Portuguese for Survival (and for Kicks)

Portuguese for SurvivalA few months ago I packed my bags and hitched a ride across the Guyana border into Brazil. I walked into Boa Vista with a sense of accomplishment, having gotten this far without any hiccups. The sky may as well have fallen on my head when I realized that no one spoke any English. This wasn’t what I expected. The locals seemed to be quite content with jabbering in Portuguese. Travelling alone, I was left with little option but to spend my first day in Brazil without speaking a word of English. What ensued in the following weeks was a mad scramble to pick up some basic Portuguese for survival.


As always, there’s some good news and there’s some bad news. The good news is Portuguese is a Latin based language and English has a lot of Latin influence too. So many words do overlap. The bad news is that although Portuguese uses the same alphabet as English, the pronunciation is completely different. This could be a challenge.

Pronunciation Basics

A is ah
E is eh
I is ee
O is awe
U is oooh (as in oops)

Rules Designed to Confound and Confuse

An mentioned earlier, pronunciation can be tricky at times. A few examples below.

  • The letter r sounds like the word h if its at the beginning of a word. If its in the middle of a word, its an even stronger h. If its at the end of a word, its silent.
  • S when used at the end of a word becomes a z. For all other practical purposes, it’s still a s
  • The letter h at the beginning of a word is silent. However if it follows an l (lh) or n (nh), it then mysteriously becomes a y. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
  • G takes on a zh sounds when followed with an e or an i. Think Zsa Zsa.

Since most of this isn’t necessary for survival, we diverge. On to the fun stuff.

The Essentials

Obrigado / obrigada – Thank you (depending on whether you’re a male / female)
Desculpa – Sorry
Por favor – Please
Quanto? – How much?
Nao entendi – I didn’t understand
O banheiro, por favor? – The bathroom, please?

How you doin’?

Ola / oi – Hi
Bom dia – Good morning
Bom tarde – Good afternoon
Boa noite – Good evening / night
Chau – Bye
Ate mais – See you
Tudo bem / Tudo bom – How are you? (both equivalent to ‘wassup’)
If someone asks you Tudo bem? say Tudo bom. If it’s Tudo bom? answer back Tudo bem. Don’t waste any time trying to figure out the logic. Move on.


Eu – I
Voce – You
Ele – He / him
Ela – She / her
(Until you master this, bathroom usage will be tricky)


1 – um 11 – onze 10 – des
2 – dois 12 – doze 20 – vinci
3 – tres 13 – treze 30 – trente
4 – quarto 14 – quatorze 40 – quarenta
5 – cinco 15 – quinze 50 – cinquenta
6 – seis 16 – dezeseis 60 – sessenta
7 – saiche 17 – dezesete 70 – setenta
8 – oito 18 – dezoito 80 – oitenta
9 – nove 19 – dezenove 90 – noventa
10 – des 20 – vinci 100 – cem


Once you’re down with the numbers, a few more words to your vocab will ensure that bargaining is a breeze. Although the currency is spelt as Real (plural Reais), it is pronounced hey-ah-oh (plural hey-eyez). Another strange aspect is that decimal points don’t exist. Ignoring the far reaching implications of this to high school math, R2,85 would translate to dois reais e oitenta e cinco centavos. Drop the e’s to improve your speed. Once you’re out of cash, ask around for the caixa automatico coz an ATM just doesn’t sound cool enough.


Tons of quilo (kilogram) restaurants are splashed all around town. These places encourage you to gorge yourself on a buffet with a million things on offer. You pay depending on the weight of your plate. In case you’re a vegetarian, you’d better memorize this phrase  – Tem pratos vegetarianos? (do you have vegetarian dishes?) Results though are not guaranteed. Vegetarianism is to the Brazilians as religion is to the birds.

Don’t make the rookie mistake of overeating and not leaving any space for the sobremesa (dessert). Brazilian sobremesas are to die for. Request for a conta (the bill) once you’re done. If you’re at a nicer restaurant, thrown in a por favor for good measure.


Chope – Beer
Agua – Water
Café – Coffee
Chá – Tea
Leite – Milk
Açucar – Sugar
Limao – lime
While in Brazil be sure to get your hands on a few Caiperinhas which are delicious cocktails made with limao, açucar and cachaça (sugarcane rum).

Note: 3 caiperinhas are powerful enough to make a priest dance on a barstool.


Onde fica _______ is your friend. It means ‘where is ________’ and can be used anywhere, for anything and anyone. Too easy..

Phrase of the Day

Que legal (cool)
Divided, these words might be powerless. But together, and with a few exclamation marks thrown in at the end, they can be used to respond to any possible scenario under the sun. Ignore them at your own risk.

Simple Sentences FTW

O meu nome é _______  (My name is _________)
Voce fala inglez? (Do you speak English? Pointless but what the hell!)
Eu falo Inglez – (I speak English, in Portuguese. Very classy)

Before people attempt to strangle you with their bare hands, make a smooth exit.
Por Favor, onde fica o banheiro?

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2 Comments on “Portuguese for Survival (and for Kicks)

  1. Well done Jason. How were the brazilian girls. And the music. Did you learn to samba…

    • Hi Jenny…did managed to go to a few Street parties with Samba all around. That was definitely a highlight of my trip. Planning to head back to Rio for the carnival at some stage..

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