Connecting With Your Listener When You Don’t Know the Language

If you don’t know Portuguese, it is difficult to communicate in Brazil because less than 5% of Brazilians speak English. Our Let’s Start Talking team has been here in Natal, Brazil, for four weeks offering free conversational English lessons. Here are some tips that I learned from communicating with Brazilian people.

Review your skills at charades. I have found that if I do enough describing with my hands and arms, I have a good chance of getting my message across. One of my students brings to our sessions an artist’s sketch book which he uses to help me visualize what he means. This usually works well. Nodding my head and smiling when I understand the drawing seals the completion of his message.

I have also found there are a few universal nonverbal expressions that work well. When I need help, I will smile at an employee. If that person does not smile back, I move on to someone who will. A smile always seems to be a common bond for humans anywhere. I have also found when I understand, I give a “thumbs-up” response and that person will do the same. Sometimes the Brazilian will do it first to let me know he understands. “OK” is also universally understood.

Finding someone who does speak English has happened twice to us in stores. I find that the person with whom I am struggling to communicate will find another employee who speaks English. This happened in a grocery store recently. When he finished helping, all three employees were smiling and feeling good about getting through to the Americano. On another occasion my grandson and I were browsing through a bookstore and chatting about finding books in English. As we did, one of the sales associates asked in excellent English if he could help us. That request started a conversation among the three of us which was encouraging to us. I found that he had learned English through the internet.

Another way to communicate in a language you do not understand is to find a booklet like Point It: The Traveler’s Language Kit . This resource, along with many other similar ones, has hundreds of photos of everything from “toothbrush” to “snow chains.” Just point to what you are looking for and the picture book approach has completed the communication.

The final suggestion from our experiences is to learn single Portuguese words which the Brazilian can then sometimes respond to. At the end of any conversation, as you leave, “Tchau” is appropriate. Other single words which we have found helpful are “desculpe” for “excuse me,” and “da nada” for “you’re welcome.” Most important is “obrigado,” which means “thank you,” no doubt the best to know in any language.

Of course, if you are going to spend a lot of time in another country, the best way is to learn their language. There is not a better way to relate to another human than to speak his or her language.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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