Why South Florida Workers Are Learning Portuguese

Oct 21, 2013

Miami Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. All three counties beat the national average when it comes to the number of homes that have foreign language speakers.

We already know that local polling places offer ballots in English, Spanish, Creole. And that business is conducted in those three languages.

Alexandra Estrada (right) is studying Portuguese at the Cultural Center for Language Studies in Miami. Estrada encounters many Brazilian customers in her job with the cruise industry. Her teacher is Valmira Hayes.
Credit Karen Rundlet

But in recent years, it’s Portuguese that has established itself as a new language of commerce.

Carolina Pinho is Brazilian. She moved to South Florida more than 20 years ago.

“You know, I’m very proud," said Pinho. "Maybe 10 years ago, very few people would be interested in learning Portuguese. It wasn’t (and) it still isn’t like an international language, but in South Florida it is.”

Pinho runs CCLS, a school that offers Portuguese language classes. She said enrollment in Portuguese classes is up – partly because of the World Cup and the Olympics.

Her corporate clients include FedEx, Visa, and Univision.

“Brazil is preparing for those games and a lot of people want to do business, sell something – infrastructure, equipment, consulting services," she said.

Alexandra Estrada is one of Pinho’s students. She works in the cruise industry.

"Because I have many people coming from Brazil, it’s very difficult for me to communicate with them in English. Sometimes they don’t know English or they feel more comfortable talking in Portuguese,” Estrada said.

Not only do locals want to sell their services in Brazil, locals want to sell their products to Brazilians coming to South Florida to buy, at retail malls like Sawgrass Mills.

Despite the fact that Brazil’s economy has cooled a bit, it’s still customary for vacationing Brazilians to visit Sawgrass, fill suitcases with purchases and head right to the airport.

In fact, the largest Brazilian community in the tri-county area lives between Deerfield and Pompano Beach.

But two years ago, Brazilians scooped up Miami condos in record numbers. The Brazilian currency (real) was particularly strong and prices were attractive. Back home, Brazilians would have to pay three times the price for a condo in Sao Paolo.

More towers are being built with them in mind today.

Elizabeth Cooper Garcia is a realtor who uses some of the Portuguese she picked up after college with her Brazilian clients.

"Given the amount of Brazilians that are coming to South Florida, Portuguese is going to be essential," she said.

And of course, Garcia explained that just one condo purchase leads to more shopping. “The property gets furnished. You know. So they have to go to a furniture store. They need to buy linens and pots, pans if they’re going to be using the place."

Ultimately, students of Portuguese want to learn the language for one of three reasons.

Loving the language. Loving a Brazilian. Or loving money.

And in a local economy that’s still struggling, many businesses are learning to say hello to good customers.