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The land of coffee and carnival:
Reflections on Brazilian Portuguese and English

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The land of coffee and carnival:
Reflections on Brazilian Portuguese and English

by Sara Walker

Cultural Reflections
The purity of the language and a perceived threat of cultural imperialism
     — Loanwords Portuguese to English / English to Portuguese
Grammar and General Language Problems
    — Pronunciation
    — Literal Translation
English in Brazil – Present and Future
A Quick Guide to False Friends in English and Portuguese


Portuguese is spoken by some 230 million people around the world. The Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (officially inaugurated in 1996) gives the following figures (based on population estimates for the years 2004 - 2006).







Guinea Bissau




East Timor




Cape Verde




São Tomé e Príncipe

Source: (Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries)

One of the main aims of the Community is to promote the Portuguese language. Like the French ‘Francophonie, there is a national-international movement to foster cooperation among countries with a shared language. So far, however, attempts to unify the language have not been entirely successful. Rivalry between Brazil and Portugal is the main obstacle to the adoption of a single system of spelling and accentuation and a Community dictionary of Portuguese.

Brazil is unique in the Community: it became independent from Portugal in 1822, while the other members remained Portuguese colonies until the Carnation Revolution of 1975. It is huge both in size and in population, and over the almost two centuries of independence, the language has diverged from that of peninsular Portugal. However, Brazilian Portuguese itself features remarkably few regional variations.

This article will take a non-academic look at the relationship between Brazilian Portuguese and English, based upon the impressions of an English teacher who has lived and worked in Brazil for 40 years.


Cultural reflections

Britain and Brazil had close – though not always friendly – relations throughout the 19th century, after the Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil under British protection. When the Brazilian parliament, under the Empire, was pressed by Britain to pass legislation abolishing the slave trade in 1831, it was done ‘para inglês ver’ (a matter of window-dressing, all for show). A more serious law, intended to be enforced, was not passed for another 20 years.

Legend also has it that Brazilian ballroom dance music known as forró – particularly popular in the North and Northeast – takes its name from the English ‘For all’, used by early 20th century British railway builders to invite the whole community to dances.

In the state of Minas Gerais, the standard exclamation of surprise uaí (pronounced /a/) is also attributed to English influence (‘why’), from a usage which is now somewhat archaic, as in ‘Why, what a surprise!’.

Strict punctuality is also thought to be an English custom and is called ‘hora inglesa’ – English time; an indication, perhaps, that Brazilian culture – social life in particular – is a little less time-bound than English life, just as the pace of walking in the streets is more gentle.


The purity of the language and a perceived threat of cultural imperialism

As in France, an attempt has recently been made to keep English out of Brazilian Portuguese through national legislation. More bizarrely, the Governor of the Federal District has just banned the use of the gerund (gerundio) among his staff, on grounds that the future continuous (‘will be doing’) form was being used to hide inefficiency. Meanwhile, the Brazilian Academy zealously pronounces on correct usage and from time to time ‘reforms’ spelling.


Loanwords – Portuguese to English / English to Portuguese

In the context of purity, the concept of caste is alleged to have come from casta in Portuguese (or Spanish, since the word is the same in both). The Portuguese for tea is chá from the Chinese, perhaps giving rise to the ‘cuppa char’ (cup of tea) so dear to the British. Brazilian contributions, though, are most obvious in the field of music and dance: samba, bossa nova and lambada. With the spread of Brazilian restaurants in England, these may soon be followed by feijoada (black bean stew) and guaraná (a soft drink made from a Brazilian berry).

Brazilian borrowing occurs in a number of areas, generally reflecting cultural influences. In the field of economics and business, the following are among the words in common use: commodities, deficit, dumping, holding, joint venture, leasing, marketing, merchandising, performance, telemarketing, trader. In the days of Brazil’s galloping inflation, there was factoring, with a meaning unfamiliar to me in English, but found online in Unabridged:

Commerce. the business of purchasing and collecting accounts receivable or of advancing cash on the basis of accounts receivable.

In Brazil, it mainly meant the early redemption of post-dated cheques by agents who charged a fairly high fee. Anyone who traded dollars – in those days, usually illegally – was the doleiro.

Only a few years after Brazil’s emergence from two decades of military rule, the democratically-elected president, Fernando Collor, was, in 1992, impeached and removed from office. While the Brazilian Constitution employs the term impedimento, the English ‘impeachment’ was universally used. Similarly, high-tech and know-how are now standard terms.

Technology, meanwhile, produces the terms console, DVD, home theatre, CD, CD-ROM, laser, mouse, software (as a countable noun), along with widespread use of download (in preference to baixar), upload and the neologism deletar (to delete). Email is as common as correio eletrônico and site or website takes precedence over sitio.

In show business, the ubiquitous TV soap operas (with their subliminal or overt product placement) are now followed by the reality show Big Brother Brasil. Videoclips or videoclipes of hits abound and trailers advertise forthcoming films.

English influence is, of course, unavoidable in commerce. The brand United Colors of Benetton is instantly recognisable, as are McDonald’s, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and many others which have migrated to the shopping malls of Brazil. You may well hear the words ‘I am going to the shopping to buy a tennis’ (vou para o shopping para comprar um tênis) =I’m going to the mall to buy a pair of trainers. Fast food often involves hamburgers and ketchup, while hot dog is translated literally, as cachorro quente.

Footballers are one of Brazil’s top exports, but sports words in general are liable to be English imports. You probably don’t need to know Portuguese to identify basquete, volei, and golfe, while squash looks the same as in English, but is pronounced /skwæ/. Words that have been around longer may have changed their spelling: knockout has become nocaute, with its corresponding regular verb nocautear, while football has become futebol.


Grammar and general language problems


Vowels Typical Brazilian pronunciation problems involve difficulty in distinguishing between long and short vowels: /i/ beach and // bitch (I went to the bitch/beach); /u/ fool and // full (the cup is fool/full); // curse and // course (I’m going to my English curse/course).

Consonants The sounds /h/ and /r/ are frequently reversed so that a red hat becomes a 'head rat'. The consonant /m/ in final position becomes a nasalized /n/, also leading to spelling mistakes like ‘bedroon’, or ‘badroon’. The dark /l/ and /w/ are confused, often making fill, feel and few almost indistinguishable.

For those from Rio (the cariocas) and the Rio diaspora in places such as Brasilia, problems arise with /t/ and /t/, as teacher becomes /titschwa/ and /d/ and /d/ can cause problems with dim and gym.

Past Tense The –ed tense ending is habitually given the value of a full syllable /d/ (e.g. stopped = /stp d/, robbed = /rb d/), while the ending /z/ is often missed in changes, rises and purposes.

Stress Patterns Problems of word stress are common, affecting polysyllabic words such as independence (wrongly stressed on the second syllable) or development (wrongly stressed on the 3rd syllable).

With sentence stress, there is a tendency to give full value to weak forms and to stress normally unstressed auxiliary verbs and object pronouns.


Literal Translation
Persistent problems may be culturally-based. Being and having vary between the languages: ‘He has 30 years’ is a common error, since the verb ‘to be’ is used to talk about age in Brazilian Portuguese. ‘To be’ is also used for describing symptoms, leading to English errors such as ‘I am with fever’ (estou com febre) =I have a temperature.

Question forms give problems too, and once learnt, they tend to be used even in embedded or indirect questions. Mastering the use of the present tense – adding the final ‘s’ in, for example ‘he works’ – is also a problem, as is the use and omission of the definite article.

Notices in public places such as airports often offer ‘informations’ while ‘leave your values [rather than ‘valuables’] at the reception desk’ is found in less-than-five-star hotels.

‘I was eating a bread and listening a music’ is a common error among students, since bread (pão) and music (música) are both countable in Portuguese, while listen (escutar) doesn’t require a preposition.


English in Brazil – present and future

Brazilians tend to be great communicators and, given the right circumstances, excellent language learners. Large areas of cognate vocabulary – generally of Latin origin – not to mention many new and not-so-new loanwords from English, make English a relatively easy language for Brazilians to learn.

However public policy on English-teaching appears to lag far behind that of places like Chile or Colombia. While 20-30 million Brazilian children have English classes at school, this level of English is generally perceived to be inadequate. Teachers with a poor command of English themselves often struggle with large classes and no textbooks or resources. Even the authorities appear to have accepted that a first contact with another culture, plus reading skills, are all that can realistically be expected. At the same time, a 2005 law makes it compulsory for all secondary schools to offer Spanish by 2010, with a view to cementing South American relations. This has led some English teachers to feel that the status of English as the main foreign language taught in schools could ultimately be threatened.

Outside the school system, English is big business – it is estimated that between one and two million students are currently learning in private language institutes. Those who want to learn (or want their children to learn) communicative skills, generally choose these private institutes, since the students are customers and the language is a product to be sold. As a consequence, good command of English has become a skill for the elite.

It is realistic to hope, however, that globalisation, the growth of tourism and Brazil’s status as an emergent nation will gradually alert the authorities to the need for policies to foster better teaching / learning of English. At the same time, the development of communications will continue to make it easier for students to help themselves.


A Quick Guide to False Friends in English and Portuguese


English English


atual current, present actual real
aviso notice, warning advice conselho
assistir attend, watch assist ajudar
atender answer, meet the needs attend freqüentar
bravo fierce, brave brave corajoso
cargo post, position cargo carga
compreensivo understanding comprehensive abrangente
compromisso commitment compromise (n) meio-termo
comprometer-se commit oneself to to compromise (v) chegar a meio-termo
conferência lecture conference congresso
conferir check, compare confer agraciar
delito crime, offence delight deleite
desgraça misfortune disgrace vergonha, escândalo
discutir quarrel, argue discuss debater
enjoar feel sick, nauseated enjoy gostar, desfrutar
estrangeiro foreign, foreigner stranger forasteiro
eventual possible eventual final, a longo prazo
explorar exploit, abuse (explore) exploit explorar
êxito success exit saída
esquisito strange, odd exquisite lindo, perfeito
gentil polite, kind gentle meigo, tenro
impedir prevent, stop impede dificultar
indústria company, factory industry setor industrial
largo wide, broad large grande
largamente widely largely na maioria
leitura reading lecture palestra, conferência
livraria bookshop, bookstore library biblioteca
luxuria lust, luxury luxury luxo
moroso slow, sluggish morose deprimido
magazine department store magazine revista
notícias news notices avisos, anúncios
notório famous, renowned notorious de má fama
parentes relatives, relations parents pais
particular private, particular particular especial, particular
pretender intend pretend fingir, dissimular
puxar pull push empurrar
retirar withdraw, take out retire aposentar
reunião meeting reunion reencontro
sensível sensitive sensible sensato
simpático nice, likeable sympathetic compassivo
ultimamente recently ultimately na última análise
valor(es) valuables, values value(s) valores morais, culturais, etc.



Warm thanks to my colleagues and long-time friends David Shepherd and Paulo Kol, for useful help and suggestions.

1 For a more detailed analysis see ‘Portuguese Speakers’ by David Shepherd in Learner English 2001.

Further reading

Language Change – progress or decay? J. Aitchison (Cambridge University Press, 3rd edition, 2001)

Error Analysis and Interlanguage, S. Pit Corder (Oxford University Press, 1981)

‘Portuguese Speakers’, D. Shepherd, in Learner English ed. M. Swan and B. Smith (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2001)

The list of false friends (cognates) also appears in:The Candidate’s Handbook: English, S. Walker (Brasilia, FUNAG, MRE, 2000)

On loanwords: (consulted 9/11/07)

On the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP):

For more information about Chile’s bilingual education programme, Inglés abre puertas, visit:

For more information on language institutes, see also Cultura Inglesa São Paulo, and the Brazilian Franchising Association (ABF) - Language institutes,

Next in the series

In the next article we’ll take a look at language interference between Chinese and English