It’s a well-known fact that language skills beyond Portuguese are rather limited in Brazil. Although most people outside will try to understand and help foreigners, according to official statistics from IBOPE, only 4.94% of Brazilians speak English. However, the Portuguese and Spanish languages have so many similarities that even though a Brazilian may not speak Spanish, they will most likely understand simple conversations in Spanish.
Industrial and Social Differences
The use of English as a business language will largely depend on the industry that you are working within. If you are dealing with the financial industry in São Paulo or the Tourism industry in Rio de Janeiro you can safely assume that all business interactions can be held in English without any problems.
When doing business within industries like technology, advertising and law it is also very likely that you will be able to hold meaningful business conversations in English.
The lower social status a profession is, the less likely it is that you will find a professional that speaks English. Ironically this means that many of the companies that deal with international trade have very limited English skills.
English is part of the basic education curriculum in Brazil meaning that everybody has had some exposure to English classes. However, basic English is by no means enough to hold a business conversation, or in fact any meaningful conversation at all.
In order to conduct business in English you need to be exposed to the language on a regular basis. The further away from metropolitan cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the lower the chances of finding somebody that speaks English.
The lack of exposure to the English language is not only limited to geography but also age. You will find that younger people are more likely to speak English than older people.
Best Practice for Overcoming Language Challenges
At the end of the day both parties must be able to communicate in order to conduct business properly and have a professional relationship. Unless you are planning to learn Portuguese you will have to rely on somebody else to assist you with communication.
Hiring Portuguese speaking Employees or Contractors
To hire an employee or contractor shows a high-level of commitment to the Brazilian market. If you have already validated the market potential, this is the most stable way to move forward.
There is a risk of relying on a single person or a very small team for your business development and relations in Brazil. Most business relations in Brazil tend to be personal, especially if you are operating in a highly competitive industry. Bear in mind that your Brazilian customer will build loyalty to the person they are interacting with, rather than your company or brand. This will make your staff attractive to recruiters from competitors, and can jeopardise your investment in Brazil.
Appointing Business Partners
To appoint business partners that speak Portuguese tends to be the most common way to overcome language barriers in Brazil. Depending on the industry, the business partner might require that you pay for some of the expenses related to establishing your product or brand in the market. However, working with a business partner tends to lower the risk of establishing a presence in Brazil.
To find a Brazilian business partner that speaks English it is recommended that you call potential candidates rather than sending an e-mail. The reason is that the receptionist is likely to be a young person, often an intern, that at least will have basic English skills and will try to help you get in touch with somebody in the organizations that speaks English. E-mails are often handled by more senior staff that are less likely to speak English and therefore will not understand what you are looking for.
Some Brazilian companies that sporadically deal with foreign business partners might have an agreement with a contractor to help them with the language skills needed for business interactions.
You should therefore not but be surprised if the person you are asked to interact with does not seem to be a fulltime employee of the company that you wish to partner with.
If you have no luck navigating the organisation yourself it is possible to hire assistance with the initial introduction to an organisation.
A variety of companies will offer introductory services of different types, the basic option is a virtual assistant that can provide secretarial services in Portuguese and English.
A virtual assistant is great if you already know which companies you would like to meet and the value proposition of your product is easy to communicate and understand. Normally the virtual assistant will not try to pitch or develop the business opportunity beyond the action of scheduling a meeting.
Virtual assistants normally charge per hour.
Consulting firms will normally provide a turnkey solution where they identify potential business partners, pitch your business proposal and in some cases even finish the negotiation of the agreement on your behalf.
There are a variety of different compensation models for consulting firms where project-fee, retainer and commission are the most common.
It is important to understand that there is a huge difference between Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese from Portugal. Speaking Portuguese from Portugal is of course better than not speaking any Portuguese at all but you should expect that there will still be communication issues as both the pronunciation and meaning of words can be very different.
When interacting with senior management in companies from the South of Brazil, in particular Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina state there is a possibility that they would prefer to speak German rather than English. This region is strongly influenced by the German immigrants that came to Brazil in the first half of last century. People that are still active in the workforce tend to be second generation immigrants and are proud to keep their parent’s language alive.