Brazil accounts for a large portion of both South America’s geography and, as it so happens, its language diversity.
Though Spanish is the primary language in most South American countries, Portuguese is actually what’s spoken most in South America, and that’s all thanks to Brazil. In the country of Carnaval, Samba and Bossa Nova, Portuguese is more or less spoken by everybody, but there’s still plenty of room for the coexistence of languages like Japanese, Spanish, Dutch and Vlax Romani, to say nothing of the 274 indigenous languages spoken by individuals belonging to 305 different ethnicities, according to 2010 Census estimates.
Brazil is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, and it’s also home to a stunning amount of cultural and linguistic diversity. But just as its biological riches are mostly hidden in the deep folds of the Amazonian rainforest, its linguistic variance is similarly concentrated in its most remote reaches.
Even São Paulo, the largest Portuguese-speaking city in the world, is home to a sizable Arab, Italian, Chinese and Jewish community.
But First: The Primacy Of Portuguese
By most accounts, the Portuguese language first touched American shores in the year 1500, when Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral reached Brazil.
The rest, as they say, is colonial history. There were 6 to 10 million Amerindian people living in what is modern-day Brazil at the time of Cabral’s arrival, speaking about 1,300 different languages. Today, there are an estimated 170,000, speaking only 181. Though Portuguese Jesuit missionaries made an effort to study the Tupi languages of the coastal tribes, their main motivation for doing so was to more effectively proselytize to the indigenous people. This interchange continued until Marquês de Pombal prohibited the use of any indigenous languages in 1775.
Modern-day Brazilian Portuguese differs from European Portuguese thanks to the remaining traces of the African and Amerindian languages it came into contact with. There are over 205 million Portuguese speakers in Brazil, compared with 10 million speakers in Portugal itself. It’s fair to say that Brazilian Portuguese has taken on a life of its own since the days of the colonizers.
To put things in perspective, there are approximately 207 million people living in Brazil today, which means 99 percent of the population speaks Portuguese.
Among the relatively small sliver of indigenous people, 17.5 percent do not speak Portuguese.
Still, Portuguese remains Brazil’s official language, and the language in which its government communications, media and public education are conducted. Thanks to the effect of mass media, whatever regional inflections may have existed are rapidly diminishing (and further cementing the uniformity of the language).
What About The Spanish Speakers?
You’d think that Spanish would be fairly prevalent in this Latin American country, but according to Ethnologue, there are only 460,000 Spanish speakers in Brazil.
During the great wave of migration from Spain to Brazil between 1880 and 1930, many immigrants hailed from Galicia, where the language is more similar to Portuguese than Spanish. Thus, they largely assimilated into the Portuguese-speaking culture.
There has long been a tradition of wanting to be recognized as distinct from other Latin American countries, which could perhaps explain why there hasn’t been a greater exchange between the two languages until very recently, now that Spanish is catching on among Brazilians as a second or third language. But in the parts of Brazil that border Spanish-speaking countries, one can encounter a pidgin language known as Portuñol (or Portunhol, depending on who you’re speaking to).
Enclaves of indigenous language speakers in Brazil. Via Instituto Socioambiental.
Brazil’s Immigrant Enclaves
Just because 99 percent of Brazilians speak Portuguese doesn’t mean they don’t have any other languages up their sleeves.
Brazil’s immigrant languages include Catalan, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, North Levantine Spoken Arabic, Turoyo and Vlax Romani, as well as more mainstream European languages like German, Italian, Polish and Ukrainian.
According to World Atlas, German and Italian are the most widely spoken of these languages, with immigrants from those countries concentrated in the southern and southeastern regions of Brazil. There, they even have their own dialects, known as Brazilian German, spoken by 3 million people, and Brazilian Venetian (or Talian), spoken by 1 million people.
German actually has an outsized influence in Brazil, given that it’s the second most-spoken first language in the country, despite the fact that the German community is smaller than the Spanish and Italian ones. There are actually a handful of Brazilian municipalities that recognize co-official languages, and the majority of them are one of two German dialects known as East Pomeranian and Hunsrückisch.
The Japanese-speaking community is also relatively sizable. Brazil is home to perhaps the largest concentration of Japanese descendants aside from Japan itself, with a large number located in São Paulo. Korean and Chinese speakers can also be found in Paraná, Mato Grosso do Sul and Amazonas.
Additionally, though not an immigrant language, Brazilian Sign Language, or LIBRAS, is government-mandated for use in public services like education and health care.
The Remote Influence Of Indigenous Languages
According to the 2010 Census, 37.4 percent of indigenous people aged 5 or older spoke an indigenous language at home. Among those who lived in indigenous territories, that percentage increased to 57.3.
The 2010 Census counted 274 indigenous languages and 305 different indigenous ethnicities, exceeding the initial estimates. However, the census takers also went above and beyond to collect data on Brazil’s most remote inhabitants, traveling by motorbike, donkey, canoe and plane to reach goldmines, slums, prisons, indigenous reserves and quilombola communities.
World Atlas reports that there are 536,000 indigenous-identifying people in Brazil, as well as 67 uncontacted tribes — the largest such number in the world.
Indigenous languages can be grouped into larger language families, the biggest of which are Tupi and Macro-Jê.
Of the major existing Amerindian languages, which include Guarani, Apalaí, Piraha, Terena, Kaingang, Arára, Canela, Carib, Buroro, Tucano, Tupiniquim, Caraja, Nheengatu and Nadeb, Nheengatu is one of the most widely spoken, with approximately 19,000 native speakers concentrated in the Rio Negro region.
The census counted 35,000 speakers of Tikuna, as well as 26,500 Guarani Kaiowá speakers, 22,000 Kaingang speakers, 13,300 Xavante speakers and 12,700 Yanomami speakers. Tikuna is thought to stand entirely alone, with no other known related languages.
With all of that said, a large portion of Brazil’s indigenous languages are endangered or on the verge of dying out. As much as a third of Brazil’s indigenous languages could die out by 2030.