spanish isn't the official language. I grew up speaking Portuguese and took Spanish in high school. I am currently visiting Mexico and thought I could get by using basic Spanish mixed in with proficient Portuguese. Yeah no. I get quizzical looks all the time and the locals don't really understand when I'm speaking Portuñol. I had to stop relying on it and learn Spanish. It didn't take me that long.

You're going to have the reverse experience, plus irritation from locals who will assume you don't understand that Portuguese isn't Spanish (the it's "just the same" grinds Brazilians and the Portuguese alike).

Being proficient in Spanish means it will be easier for you to learn Portuguese. Start learning! Get Duolingo.
posted by vivzan at 9:20 AM on May 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

My experience in Brazil was that for very basic things, you can limp along with Spanish - like you could probably order something in a restaurant or ask where the bathroom is. However, Spanish is much more understandable to Portuguese speakers than Portuguese is to a Spanish speaker. You will likely understand next to nothing that's said to you. And in general, no, you won't get very far with Spanish.

However! Despite the fact that the languages are definitely not the same, it is MUCH easier to learn Portuguese if you already speak Spanish because the structure of the languages are very similar. I got a tutor for a month and did a workbook and was speaking pretty good Portuguese after a week in Brazil. I highly recommend it - Portuguese is a beautiful language, probably my favorite of all the many that I've studied.
posted by Cygnet at 9:27 AM on May 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I spoke, at the time I went to Lisbon, reasonably fluent Spanish. I might as well have been speaking Greek for all the good it did me - they sound (at least in the case of Castilian Spanish and European Portuguese) very, very different.
posted by Tamanna at 9:31 AM on May 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Seconding Cygnet. For basic transactions you can probably make yourself understood. Beyond that, there will be a language barrier. And you won't understand anything.

I'm a native Spanish speaker who learned (European) Portuguese. I will say that it wasn't super difficult. They have basically the same grammar so a lot of the learning is vocabulary (some similar, some wildly different) and pronunciation (very different) So, with some practice and dedication it is something that can be picked up.

You will also have an easier time reading Portuguese since there the pronunciation differences go away and you can figure out the rest from context and similarities. So signs will likely be less of a problem for you than for a non-Spanish speaker.
posted by vacapinta at 9:42 AM on May 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

@Tamanna and @vacapinta I will just say that South American Spanish and South American Portuguese sound extremely similar to each other when spoken (in the average accent, at least).
And that's part of where it catches you off guard if you're an "American who learned Spanish". It naturally feels like they *should* be the same but they're really not.

My Brazilian wife can barely understand European Portuguese :)
posted by jozxyqk at 9:45 AM on May 18, 2017

My Spanish is Mexican and I married into a European Portuguese family.

Even though I have learned all my Portuguese from the Europeans, I *still* understand Brazilians better than I do Europeans. I think the rhythms are closer to the Latin American Spanish I know. European Portuguese, when you first hear it, honestly sounds more like a Slavic language than Romance.

So, yes, agreeing that it also matters which Spanish and which Portuguese.
posted by vacapinta at 9:52 AM on May 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am an American who took Spanish in high school but is far from fluent. I was in coastal Brazil last year and got by with a smattering of Portuguese (duolingo and some basic vocabulary from language podcasts), some English, some pointing/gesturing and the occasional attempt at Spanish words that happened to be similar/comprehensible to Portuguese.

I did find that my Spanish knowledge was more useful for reading menus or signs; often I could get the gist of it based on my Spanish knowledge, and would have to look up only a word or two. On that note, I found a free Portuguese-English dictionary app that didn't need an internet connection very useful to have, particularly in areas outside cities where English was less prevalent.

And, to echo some of the previous comments, I found Brazilian Portuguese to be somewhat easier to understand based on my Spanish knowledge than Portugal Portuguese had been, but it didn't really help me with speaking.
posted by Caz721 at 10:20 AM on May 18, 2017

If you're pretty good with spanish, you can probably blow through duolingo portuguese pretty quickly. You're not going to be fluent, but you should get the basic food, directions, family members, action verbs, down pretty quickly.
posted by empath at 2:30 PM on May 18, 2017

I'm a poor Spanish speaker (Puerto-Rican-type AFAIK) and had pretty good luck with my broken Spanish in Brazil. I'm referring to basic restaurant and taxi interactions, as you mentioned in your question. This was in the Rio and Iguazu areas.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:20 AM on May 19, 2017

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