For Gringões: 20 Minutes to Feigning Fluent Brazilian Portuguese

Portuguese in action, on a beach party in Rio. Illustration copyright Johanna Thomé de Souza (her Facebook).
Portuguese in action, on a beach party in Rio. Illustration copyright Johanna Thomé de Souza (Facebook).

As part of the our Fluent in 20 Minutes, this post provides EVERYTHING you need to participate in conversations with Brazilians, whether or not you have any idea what anyone is saying.

Why learn (a bit of) Portuguese? Well, there’s good evidence that this language has the best music, and then there are other aspects of Brazilians that I’ve written about: their dancing, their drinks, their feminist sex parties, their annoying bullshitting

Back in the day, I started Portuguese with a Pimsleur CD of stuffy, formal phrases like: “Com licença. A senhora é brasileira?” (“Excuse me, ma’am. Are you Brazilian?”) and “Onde fica o hôtel?” (“Where is the hotel?”). In my years living and traveling in Brazil, I’ve almost never used them. The following, however, are key to almost every conversation — at least, the fun ones. Employing them will show above-average cultural awareness, whether you’re already nearly fluent or this is all you know (for now).

1. Like Americans, Brazilians are quite relentlessly positive. Whatever you’re asked (and no matter how much you understand), respond with an enthusiastically affirmative Claaaaaaaro! (CLAAAAAAH-ru, Of course!)

2. Also related to positive response — Brazilians tend to answer questions by repeating back the main verb. So if someone asks you:

Fala português? — (FA-la port-u-GAYSS?, Do you speak Portuguese?)

Don’t respond:

Sim! — (seem, Yes!)

It is rather more credible to respond:

Falo! — (FA-lu, Yes! — literally, I speak!)

Quite often, answering means re-conjugating the verb for yourself — it’s not so difficult, and, again, you don’t even really have to understand what’s been said. Generally, you take off any final vowel in the question verb and add an -o (pronounced like an -u). So we have:

Dança? (DAN-sah?, Do you dance?)
Danço! (DAN-su, Yes!)

Gosta? (GO-stah?, Do you like it?)
Gosto! (GO-stu!, Yes!)

Você quer fazer sacanagem comigo a noite inteira? (Vo-SAY kayr fa-ZAYR sak-an-AHDJ-em co-MI-gu ah NOY-chee een-TAY-rah?, Do you want to do dirty stuff with me all night long?)
Quero! (Kay-ru!, Yes!)

3. Gostoso (go-STO-su) is a fun word meaning lovely, tasty, fuckable, beautiful and/or sensual. Use it to describe everything and everyone. For a woman or a feminine noun, use gostosa (go-STO-sah). We’ve discussed the word “gostoso” in more depth here. Two appropriate gestures for use with this word are shown in the video below.

4. You might also watch the above video in its entirety for 25 popular Brazilian gestures, and try to learn as many of them as you can. Such nonverbal communication is integral, culturally specific, and almost never taught in Portuguese classes.

5.  Não tenho a mínima ideia. — (Naow TEN-yew ah MEE-nee-ma ee-DAY-ah, I don’t have the least idea.) When learning any language, one of the first things you should be able to express is befuddlement. ‘I don’t know’, however, is blasé; keep things interesting with a more authentic and emphatic expression of confusion.

6. You can include the word porra (PO-hhhah) in pretty much any sentence, anywhere. It literally refers to jizz, it is a vulgar way to add emphasis, and it can be translated in just about any way imaginable — it’s possibly even more flexible and context-dependent-for-meaning than the English ‘fuck’. Have fun with it!

7. When you’ve made a mistake, as one tends to do in a foreign culture, be prepared to acknowledge as much. But for god’s sake don’t so boring as to apologize. Fiz merda (feez MER-da; I fucked up; literally, I did shit) is an adorable way for a barely conversant foreigner to accept blame in Brazil.

8. “Darling/dear” in Portuguese is querido (ker-EE-du) for addressing a man and querida (ker-EE-da) for a woman, but don’t be surprised to hear it used beyond the bounds of love and family. Friends, mere acquaintances and even certain friendly shop owners will address you this way. And you yourself want to be friendly in your new language, right? Use querido liberally. Also, as in English, it can also be used ironically.

9. Express your incredulity and appreciation of a good story with the interjection Fala sério! (FA-la SAY-ree-u; no way!; literally, Speak serious!)

10. Brazilians love to joke around, and if you have any sense at all, you’ll take part. But Brazilians can also be rather fiery; it’s so important to know how to backpedal.   brincando (Toh breen-KAHN-du, I’m joking) will do the trick. Maybe.

11. N’é (nay, isn’t it so?) is a question tag, which is one of the most immediately useful things you can learn in any new language. No grammar — just tack it on the end of a declaration and you’ve got a question. This is also useful if you find yourself in the middle of a statement that’s getting doubtful looks, and you want to play it off as an innocent inquiry.

A typical Brazilian kiss. Photo in Nitoroi by Szymon Kochanski.
A typical Brazilian kiss. Photo in Nitoroi by Szymon Kochanski.

12. If you’re planning to get some, you should probably learn to kiss like Brazilians do, or at the very least prepare yourself for those lovely, slobbery assaults.

13. Pitch variation: To foreigners, Brazilian Portuguese is a tonal funhouse. You could try to learn from explicit, rational study of how the falsetto and bass notes are thrown together in any one sentence (not recommended), or just watch some youtube videos and go for your own cover version of that musical enthusiasm.

14. Extra credit: Learn to snap your fingers like a Brazilian. Oh my god, this one’s hard. But if you can learn to do it, no one will ever doubt your Brazilian credentials.

Certainly, the above language course will be criticized for being incomplete, and yeah, it’s missing a few words, or nearly a half-million. But I’d argue that most Portuguese textbooks fare worse, as they barely mention the vital communicative elements above.

Your comments, my dears, are nevertheless quite welcome. Better yet, try this out on Brazilians and report back!

BIG THANKS/OBRIGADÃO NA AJUDA: Bebeto Azevedo of the defunct but storied LimeTime Hostels, home to São Paulo’s best parties (I’m proud to have been his first customer way back in the day); Renata Kelly da Palma; Adelson; and the tons of other Brazilians who have improved/tolerated my Portuguese over the years.