Lonely Planet Writer

Going to Rio for the Olympics? Why you need to bring your phrasebook

Você fala português? If you’re on your way to Rio de Janeiro for the first ever Olympic Games on South American soil, you’d do well to brush up on the basics. The world’s fifth largest country, home to a population hovering around 205 million, may be the stuff of tropical dreams and a world-class tourist destination, but it’s certainly no bilingual powerhouse.

Bilingual street signs in Rio's Olympic village.
Bilingual street signs in Rio’s Olympic village. Image by Getty Images

According to the EF (Education First) English Proficiency Index 2015, which ranks countries worldwide by English proficiency, Brazil ranked 41st out of 70 and has actually gone downhill since 2011, when it ranked 31st . Despite efforts across the board to linguistically prepare the city for the more than half a million estimated visitors this summer – everyone from taxi drivers to beach caipirinha vendors have been working to improve their English skills – visitors can expect run into a fair share of language barrier throughout the Cidade Maravilhosa.

But all hope is not lost. Bilingual signs around the city as well as within the metro system have been in place since the 2014 FIFA World Cup and taxi services like Uber introduced UberENGLISH for Rio’s 2016 Carnival festivities, a service which allows users to request an English-speaking driver via the app. Another app announced earlier this year, Na Praia, connects sun seekers with beach vendors in English – ordering up drinks, food and beach chairs was never easier!

Within the context of the Olympic Games, volunteers abound throughout the venues and city to help visitors. Of the first 50,000 volunteers chosen to work the games, the highest percent of non-Brazilians were from the United States and Great Britain. “Brazil is not Europe” says Bebeto Azevedo, who owns LimeTime Hostel in Botafogo. “But travellers have been all over the place here and did fine. Nothing to worry about.”