In nearly five months living in Brazil, I feel like I learned effectively no portuguese. It is a hard language, with many nuances. So many people will say that it’s just like Spanish and therefore should be easy to learn. I take issue with this for two reasons.
1. For some people (me), no language is “easy” to learn.
2. Portuguese is not at all just like Spanish. It’s not like American English and English in Great Britain, you don’t just have an extra ‘u’ popping up every now and then making you feel less sophisticated about your favourite tea. It’s far more complicated than that.
As much of a failure as I feel I am for not becoming anywhere near conversational in the language, I have adjusted to the basics pretty well so that I can at least greet someone, purchase something, or apologize for having no idea what is being said to me.
If you’re planning to travel to Brazil, these words and phrases should be enough to get you by. A gringo’s guide to portuguese, if you will.
Hello/Hi = Olá/Oi
Olá is pronounced like Spanish the version, hola, (yes, I suppose there are some similarities) but with emphasis on the last syllable. You can say this to new people you meet, friends (though this is less common) and people at restaurants, hotels, on the street.
Oi is a more informal greeting, reserved for friends or people you know fairly well.
How are you? = Tudo bem?/Tudo bom?
Most Brazilians follow hello or hi by adding “Tudo bem?” or “Tudo bom?”, which literally translates to “All good?” or “All well?” The standard response to this is simply repeated “Tudo bem!” enthusiastically.You can also say “Tudo bem! É você?” if you want to be polite and ask if they are also well.
Note that, at least in the São Paulo region, when an ‘m’ comes at the end of the word, it is typically pronounced with an ‘n’ sound. So instead of saying “tudo beM” phonetically, try saying “tudo beN” or “tudo boN”. You’ll sound more authentic this way.
Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening = Bom dia/Boa tarde/Boa noite
If you want to get fancy, you can show off that not only do you know more portuguese words, you also know what time of day it is.
If you’re greeting someone before noon, give a hearty “Bom dia!” pronounced “bone jee-a” (those ‘m’s turning to ‘n’s again, and ‘d’s sound like ‘j’s most of the time – I told you it was confusing). In the afternoon, “Boa tarde” is quite polite, pronounced “boa (like the snake) tar-jee” and in the evening “Boa noite” is customary, pronounced “noi-chee”.
Goodbye = Tchau
When you’re ready to go, a simple “Tchau” will do the trick, pronounced the way the Italians do it. It’s common to say it twice:”Tchau tchau”.
Unrelated note: Brazilians are very polite. Do not expect to get in an elevator and not make some sort of acknowledgement of the people riding with you. Often, you will be spoken to in portuguese which can be rather terrifying in such a small space, but just say “Olá” or some other greeting and then smile and nod and you’ll do just fine. Always be sure to say goodbye as you part ways with your new elevator stranger/friend.
Americans are sometimes surprised that upon meeting someone, from a close friend to a perfect stranger, it is perfectly customary to hug and kiss the person as a greeting. In São Paulo, this comes in the form of one kiss to the left cheek and a sturdy hug. In Rio de Janeiro, two kisses are common.
I have to admit, even after several months, this often catches me off guard. It’s not even that the practice bothers me, I think it’s nice in most circumstances. But I often forget and then end up doing some sort of half hug and miss the person’s cheek when trying to kiss them, kind of like re-living the sixth grade all over again. Try to avoid that.
Other Useful Words and Phrases
Thank you = Obrigado/Obrigada
Pronounced “0-bree-ga-do”, this is probably the word you’ll use the most in Brazil. Brazilians are just so dang nice and helpful, you’ll be thanking them left and right. If you’re male, use “obrigado” and if you’re female “obrigada”. (It’s also common to here for people to drop the ‘o’ to where it just sounds like “brigado”, as well.)
If you’re very thankful, “muito obrigado” means thanks very much.
You’re welcome = De nada/nada
Okay, like Spanish.
Please = Por favor
Another one, but really, it’s not that similar.
Sorry = Desculpe
I say this a lot.
Excuse me = Com licença
Pronounced “con lee-sen-sa”, this phrase will get someone’s attention or work if you bump into them on the street.
Yes/No = Sim/Não
Pronounced seem (or seen) and now.
Okay = Ta bom
This can be used in a wide variety of situations, but I find it’s extremely helpful when you’re at a store and someone says something lengthy that you don’t understand. A smile and a “ta bom” will get you through.
My name is = Meu nome é
Meu is pronounced “may-oh”
I am from = Eu sou
For example, “Eu sou dos Estados Unidos”
Ordering at a Restaurant
I won’t lie, I still flub up at ordering things from restaurants and cafés on the regular, but there are a few things that will at least get you started.
Not surprisingly, I’ve learned a LOT of food words over the course of our time here (priorities) but it would be too cumbersome to list them all. I find that the Google translate app’s photo feature, where you hover the camera over a the menu, to suffice quite well. It also never hurts to ask for an English menu (“Você tem um cardápio Inglês?”)
I want/I would like = Eu quero/Eu gostaria de
We’ve gotten mixed feedback from Brazilians on this. Our portuguese tutor says that “Eu gostaria de… frango, suco, etc.” is the correct way to order at a restaurant, whereas our friends insist that it’s most common just to say “Eu quero uma cerveja”. Either one should get the point across.
Note: Eu is pronounced “Ee-oh”.
A Brief Overview of Brazilian Food & Drink Words
Water = Agua
Coffee = Café
Milk = Leite (lay-chee)
Beer = Cerveja
Wine – Vinho
Juice = Suco
Chicken = Frango
Beef = Carne
Vegetables = Legumes
Potato = Batata
Pasta = Massa
How to Order a Steak
Steak is everywhere in Brazil. If you’re picky about how yours is cooked, here’s a quick overview.
Well done = Bem passado
Medium = Ao ponto
Rare = Mal passado
When traveling to a new place, it’s always a good idea to get a feel for the language. It shows respect, and will make things easier and more fun during your trip. If you can familiarize yourself with these few things, you should be able to interact with the locals when you travel to Brazil, and not starve to death.
If I got anything wrong, which is possible, please forgive me. I promise, whoever you’re speaking to will as well. It’s the effort that matters.