How Common Is Spoken Spanish In Brazil? (Surprising Answer)


Brazil is the largest country in Central and South America with a total land mass of 8,515,770 square kilometers or 3,287,957 square miles. That is three times the size of Argentina, the next largest. Brazil is also the largest country in population with 211.1 million people beating out Mexico by 83.5 million. The question here is, does this enormous South American country speak Spanish? The answer may surprise you.

Spanish is not commonly spoken in Brazil. Only 4% of Brazilians understand or speak Spanish and it has been that way for generations. This means out of a population of 211.1 million people in this South American country, only 8.4 million people speak Spanish in Brazil.

With nearly all of its neighbors speaking Spanish, this may come as a shock to some that have never looked into it. Others may know that Brazilian Portuguese is the official and most widely spoken language in Brazil, but may still wonder what the landscape looks like for Spanish. Let’s look a little deeper into Brazil and see how much and where Spanish can be heard.

Is Spanish Widely Spoken In Brazil?

As you can see, Spanish is not widely spoken in Brazil. It is the official and main language of most of the countries in Central and South America. Yet, in Brazil it is opposed even openly sometimes by the population. This is due to many factors that will be later discussed, but first let’s look at the levels of Spanish that do exist and where to find it.

Is Spanish An Official Language In Brazil?

It is widely assumed by many not researched in world languages that Brazilians speak Spanish, if not as their main language, at least as a second. This is simply not the case. Spanish has a very small following in Brazil and is even resisted in many segments of the population.

Spanish is not an official language in Brazil either on the federal or local level. The only official languages of Brazil on a federal level are Brazilian Portuguese and Brazilian Sign Language. There are other indigenous and international languages that gain official local status in some areas.

There are indigenous languages and languages from around the world that have regional official designations. These are usually defined by city or town municipal governments to be inclusive of large sections of the local population that natively speak them.

Here again, those not versed in the status of languages around the world may be surprised at some of the languages that make the Brazilian localized official list.

Some of the languages that are co-officially recognized in Brazil on a local level are…

  • Nheengatu (indigenous)
  • Tukano (indigenous)
  • Baniwa (indigenous)
  • German (Germany)
  • Italian (Italy)
  • Yoruba (East Africa)

This is only a small portion of the 228 languages in total spoken in the country. And the list of regional official languages is much larger than this one. One language that is common to many countries in the region is noticeably absent from this list.

Spanish.

Although in the border areas that connect with Spanish speaking countries like Argentina some Spanish can be heard, it is not common in most of Brazil. Spanish is not considered an official language either federally or locally in Brazil.

What Percentage Of Brazil Speaks Spanish?

There are many languages spoken in Brazil, but most of them are only used by a small portion of the population. Due to the countries that border Brazil, Spanish does make inroads even if it is resisted by the general population.

Spanish is spoken by 4% of the population of Brazil, which equals out to 8.4 million Spanish speakers. This is compared to the 98% (206.9 million) that speak Brazilian Portuguese, 7% (14.8 million) speaking English and 1.5% (3.2 million) speaking some form of German.

The most spoken language in Brazil is Portuguese by far. Then comes English followed by Spanish and German. Together they form the top four languages in Brazil, though Portuguese has such a high percentage of the population that it will most likely be used in the vast majority of conversations.

Spanish is more used in regions that do business with their Spanish speaking neighbors and some have even blended Brazilian Portuguese with Spanish in a type of creole language locals call Portuñol.

This is not technically designated as a creole language like the Cajun Creole of Louisiana in the U.S. or the Creole Spanish found in parts of the Philippines. It is more of a simplified version of the two languages to aid natives of the two languages to communicate.

To learn more about How Common Spoken Spanish Is In The Philippines, see my article here.

How Many People Speak Spanish In Brazil?

The number of people that speak Spanish in Brazil is actually higher than 4%. This is usually a designation confined to speakers that claim native status or a high level of Spanish ability. What would you really find the Spanish speaking ability to be if you were to visit Brazil with that intent?

Though the official numbers say only 4% or 8.4 million people in Brazil speak Spanish, many find that Brazilians speak a little Spanish in large numbers. Especially in border areas, though it may come out in Portoñol, most Brazilians speak a little Spanish.

That being said, most Brazilians prefer not to be seen as Spanish, Hispanic, Latin, or Latino. They are proud of their Brazilian heritage and Portuguese language. Many are friendly and open people and will try to speak Spanish with those that need it, but as a second language they will more often speak English.

Can Brazilians Understand Spanish?

Due to the similar foundations of the Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese languages, it is much easier for these speakers to understand and learn each other’s languages. These are all Latin based in their foundations and have similar structures and common pronunciations. But how much Spanish can Brazilians actually understand?

Brazilians can understand some Spanish, but not enough to make the two languages mutually intelligible. There are similarities, but the differences are enough to make speakers of each have difficulty communicating. Learning each others languages may be easier than others, but learning is necessary.

For Spanish speakers the situation is the same. Speakers of both languages can understand some terminology and have similar structures to their languages, but large portions of conversations will be either misunderstood or unintelligible.

Will I Be Able To Get Around Speaking Spanish In Brazil?

Let me first start off by saying that going to any other country and expecting the natives to speak your mother tongue or language of choice is not only insensitive, but not a good idea in general. This is definitely true when going to a country like Brazil.

If you are bilingual in Spanish and English you may be able to move around in populated parts of Brazil without much Brazilian Portuguese. With both languages you may find enough people able to help you. Spanish alone may not be enough without at least a basic grasp of Portuguese.

If you are determined to go to Brazil armed only with Spanish it is advisable to also have a basic understanding of Portuguese. Since these languages are very similar it is not a monumental task to undertake.

Again, keep in mind that many Brazilians do not appreciate people coming to Brazil and expecting them to speak Spanish. You may find many helpful people that will try to talk with you, but you may also encounter some cold shoulders.

Where Can Spoken Spanish Be Found In Brazil?

Like many other countries of the world, several foreign languages have enclaves in Brazilian major cities. In some of them you can find rather large representations of German, Italian, and even Japanese. What you will not find however are very many Spanish speaking sections in these cities.

Most of the Spanish speaking areas that you will encounter will come along the borders with countries like:

  • Paraguay – Official language – Spanish
  • Uruguay – Official language – Spanish
  • Argentina – Official language – Spanish
  • Bolivia – Official language – Spanish
  • Peru – Official language – Spanish
  • Columbia – Official language – Spanish
  • Venezuela – Official language – Spanish

These countries make up the entire southern, western, and north western borders of Brazil. Towns and cities along the border are going to be your best bet when looking for Spanish. Some of these border towns include:

  • Foz do Iguaçu – Population 258,000 – Located at the Iguaçu Falls on the Argentina and Paraguay boaders, this city has become a destination spot for tourists. This combined with its proximity to Spanish speaking Ciudad del Este in Paraguay makes Spanish much more likely to find than other cities in Brazil.
  • Uruguaiana – Population 126,800 – This city sits along the Uruguay river that is the border between it and Argentina. The city across the border Paso de los Libres (population 44,000) also injects Spanish into the region.
  • Guajará-Mirim – Population 46,500 – This is an old railroad town next to Bolivia and just across from the Bolivian border town of Guayaramerín. Spanish can be found in Guajará-Mirim more than many areas of Brazil.
  • Brasiléia – Population 26,500 – This town borders Bolivia and is connected to the Bolivian city of Cobija. Many inhabitants here cross the border regularly to buy items at cheaper prices and take advantage of the duty free border. Residents are more likely to speak Spanish here for pragmatic reasons.
  • Guaíra – Population 33,000 – It is a town along the Paraná river not too far from the Paraguay border. It has some Spanish speakers and its own airport.
  • Paranhos – Population 14,000 – This small town is on the border with Paraguay and is across from the border town of Ypejhu (population 8,500). Though Spanish can be found here, its small population makes it still rather scarce.

Is There Spanish On Brazilian Television And Movie Screens?

With most of the population of Brazil monolingual, it is not surprising the the main language on television and movie screens is Portuguese. This is not to say that you won’t hear languages like English and Spanish in movie theatres and on paid cable channels.

Spanish can be heard in movie theatres and on paid cable channel shows if they are shown. On free public television shows as well as all movies and shows for kids voices will be dubbed into Brazilian Portuguese and the Spanish is removed.

That being said, 75-80% of the movies in movie theatres of Brazil are in English with Portuguese subtitles. The other 20-25% are in Portuguese dubbed versions for kids or in other foreign languages.

French films play as regularly as Spanish language films. These are left in their original form and subtitles are added. Spanish really doesn’t have much of a presence.

Most shows on public free television are also dubbed. There may or may not be subtitles depending on the show, but the voices are changed and Portuguese is spoken.

Is There Spanish In The Brazilian Workplace?

Surely there is more Spanish found in businesses and work environments in the largest country in Central and South America, right? Some may think this, but it just is not the case. Portuguese is by far the most spoken language in the Brazilian work environment.

Spanish is not widely spoken in the Brazilian workplace. Unless a firm has direct connections with Spanish speaking countries there is no need or desire for businesses to use it. The exceptions could be in border towns with Spanish speaking countries, but this is still not common.

Tourist areas and shops near the borders are your best bet to find any measurable level of Spanish in retail, business, or industry. Brazilians take pride in their language and culture in both their personal and professional lives.

Is Spanish Taught In Brazil?

Spanish is now taught in public schools as a second language along side English and has been for a while. It wasn’t always the case. English a generation ago was more common to find as a subject in Brazilian high schools.

English is also required for college entrance though some colleges accept Spanish proficiency instead. English really is the second language of choice in public and private schools due to its international status in higher education.

What Languages Are Studied In School In Brazil?

For parents wanting to have their kids go abroad for university or a foreign exchange program in high school there are three main languages they will have their kids study:

  • English
  • German
  • French

Interesting note: The German language and culture leader in education around the world it the Goethe institute. They have a series on DW (Deutsche Welle) called Jojo sucht das Glück. It is about a German speaking Brazilian girl that travels to Germany to study at university.

For getting jobs in tourism or international trade there is more of a demand for Spanish for certain. Much of Brazil’s tourism industry comes from Spanish speaking countries and a large portion of their trade comes from the same regions. Still there are other languages that are chosen as well.

Languages studied for tourism or international trade are:

  • English
  • German
  • Spanish

One reason that Spanish is not chosen much of the time for study in schools also has to do with the ease of learning Spanish for native Brazilian Portuguese speakers. There is not a long lead up time until communication is possible.

If it is for career opportunities, it will not take too much of a time investment in the future and other languages do. Therefore, many choose to study other languages in school and wait until it is necessary, if it is necessary, to learn Spanish.

Why Don’t They Speak Spanish In Brazil?

There is a general reluctance to speaking Spanish present in the Brazilian culture. You are more likely to meet someone in day to day travels that speaks English than Spanish. Why don’t the Brazilians choose to speak Spanish?

There are many reasons that contribute the the Brazilian reluctance to speak Spanish. Some of them have to do with cultural and national identity, immigration trends, and pragmatics. Despite having Spanish speaking neighbors and offering it in schools, Spanish is just not widely spoken in Brazil.

There is not a lack of opportunity with the internet today even if there are not Spanish speakers in the areas that many Brazilians live. What are some of the reasons they choose other languages or no foreign language at all?

National And Cultural Identity

Brazil is the largest country by land mass and population in Central and South America. Yet, when tourists from other countries come to Brazil some mistakenly believe that Spanish not Portuguese will be commonly spoken.

This would be like tourists coming to the United States and expecting French to be widely spoken since Canada has a large French speaking population. It doesn’t lead to a high view of that language for the people on the receiving end of that.

The Brazilian people identify with Portuguese and it is part of who they are. This is no different than the sentiments in small European, African, or Asian countries that speak separate and distinct languages from their neighbors.

Immigration Trends Made Spanish Less Spoken In Brazil

Over the years there were many Italian, Japanese, German, and Spanish speakers that immigrated to Brazil. They brought their own languages and cultures with them, but soon assimilated into the Brazilian culture.

Understandably, language assimilation takes longer, and even generations. In this area Brazil is a great test case for language assimilation and the trends it follows.

Most all Italian and Spanish speakers quickly adopted the Portuguese language. These languages are similar in structure and vocabulary and were a smoother transition.

On the other hand German and Japanese speakers took much longer, and some never did learn Portuguese. These languages are much harder to come to Portuguese from and require much more effort.

Pragmatics Play An Important Role In Language

Brazilians on a day to day basis can get by not knowing Spanish. If more than a basic conversation is needed that can’t use a combination of Portuguese, a little Spanish, and a little English, then some will learn it. Though most just don’t see the need.

As I stated before, it also takes a matter of months and not years to learn Spanish for Portuguese speakers. To learn English, German, or many other non-similar languages it takes considerably more time.

This leads most Brazilians to play the wait and see game. They wait and see if the effort is necessary to learn Spanish, and if the need were to arise it is something that can be done relatively fast.

Final Talking Point: How Common Is Spoken Spanish In Brazil?

The short answer to that question is: not very.

There of course are many reasons for this as well as exceptions in some border areas. But the main cause seems to be a lack of need for Brazilians to speak or understand Spanish on any level other than the similarities that exist between it and Portuguese.

One of the things that I have found that students draw on the most to learn languages is motivation. Languages are like sports, art, and music. To get to a high level, it just takes the motivation to begin and not stop.

Without the motivation, the situation in Brazil for Spanish is unlikely to change any time soon.

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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