The main language spoken in Brazil is Portuguese. Indeed, almost all of the translation services that we provide for customers in Brazil, or customers doing business with Brazil, include Portuguese in the language pairing. However, a linguistic tour of Brazil is about far, far more than Portuguese alone, which is precisely why we’ve devoted this article to exploring language in Brazil.
What do Brazilians speak when they’re not speaking Portuguese? Perhaps surprisingly (at least to those unfamiliar with Brazilian history), German is the second most spoken language in Brazil, while Italian comes in in third position. We’ll explore the reasons behind this in detail below. Read on to discover more about how many languages are spoken in Brazil!
The Official Language of Brazil
The primary language in Brazil is Portuguese, which is spoken by 98% of the people in Brazil. It is the language of government, of education, of the arts and of almost every element of daily life.
Portuguese arrived in Brazil in 1500, when the first Portuguese colonialists/conquerors/invaders (views on such matters are evolving rapidly) arrived in the country. With each boatful of new arrivals, the language’s grip deepened, to the point that modern day Brazil is home to around 205 million Portuguese speakers.
At a national level, Portuguese is the official language of Brazil. While the country is home to numerous minority languages, they are recognised at municipality level rather than national level. We’ll explore these in more detail below.
While many English speakers these days assume that they will be able to use their native language when abroad, using English in Brazil won’t get you very far. English is not widely spoken there, with the British Council reporting that only 5% of the Brazilian population (a little over 10 million people) were able to communicate in English in 2019.
The lack of use of English in Brazil means that the Tomedes team is well used to providing English to Portuguese translation services for companies looking to do business with Brazil. With the United States being one of the country’s largest trading partners, such services are essential for keeping goods and money flowing into and out of Brazil.
Interestingly, Brazil is the only country in Latin America to speak Portuguese, with the majority of other nations speaking Spanish predominantly. As such, Spanish to Portuguese translation services (and vice versa) are also key to keeping Brazil’s business flowing internationally.
What are the top three languages spoken in Brazil? Read on to find out!
Do you want to watch a video instead? Here's a short one that can indulge your viewing pleasure.
The Top Three Languages Spoken in Brazil
Other than Portuguese, Brazil is home to a range of European languages (or evolutions thereof), languages from elsewhere in the world and hundreds of indigenous tongues.
Over the centuries, Brazilian Portuguese has evolved from its European origins to take on a distinctly different accent, as well as grammatical and orthographic differences. The Portuguese spoken in Brazil was influenced both by the country’s indigenous languages and by settlers from other European countries.
A major attempt was made to unify Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese through the Orthographic Agreement of 1990, which saw Brazil enact linguistic changes in 2009 and Portugal enact them in 2012.
As the differences are relatively minor, it is easy for European Portuguese speakers to converse in Brazil, just as it is for Brazilian Portuguese speakers to converse in Portugal. The differences can be likened to those that exist between UK and US English.
The number of Portuguese speakers in Brazil boomed massively in the 1800s. In 1808, the Portuguese court upped sticks and moved to Brazil and the resulting wave of migration meant that it was most likely somewhere in the 1830s when Portuguese-speaking Brazilians began to outnumber Portuguese speakers back home.
Today, Brazil is home to more Portuguese speakers than any other country. Portugal’s Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva, however, believes that Portuguese speakers in Africa will outnumber those in Brazil by 2100. Tomedes will, of course, be keeping a close eye on that particularly linguistic development.
Do you automatically think of German when wondering what language is spoken in Brazil? No? Well, you’re not alone! Many people assume that the second most spoken language in Brazil would be Spanish, due to its extensive use across the rest of Latin America, or perhaps Italian due to the fact that there are more immigrants of Italian origin in Brazil than there are immigrants of German origin.
Despite this, German is the second most spoken first language in Brazil (after Portuguese), being spoken by around 1.9% of the population. Census data reveals why this is. While there are more Italian immigrants in Brazil than German immigrants, half of the children of those Italian immigrants speak Portuguese at home. Two-thirds of German immigrants’ children, meanwhile, speak German at home as their mother tongue.
Brazilian German differs from European German considerably – far more than Brazilian Portuguese differs from European Portuguese. Descended from the Hunsrückisch dialect of West Central Germany, Brazilian Hunsrik has around three million native speakers, many of them located in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. In fact, two municipalities within that state recognise Hunsrik as a co-official language.
Pomeranian German is also spoken in Brazil, largely in Espírito Santo, while the country is also home to some 1.5 million standard German speakers.
The third most natively spoken language of Brazil is Italian. Again, the language spoken in Brazil differs from that spoken in Europe. It even has its own name: Talian. Also known as Brazilian Venetian, this form of Italian is mostly spoken in Rio Grande do Sul, where it s a co-official language in some municipalities.
Italian was brought to Brazil towards the end of the 19th century, when a wave of settlers from Italy descended on the country. Some 60% of these immigrants hailed from Veneto – hence the distinct Venetian influence on the Italian spoken in Brazil.
Brazil is home to many other minority languages, due to migration patterns over the past few centuries, meaning that visitors might hear Spanish, French, Japanese, Dutch, Vlax Romani, English, Chinese, Korean, Polish, Ukrainian and more as they tour Brazil. Let’s take a look at some of these minority languages spoken in Brazil right now.
Is Brazil a Spanish-speaking country? No, it’s not. But do Brazilians speak Spanish? Some of them! In fact, around 460,000 Brazilians speak Spanish, according to Ethnologue. The two languages are similar in many ways, though more in their written form than their pronunciation. As such, many Brazilians are able to understand Spanish, though they may not speak it fluently.
As with speakers of all minority languages in Brazil, Spanish speakers pop up in clusters. Many of these occur close to Brazil’s borders with other Latin American countries, where Spanish is the primary language. Spanish speakers are also clustered in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, both of which have made learning Spanish mandatory.
As with German, Japanese may not be the first language that leaps to mind when you’re wondering, “What do they speak in Brazil?” However, Brazil is home to a large Japanese expat community, following a wave of immigration that took place from 1908 onwards.
Today, Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population in the world (outside of Japan itself), most of whom call São Paulo home. There are around 1.5 million people of Japanese descent in Brazil and while many second and third generation immigrants have adopted Portuguese as their mother tongue, Brazil is still home to a sizeable number of Japanese speakers. São Paulo even has its own Japanese language newspaper, which has been published since the 1940s.
Portuguese may be the national language of Brazil, but the country is also home to a fair smattering of French speakers. Around 30,000 French people live in Brazil, most of whom are located in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, meaning that French is another of Brazil’s minority tongues.
According to People Groups, Brazil is home to some 354,000 Vlax Romani, who form part of a wider community of nearly 1.2 million Vlax Romani that spans 21 countries. As such, Vlax Romani is another of Brazil’s minority languages.
While it’s not widely used in Brazil, languages spoken there do include English. Around 5% of Brazilians speak some degree of English, though that’s not to say they are fluent.
In 1500, when Europeans arrived in what is now Brazil, the country was home to between six and ten million Amerindian people. Between them, they spoke around 1,300 indigenous languages. The loss of native peoples, cultures and languages since then has been staggering.
How many languages are spoken in Brazil by indigenous peoples today? Over the past 500 years, the number of indigenous languages spoken in Brazil has dropped to around 274 languages, according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA).
Many of these remaining languages (over 100 of them) are endangered, with each new generation speaking them less and less. IWGIA reports that only 37.4% of Brazil’s indigenous population now speak an indigenous language. 76.9%, meanwhile, speak Portuguese.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the more widely spoken indigenous languages of Brazil.
What is the main language in Brazil when it comes to indigenous tongues? The main language spoken in Brazil is Tikúna. The Tikúna people account for some 6.8% of Brazil’s total indigenous population, making them the country’s principle indigenous ethnic group. This position is largely due to the Tikúna’s relatively inland location, which kept them away from European settlers’ violence and diseases until 1649.
Interestingly, their language is believed to be a language isolate, though some theories connect it to the now extinct Yuri language. Tikúna is written in the Latin script. Today, it has some 35,000 native speakers in Brazil.
The Guarani Kaiowá aren’t believed to have had any contact with European settlers until the late 1800s. Today, some 26,500 Guarani Kaiowá speakers remain in Brazil. They use the Latin script to write their language, though literacy levels are low – no higher than 5-10%.
Around 22,000 members of southern Brazil’s 30,000-strong Kaingang nation speak the Kaingang language, with most also speaking Portuguese. Kaingang is a Ge family language, which is the largest language of the Macro-Ge grouping.
Brazil’s 2010 Census identifies 13,300 Xavante speakers within the country. Some 7,000 of them are monolingual.
This native language of Brazil is spoken mainly in the Eastern Mato Grosso region. Xavante is a Jê language with an unusual phonology due to its use of honorary and endearment terms in its morphology and its ergative object–agent–verb word order.
Brazil is home to approximately 12,700 Yanomami speakers. The language is known for its extensive nasal harmony; when one vowel in a word is nasalized, so too are all other vowels in that word. Yanomami isn’t believed to be associated with any other language family and there is no native written form of the language.
Which Language Should You Speak if You Intend to Visit?
If you’re an English speaker who’s planning to visit Brazil, it’s best not to rely on your native tongue alone. What do they speak in Brazil? Portuguese – so that’s what you will need to speak when you visit!
Thankfully, Portuguese is a fascinating language to learn (click the link below for further details) and one of the easiest for English speakers to pick up. So you should have no trouble mastering the basics at least before you head off to Brazil on your travels.
Read more: How to Learn Portuguese – Your Need to Know Guide
How many languages are spoken in Brazil? Hundreds! From the Brazilian national language (Portuguese) to various minority tongues and a huge range of indigenous languages, the country is home to rich linguistic diversity.