Aside from language instruction, very few courses are geared for foreigners. If you have a bit of Portuguese, you can join in classes of dance, percussion, capoeira and cooking. Rio and Salvador are the best places to find such activities.
There are lots of ways to learn Portuguese in Brazil. It’s easy to arrange classes through branches of the Instituto Brazil-Estados Unidos (IBEU), where Brazilians learn English. Rio de Janeiro offers the most opportunities for classes, but there’ll be a language institute in each large city. Website www.onestoplanguage.net has a small database of Portuguese-language schools in Brazil. In the US, the National Registration Center for Study Abroad (414-278-0631; www.nrcsa.com) has information on Portuguese language schools in some Brazilian cities.
Brazilians speak Portuguese, which looks similar to Spanish on paper but sounds completely different. You’ll do quite well if you speak Spanish in Brazil. Brazilians will understand you, but you won’t get much of what they say – so don’t think studying Portuguese is a waste of time. Listen to language tapes and develop an ear for Portuguese – it’s a beautiful-sounding language.
When the Portuguese arrived in 1500, an estimated 700 indigenous languages were spoken by Brazil’s Indian peoples. About 180 survive, 130 of them being considered endangered because they have fewer than 600 speakers. These indigenous languages, together with the various idioms and dialects spoken by the Africans brought in as slaves, extensively changed the Portuguese spoken by the early settlers.
Along with Portuguese, the Tupi-Guarani language, simplified and given a written form by the Jesuits, became a common language that was understood by the majority of the population. It was spoken by the general public until the middle of the 18th century, but its usage diminished with the great number of Portuguese gold-rush immigrants and a royal proclamation in 1757 prohibiting its use. With the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1759, Portuguese was established as the national language.
Nevertheless, many words remain from Indian and African languages. From Tupi-Guarani come lots of place names (such as Guanabara, Carioca, Tijuca and Niterói), animal names (such as piranha, capivara and urubu) and plant names (such as mandioca, abacaxí, caju and jacarandá). Words from the African dialects, mainly those from Nigeria and Angola, are used in Afro-Brazilian religious ceremonies (eg Orixá, Exú and Iansã), cooking (eg vatapá, acarajé and abará) and in general conversation (eg samba, mocambo and moleque).
Brazilians are easy to befriend, but unfortunately the vast majority of them speak little or no English. This is changing, however, as practically all Brazilians in school are learning English. All the same, don’t count on finding an English speaker, especially out of the cities. The more Portuguese you speak, the more rewarding your stay will be.
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