By Maria Lopez Conde, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Although well over a million of international tourists flock to the gorgeous beaches of Rio de Janeiro every year, first time visitors might be surprised to find that few Cariocas speak English, including those working in the tourism industry. In fact, Rio was ranked as a city with “low English proficiency” by an Education First study published last year.

Tourists arriving in Rio, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News
Tourists arriving on one of the increasing number of cruise ships in Rio, photo by Salvador Scofano/Impressa RJ.

Yet as the city gets ready to host both the FIFA 2014 World Cup and the Olympics in 2016, a number of both private and state-led initiatives are trying to overcome the language barrier between tourists and Brazilians.

For travelers, communicating with taxi drivers can certainly be a challenge. Sally Gissing, a native of Australia in town for Carnival, explains it has been “quite difficult” even though she speaks some Spanish. “It’s been a matter of writing down the address in Portuguese and hoping for the best,” she said.

Like the majority of Rio’s cabbies, Idebaldo Cavalcante, who has been driving a taxi since 1992, does not speak English and admits this makes his job challenging. “It’s very hard. We manage to capture some words, but it’s hard for both the tourist and us, and it happens very often.”

In the last two years however, Cariocas have launched a number of programs aimed at dealing with the language barrier. One of them, Hey Taxi!, created by Rio-based consulting company Meritus Partners in 2012, seeks to teach drivers English to improve interactions with tourists.

Additionally, a number of state-led projects are offering basic language courses to drivers for free. Both the National Program for Access to Technical Education and Jobs, PRONATEC, a partnership between the Ministries of Education and Tourism created to improve tourism training, and the State Department of Traffic in Rio, DETRAN-RJ, are offering language courses in English and Spanish to drivers and airport workers, for free.

Luxury hotels like Copacabana Palace offer English, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News
Luxury hotels like Copacabana Palace offer English speaking service staff and support, image internet recreation.

Francisco Ivan do Carmo, a taxi driver operating in Rio’s Zona Sul (South Zone), is looking forward to taking classes in the near future. “It’s up to the driver to sign up, but I know drivers who are already taking courses. It’s a course to help us have a notion of the basic phrases. We have to update our skills,” he explained.

While most taxi drivers still do not speak English, the staff at many hotels and hostels do. In most top hotels, including the world-renowned Copacabana Palace Hotel and the Windsor Atlântica Hotel overlooking Copacabana beach, the staff is expected to have some knowledge of English.

These establishments also offer special services to non-Portuguese speaking guests. The Copacabana Palace Hotel, for one, has a Guest Relations department to help guests who do not speak Portuguese with hotel services. The Windsor Atlântica Hotel, among many others offers, confirms they offer The Rio Times Print Edition and other bilingual information to foreigners.

For Gabrielle and Bianca Petrevksy, Australian nationals in Rio for Carnival, getting around Rio without knowledge of Portuguese has not been hard. Bianca explains that at least some of the staff at her mid-range hotel in the neighborhood of Flamengo spoke English.

“Half [of the staff] will speak English and the other half will only speak Portuguese, but they’ll try to help you even if they have no idea of what you are saying, you are able to communicate with them,” she said.

Both taxi drivers and hotel staff have been “really helpful” when overcoming language barriers, Gabrielle Petrevsky added. “We showed the driver (who did not speak English) where we were going on a map and made sure he understood what we said. We have come prepared and always know where we’re going,” Gabrielle said.


  1. the word “sem” now is being known by english speakers… for sure…

    It is not that we do not speak english…. The english speaking travellers do not speak portuguese…

    It is time to think that portuguese is the language to be spoken…

    The proportion is greater of us speaking english than you, speaking portuguese… at least trying to…

    weak up to reality and use the resources you have to learn a second language…

    It could mean business and lots of fun…

  2. Yeah. Many of the major international travel websites regularly propagate the lie that most people in the big cities of Brasil speak enough Ingles to be able to communicate with gringoes. The truth is, almost none do, even in places (like airports and taxis) where you would think they would.

  3. I suspect that this comes as a big surprise to many visitors, given Rio’s long reputation as a major global destination, but it’s true, even to a large degree on the main tourist beaches, and definitely a block away. Even a little Portuguese learned online will help improve a visit a lot. If you want to live here, then learn to be rather fluent in Portuguese. Those who don’t, suffer in small bubbles. If you do learn the language, then people are friendly and helpful.

  4. Of course. Nowadays if you want to find a good Job and make a lot of money for sure English will help you a lot.
    I’ve heard about the class free for taxi driver and staffs who are working at the airports.It’s really nice e the sounds good, but the people need dedication and willpower to learn it. And also they should to enjoy this opportunity, because if you want to learn second language probably you will spend relevant money and right now they can take class for free.

  5. Brazil, like the USA, is a huge and insular country. If one lives in certain parts of RS or PR (Iguacu), one has some contact with another country (AR, PY, UY), and many people in the border areas (both sides) speak Spanish and Portuguese. But contact with non-Portuguese speakers is almost non-existent elsewhere in Brazil. This is in contrast to Europe, where a few kilometers distance can lead to totaly different languages, e.g., Bratislava, Slovakia; almost walking distance from Austria and Hungary. The proxmity and frequent conquests and border changes means that ordinary people speak Slovak, German, Hungarian, Russian, and now English – another language – no big deal. That environment is totally alien to Brazil; if someone doesn’t speak Portuguese that is considered almost bizarre.

  6. I am Canadian and lived in Rio for 7 months last year. I loved it and will go back soon. I don’t speak Portuguese, which is definitely my loss. When I visit the 5th largest country in the world, it is my problem to learn português. It is not the responsibility of Brazil and to learn English, except perhaps as a courtesy to tourists. When people from this large country visit Canada, they don’t find too many people (even in the tourist industry) who can help them in português. And that’s the way it goes. Visitors shouldn’t go anywhere in the expectation that the world will conform to THEM. They should go with an open mind and a willingness to TRY to communicate. You will survive. Trust me.

  7. I think you have to be realistic about this issue.

    If tourists are visiting for only 2 or 3 weeks, then it isn’t really practical to expect them to learn more than some basic phrases such as ‘por favor, ‘obrigado’, ‘licença’, ‘banheiro’ etc. A good pocket phrase book will also stand them in good stead. If the tourist has real language learning problems, it could be a good idea to have some photos of important things (toilets, certain types of shops, tourist destinations etc.) saved to his or her mobile phone.

    It’s also in the best interests of taxi-drivers, waiters etc. to learn some basic English phrases. Friendly communication may mean better tips! Next year there will be a sharp influx of non-Portuguese speakers, and – like it or not – English is the lingua-franca of the world.

    However… if a foreigner is spending longer in Brazil then the onus is upon him or her to learn Portuguese. I think it is very arrogant to spend an extended amount of time in a country and not learn their language. By learning Portuguese, foreigners will find that a whole new world of experiences and friendships opens up to them.

    (Note: I have been living in Salvador, Brazil for 6 years. I arrived with 3 words of Portuguese, but now am reasonably fluent. It has improved my quality of local interaction immeasurably).

  8. Do you want to know the reality of Rio de janeiro about how to lead with foreigners people? i am a cop here in Rio and i`m studying english, so i decided to work in the tourist unit of Rio de Janeiro. in the beggining they put me in the right place(corcovado) giving information, advices, and watching if the brazilian people was treating our tourist weel. Soon my boss put me in another place where nobody speak english. after that i got disapointed with the lack of professionalism of the Rio`s Police and i went to work in other unit. Now i am making an tour guide tour and will work for myself. believe or not it`s true.


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