Why do Brazilians refuse to speak English?

brnetI have always noticed that Brazilians have a certain aversion to English. A certain tendency to switch to Portuguese whenever the majority is Brazilian, a severe reluctance to make a comment directed towards a Brazilian using English, even if the comment is in the context of an English conversation with people from all over the world, etc. Of course, many other nationalities act similarly, but I’ve been living in Romania for a bit over a year now and things are quite different, to the point that it’s really hard to dismiss this attitude as something normal. Though I haven’t had much contact with other Brazilians personally in this period, I still have a lot of contact online, mainly through Facebook, and the more time passes by, the more my impressions are confirmed and even reinforced. And I’m not counting those who don’t know English well, I mean people who speak quite fluently, who have lived abroad, etc. Why is it so?

I studied French in Canada for two months. Brazilians always spoke Portuguese whenever there weren’t more than two or three foreigners in the group. There were quite many Brazilians. It was the first time I travelled alone and I somewhat inevitably ended up hanging out with them quite often. I’m not that good at making conversation so the fact that there was always an excluded, quiet foreigner next to me was a good opportunity to interact with people from different cultures and speak another language in a natural, non-didactic context.

A few years later I did an exchange in Sweden. I was lucky this time to be housed in a neighborhood where there was no other Brazilian student. Still I met a few Brazilians who were always hanging out together and often excluded foreigners with their use of Portuguese, though there were of course those who didn’t. By then I already had a skeptical attitude towards hanging out with any Brazilian abroad, but I still wouldn’t think of it as a national problem. After all, we’re no worse than the French, for example (sorry if you’re French, you know it’s true!). So that comforted me for a while.

Brazilians online

Besides occasionally excluding foreigners in other countries, there’s the whole phenomenon of Brazilians online. I guess I would say it started on Orkut, when Brazilians flooded the social network before it was even translated to Portuguese.

Orkut_google_brasil

Orkut Büyükkökten at Google Brazil

Not only did Brazilians fill in their profiles and created communities in Portuguese, which is normal and expected, but they also started creating Portuguese topics in language neutral or English communities. So widespread was the phenomenon that the tensions between Brazilians and other users started to build up. According to a Reuters article published at the time1It’s hard to find original stuff from 2004 on the internet nowadays. This excerpt was taken from a Slashdot discussion about the ...continue:

Tammy Soldaat, a Canadian, got a sample of Brazilian wrath recently when she posted a message asking whether her community site on body piercing should be exclusive to people who speak English.

Brazilian Orkut users quickly labeled her a “nazi” and “xenophobe.”

“After that I understood why everyone is complaining about these people, why they’re being called the ‘plague of Orkut,”‘ she said in a site called “Crazy Brazilian Invasion.”

*OBS: I was devastated after spending half an hour looking for a screenshot of the “WTF A Crazy Brazilian Invasion” community to no avail, if anybody find one please send me!!

More recently Brazilians became a topic again in the gaming community, after flooding massively multi-player online games with Portuguese messages and harassing other users to the point of creating virtual wars between them and the non-Portuguese speaking players.

huebr

HUEHUE BR became a meme after Brazilians started invading international game servers communicating in Portuguese.

In other parts of the world, such as in Sweden, a gamer can get internationally famous because of a non-pretentious but English-language YouTube Channel gone viral. And don’t tell me Swedes speak better English. I’m sure there are more Brazilians who are fluent speakers of English than there are Swedes at all in the world.

I’m not a gamer, but I do use social media. Facebook is a more modern social network than Orkut, with more sophisticated language settings and a more unique experience for each user based on how they use the website. Besides, the population of Brazilians there is not so disproportionally large as it was in Google’s first social network. But the attitude doesn’t seem to have changed. No matter what I post on Facebook in English, if a Brazilian is the first to post, it is almost always in Portuguese. Maybe even if there are already comments in English. It’s actually probably weird for them that I write in English in the first place “just because I’m abroad”. I have friends on Facebook who are intelligent, open-minded people and who, in spite of living abroad, post overwhelmingly in Portuguese. Some are active Facebook users living in other countries and I honestly can’t remember seeing any post by them in English. Ever.

It could be different

As I mentioned, if I contrast the Brazilian behavior with that of Romanians the phenomenon becomes even more apparent. At least in Cluj-Napoca, where I live. Of course the context is different. The country is much smaller, there’s a lot more linguistic diversity in the vicinity, etc, but still, it gives me a glimpse of how reality could look like, and it’s inspiring. The first times I went out people where always careful and spoke English with me. And most importantly: even among themselves. Online I’ve seen discussion threads in English where all participants were Romanian. My first job interviews were also all in English, and nobody even cared too much about how good my Romanian was. Yes, a lot of people in Brazil simply can’t speak English even if they wanted to, plus, IT outsourcing is not common. But still, it is incredible for me to think of how this is absolutely unimaginable in Brazil on so many levels.

So why are Brazilians such non-international people? Why do they always form a Brazilian-only club and refuse to come out or let foreigners in?

“It sounds pedantic”

One of the things that saddens me the most about this attitude is that fear of sounding pedantic is one of the most probable reasons behind it. Anti-intellectualism is doing very well in Brazil, I’ve actually written a whole post about it. It seems people prefer to look ignorant than to look pedantic. It’s not rare to be called “gay” or something of the kind if you pronounce an English word using English pronunciation rules instead of the local ones, an attitude disturbingly similar to that depicted in the movie Idiocracy. I tried to find a video to illustrate how we pronounce English words and I didn’t really find any. Luckily enough, however, I did find one named “10 English Words Usually MISpronounced by Brazilians“. The first comment?

Você fala igual a um inglês... muito pedante.

“You talk like an Englishman… how pedantic.”

“Seems socially acceptable to me”

Am I a pretentious asshole if I suggest that making comments in Portuguese to me in an international conversation is actually rude to the others? If I say that it’s disconcerting to post something in English in order to include as many people as possible and then get a whole discussion thread in Portuguese where no foreigner feels welcome to participate? I do post in Portuguese occasionally when the topic is related to Brazil, but by writing in Portuguese about neutral topics I exclude a lot more people than I exclude if I post in English. If you don’t know enough English to make a comment, that’s fine. But if you speak perfect English, as most of the people I interact with on Facebook do, I would say it’s impolite.

“It makes it seem that I think I’m better than Brazilians and that I’m a gringo kiss ass”

This is in the category of pedantism, but I thought it deserved it’s own section. It would usually sound like a rather insane argument to me, but the recent incident with Brazilian musician Ed Motta may illustrate why the gringo kiss ass is such a vivid character in the mind of many Brazilians. I don’t know the details, but the story began with the musician posting on Facebook that he was only going to speak English in his next international tour and that Brazilians shouldn’t expect him to speak Portuguese. It developed when Brazilians started questioning his attitude (what a surprise) and it ended with him posting aggressively critical posts ridiculing Brazilian immigrants, using derogatory regional slur against uneducated, provincial Brazilians from small cities, and complaining about Brazil with openly elitist and arrogant language.

But however hard he may have made things with his unjustifiably aggressive speech and obscene lack of diplomacy, there was a lot of truth to what he said when he complained about Brazilian immigrants who go to concerts of Brazilian artists and scream to them in Portuguese and otherwise act as if they had never left the country. And in the aftermath of the scandal it’s easy to find comments from Brazilians saying he’s elitist simply for not speaking Portuguese “while artists from other countries speak their own languages” (which is not true at all). This reveals that the expectations of many Brazilians are also not fair. Showing interest for other cultures doesn’t have to mean you don’t value yours. On the contrary. Dialogue is a two-way process, and by engaging in one not only do you get an insight into the culture of your interlocutor but also provide an insight into yours. While Brazil may not be a rich and developed country, other countries have a lot to learn from its unique history and social conditions. But we also have a lot to learn from them. Responding to incidents of arrogance and “anti-Brazilianism” with pride and self-centeredness is immature and unconstructive.

Conclusion?

I have asked more questions than given answers in this text and I invite fellow Brazilians and others to discuss and try to figure out why this is the case. All I can say is that it is the age of globalization and multiculturalism and it’s about time we leave our Brazilian-only club and start interacting with people from other regions. Again, we are not the only nationality who acts like this, and the sheer magnitude of our population may be partly responsible for us sometimes being in evidence. But having been able to witness a certain variety of behaviors across different cultures, I can confidently say it could be better. Living in a bubble keeps our minds narrow and our worldviews biased. Much of what we take for granted as universal truths about human nature turn out to be culturally malleable characteristics with great variation across borders. Come out, take a look outside. It’s worth it.

Ariel Pontes on sabfacebookAriel Pontes on sabgithubAriel Pontes on sabgoogleAriel Pontes on sablinkedinAriel Pontes on sabtwitter
Ariel Pontes
Secular-humanist, web developer, occasional blogger. Interested in philosophy, science, tech, internet, free culture, social change, etc.

References   [ + ]

1. It’s hard to find original stuff from 2004 on the internet nowadays. This excerpt was taken from a Slashdot discussion about the article : Language Tempest At Orkut
  • Marian Rodu

    This attitude is somewhat similar to the Romanian Hungarians that when they are the majority and it only takes 2 to 1 they begin speaking in Hungarian. They also do this in larger groups and form their smaller group. I should point out that not all do this all the time, but it happens often enough. Most of them know either Romanian, English or both so it wouldn’t be hard to include people.

    I’m not a Hungarian hater or a nationalist so it always bothered me being suddenly excluded with rarely a “Sorry, it’s faster if we talk in Hungarian about this personal subject, we’ll get back to you.”

    I’ve had a fair few Hungarian university colleagues and we generally got along well enough, but they would always form their little groups and we didn’t interact often enough.

    Using foreign words in conversation or talking in English between Romanian is also viewed as pedantic, but it’s not that big of a concern for most people. Also, Romanians for some reason are somewhat enthusiastic about speaking or writing in English and I’ve had moments in which I spoke in English whole phrases with my Romanian best friend and there are usually interlaced English words in most conversation between young to middle age people.

  • Johaness

    I don’t think you could understand why Brazilians don’t speak English. They don’t refuses, they even know how to do it properly. Our country, I’m Brazilian, is a really isolated country. We were used to be deluded by we are some kind of special and really important country in the world whoever wants to know us and making friends with a Brazilian would be proud of it. In fact, its a big BS because most people at developed countries give a shit about Brazil, we are not so important for human kind, Amazon its just pile of crap and we don’t produce anything really important for humanity.

    Look, we don’t refuse to speak English, we don’t have a deep enough education for it, most people pays a lot for English courses completely useless, learns anything beyond to be verb and some of them really believes they have FLUENT ENGLISH only because of a certificate from any hyped English School! They lost several years studying Grammars but cant even maintain a basic conversation with any native speaker.

    At Portugal people speaks fluently English, real good English because early at school they used to study and practice it with several people from another countries, in Brazil it not happens.

  • Chris

    Great article but I think you are missing something.. comfort. Perhaps people in large social situations get anxious and a fear of making a mistake or being judged for their vocabulary or pronunciation is just a step too far, therefore they resort back to their native tongue with native speakers who they subconsciously know will understand them and comfort them with conversation.

    I am from England and have lived with many international groups such as french, albanian, chinese etc. I don’t find it impolite if they wish to speak to eachother in their native tongue just as long as they are aware I am not being impolite if i don’t attempt to include myself in the conversation and if I do interupt the conversation it will be simply because i dont understand enough of the language to know when a natural pause occurs.

    This is not a criticism or an attack on the article in-case it comes across that way. I actually enjoyed it and find your thoughts extremely interesting, this is simply an alternative viewpoint for you to consider for your future observations.

    Keep up the good work,
    Chris

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  • Hígor M. Gonçalves

    I just like to talk in portuguese. English isn’t a comfortable language to me.
    Nothing else. ¬¬’
    Gringomania de querer que a gente absorva a língua e a cultura deles.

    • arielpontes

      Of course it’s always most comfortable to use your native language. That’s the same for me. I know I won’t be corrected, that people won’t judge my skills etc. I just think there are certain situations that call for a little effort. You may associate the English language with British/American imperialism, but if you go to Japan and meet people from all over the world, how are you going to communicate? I’m sorry, but if you are able to speak even a little bit of English and still isolate yourself by hanging out exclusively with the Brazilians of that group, you’ll be missing a lot of cultural exchange. If that doesn’t make you close minded and ethnocentric, I don’t know what does.

    • arielpontes

      In a way you’re right though: the use of English as a lingua franca does contribute to the dominance of Anglophone culture in the world, and I think that’s a problem. But I don’t think we help solve it in any way by simply rejecting the use of English. On the contrary, actually. The more people of difference linguistic backgrounds embrace English, the more the language should become neutral an international and dissociated from Anglophone culture. I’ve recently written about this here: http://ghostlessmachine.com/en/2016/01/why-i-write-in-english/

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  • Bia Pereira

    I’m brazilian and I can say: we don’t refuse to speak english. We just don’t have situations to use english. So if you don’t understand our real motives for don’t speak your language, please stop to say things like : brazilians refuse to use english. And another thing, when brazilians travel to another country we ALWAYS speak in english, and when you guys travel to Brazil you never speak portuguese. So the name of the post should be: why americans refuse speak another language

  • Carlos

    Me as a Brazilian who have ever studied, listened and spoke english since my adolescence, had some experience living abroad, has also had lots of problems with english language as few people don t actually speak this language or the ones who do, refuse practising. Brasil have had much of communist education here and have poisoned many minds about USA capitalist system, it is a pitty. But, in fact, the strongest reason why brazilians refuse trainning foreign language (we have few or none contact with spanish speakers, fewer than with americans!) is low education quality that keep us from having shoulder to shoulder conversation or cultural interection. Consider Brazilians as cave men. The ones are scared with coming touch with the outside world. We don t get world’s culture or reasons why mankind make wars or are so angry about life. My experience with cold weather in Europe taught me the cold makes you angry and mercyless with others. Ice winter people are cruel creatures in the Brazilian’s eyes and feeling. If you are agressive or speak very fast, if you don t talk to blacks, or indians, or avoid an allien because they are strange, Brazilias get horrified. French and english don t like each other…. what??? it rather strange and awful. Black and white americans don t talk….what???? what is it? How come never talk to each other? Since we brazilians kiss strange people on the streets when we have opportunity or it is convenient (but never kissing both men). North hemisphere coldness scare us fairly much. Brazilians are scared with New world order and assimilation with other cultures. The cave men are scared by other alliens,kkkkkkk a foreing language is something still very hard to accept by brazilians. we banished dutch, french, spanish, aboriginal languages, german, italian languages from our soil, and foreign language is still something unacceptable, but most brazilians never comprehend or accept this what i’m telling you, I’m sorry. We are stiil very happy rude people. We scream, shout, are too much parties, loud conversations, dont understand and reject very low volume British voice. It is not that we hate, but we are not ready to comprehend different culture. We tend to think foreigners don t like us because we are tropical rude mixed race dark colour slow speaking people. I never intend to hurt you.
    Thank your understanding.

  • Faks

    BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT FORCED TO SPEAK ENGLISH
    BECAUSE THEY DONT HAVE THE NEED TO
    HAVING IN MIND THE SIZE AND POPULATION OF THEIR COUNTRY.
    HAVING IN MIND THAT BRASIL IS A DEVELOPING COUNTRY WITH A HUGE ECONOMY,
    HAVING IN MIND THAT MOST OF THE THINGS MADE IN BRASIL ARE EXPORTED AND ARE FOR OWN CONSUMPTION. AND MOST OF THE THINGS THAT ARE IMPORTED ARE TRANSLATED OR ADAPTED TO PORTUGUESE.
    PLUS LETS SEE WHO USES ENGLISH. BRITAIN AND THE US AND AUSTRALIA. SO IF BRASILIANS START TALKING ENGLISH AND START BUYING THINGS THAT ARE IN ENGLISH (AMAZONG EBAY) etc WHO WOULD BENEFIT FROM THOSE NEW 200 MILLION BRASILIAN CLIENTS THAT CAN SPEAK ENGLISH. AMERICA WOULD BENEFIT FROM IT. NOW WHAT HAPPENS IF BRASIL KEEPS ON PUSHING PORTUGUESE AND USING PORTUGUESE ONLY. THOSE SAME ENGLISH COMPANIES ARE GONNA HAVE TO BE THE ONES TO USE PORTUGUESE IN ORDER TO ENTER THE BRASILIAN MARKET. SO IF BRASIL KEEPS LIKE THIS IT WILL PUSH FOR THE LEARNING OF THE PORTUGUESE LANGUAGE.. WHICH WILL INCREASE THE AMOUT OF PEOPLE WHO TALK PORTUGUESE WHICH IN ORDER WILL BE BETTER FOR COMPANIES WHO ARE BRASILIAN. BECAUSE THE MORE PEOPLE LEARN PORTUGUESE THE BETTER. THERS ALREADY 265 MILLION PORTUGUESE SPEAKERS..AND WITH THE INCREASE IN PORTUGUESE SPEAKING PEOPLE EVEN BETTER IT IS FOR COMPANIES THAT ARE BRASILIAN. THE PORTUGUESE SPEAKING WORLD ALSO COUNTS FOR THE 6TH BIGGEST ECONOMY. SO YEH IN MY OPINION THERS NOTHING WRONG WITH SPEAKING ENGLISH BUT I SHOULDENT HAVE TO LEARN ENGLISH IN ORDER TO BE ABLE TO USE ANYTHING I WANT. AFTER ALL EVERYTHING SHOULD BE AVAILABLE IN ANY LANGUAGE NOT JUST ENGLISH.

  • Marcos Antonio

    I think the main reason why this happens is because Brazilians are really lazy people. Talk in other language require effort and Brazilians want to spare the pain of learning things as much as they can. The government doesn’t provide a good education and the parents don’t give any motivation at all for their children to learn things like music, languages, hard and soft sciences, etc. What happens is people are afraid of knowledge, they think who does that is stupid and they are proud to be ignorants.

    But there’s other side: when you talk with your compatriot in other language I don’t know exactly why but it sounds really strange. Then for some reason some Brazilians find strange to speak in English between themselves and always change to Portuguese because of that. But it really sounds weird if you are hanging out with foreigners then all of a sudden you isolate this person speaking your mother language. And unfortunately Brazilians they don’t have education and they are very individualists a lot of times, then they don’t care about these people for example.