Many Brazilians in the larger cities—especially those you encounter working at airports, hotels, better restaurants, tour companies, travel agencies, etc.—speak at least some English. Both English and Spanish are taught in many Brazilian schools. However, the farther away you get from the larger cities, the less likely it is that you encounter people who speak English.
Remember that the language of Brazil is Portuguese and, in spite of what some think, Portuguese is not a sub dialect of Spanish … or any other language. Portuguese is a separate and distinct language all its own. If you know some Spanish, you can certainly try to make you wants or needs known using Spanish. While Portuguese and Spanish are linguistic cousins and some Brazilians may understand what your saying in Spanish, they probably won’t answer you in Spanish.
Even if you are linguistically hopeless, learning and using a just few, simple Portuguese phrases can go a long way in demonstrating respect for Brazilian life and culture. Using simple phrases like thank you (obrigado for men, obrigada for women), no thank you (não obrigado for men, não obrigada for women), por favor (please), com licença (excuse me), prazer (pleased to meet you), descuple (sorry), bom dia (good morning), boa tarde (good afternoon), boa noite (good evening/good night), adeus (goodbye as in forever) or the even more commonly used tchau [pronounced like the Italian ciao] (goodbye) as well as other simple courtesies will be very appreciated by most Brazilians. See our grammar reference guide for more useful words, phrases and translations.
Brazilians readily adopt words from many different languages including English. Words and phrases such as shopping (shopping center/mall; plural = shoppings), moto boy (motorcycle delivery driver), lite or light (light or lite foods or drinks), mouse (computer), sexy, happy hour and many others have found their way into the Brazilian vernacular. They are regularly used and understood by Brazilians, although the pronunciation is most often very different. In addition, the spelling of many Brazilian Portuguese words are somewhat similar to their English counterparts so it is possible to ‘wing it’ and get by using English and a few Portuguese phrases, but only up to a point.
When speaking English to almost any Brazilian who says they know the language, it’s best to speak clearly, slowly and use simple words. Avoid using slang and colloquial expressions and, by all means, don’t assume that they really understand what you are saying in English. Brazilians are generally very polite and want to please you by showing that they understand you … even if they really don’t. If you see a glassy eyed expression accompanied by a smile when speaking English to a Brazilian, you may want to rephrase your statement or question because they probably don’t understand.
In most larger cities, highly trained, English-Portuguese interpreters are readily available for hire. Most of them have both lived and studied in English speaking countries for extended periods of time. Many hotels or travel agents can locate an interpreter for you. However, be aware that an interpreter can cost as much as R$ 50.00+ per hour or a few hundred reais per day. Most tour operators provide a multilingual guide as part of the tour package.