America is often blamed for the deterioration of the English language. Such a claim is never levelled at its Latin American neighbours Brazil, which has only improved its mother tongue, Portuguese.
First, there is how it sounds. Brazil gave the world bossa nova, a lilting, sensual musical style that could only have been invented in a language as correspondingly lilting and sensual. The consonants are all softened, to sound like waves crashing on the beach; the intonation is syncopated and seductive. Brazilian Portuguese has been described as sounding like "Sean Connery speaking Italian"; this is true, but only when he is wearing swimming trunks.
Brazilian culture reshaped Portuguese in its own image, introducing an informality, warmth and inclusiveness that I am not aware exists in any other major language. Everyone is known by their first names, even the president. Actually, he is known by his nickname, Lula. As are many other Brazilians, like Pelé, Robinho and Kaká, too. Speaking Portuguese makes you feel instantly among friends.
Brazil is one of the world's great melting pots, consisting mainly of Europeans, Africans and indigenous Indians, as well as a fair amount of Japanese. Brazilian Portuguese isn't fussy about taking words from other languages and making them its own. It's a very international, non-judgemental tongue. Yet no attempt is made to pronounce foreign words correctly; the local rules for softening consonants always applies. So "rush hour" is hora do rush, pronounced "hush", which I think is particularly appropriate, and the word for billboard is "outdoor", pronounced ouch-door.
At first Portuguese seems difficult, but this is almost entirely because of the unexpected pronunciation and intonation. Yet there are very clear rules and once these are mastered the language is no harder to learn than Spanish or French. True, the grammar and spelling is more complicated than French or Spanish (newspapers have columns on grammar every week, and new spelling rules were announced last year), but most people make lots of mistakes and it doesn't matter. What I loved about learning Brazilian Portuguese is that the spoken language is more fundamental than the written language, partly since a large number of people are effectively illiterate, and, as such, is tailored to oral communication and old-fashioned story-telling. (If something is written down, this does not make it more true or reliable, as we tend to think in Europe). What is true and what is not true is very fluid.
But my favourite aspect of Brazilian Portuguese, and an important breakthrough in becoming fluent, was to grasp the fundamental role of the suffixes -inho, and -ão, meaning 'little' and 'big'. Never knowingly underuse one of these suffixes. The diminutive -inho can also indicate love, intimacy, beauty, irrelevance and affection and the augmentative -ão can indicate fear, ugliness or wonder. A true Brazilian will find it difficult to say a sentence without incorporating an -inho or an -ão, which means that conversations tend to be full of passion and exaggeration, humour and colour. The country is a land of extremes in so many ways (in terms of geography and wealth, for instance) — and the language encourages its inhabitants to talk in extremes.
Rather than requiring an extensive vocabulary, Brazilian Portuguese is richly idiomatic and also versatile because of the creativity it allows. After all, this is the language whose greatest contribution to international vernacular is the exclamation: "goooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaal."
Alex Bellos was the Guardian's Rio correspondent from 1998-2003. He is the author of Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life