Pan American Games

Visiting Rio for the Olympics? Get your Portuguese ready

If English is the language of world commerce, Brazil hasn't gotten the memo — only a small fraction of its 200 million people have a basic proficiency. Fluency is also rare for other languages such as German, French and even Spanish, despite Brazil being bordered by seven Spanish-speaking countries.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of tourists expected to descend on Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics in a few weeks could frequently find themselves in a linguistic muddle.

Vanderclei Silva Santos, who sells caipirinhas, Brazil's national cocktail, says he struggles to communicate with foreign tourists who stop at his stand on Copacabana Beach, so he uses his fingers and...