How To Learn Portuguese
Portuguese is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world with 250 million speakers on three continents. I learned Portuguese after having already learned Spanish. In this post I discuss my experience with Portuguese.
But first, where is the language spoken mostly?
Portuguese in Brazil
It is possible that some people don’t know that Brazilians speak Portuguese. There is no Brazilian language. Brazilians speak Portuguese and refer to their language as Portuguese. Most of the words are the same as the Portuguese spoken in Portugal, but there are a few differences. Some of the phrase patterns are different, and of course the pronunciation can vary quite a bit from European Portuguese. However, these versions are essentially 100% mutually intelligible.
Portuguese is also an official language of six African countries. There are about 15 million native speakers and quite a few more speakers of Portuguese as a second language there.
If you want to go to Brazil or some other Portuguese speaking country, and have just enough of the language to say hello and be friendly with people, then you may want to buy a phrasebook and try to memorize three, four or five expressions. If you are lucky you will be able to use these phrases while you are there, but you won’t understand much of what people say. You will probably even have trouble remembering these phrases when you want to use them.
I had this experience when I went to Vietnam. Before going to the country I tried to learn some key phrases. After six or seven days in Vietnam, all I could say was thank you, please and goodbye. Just learning a few phrases really doesn’t do much for me. However, if you really want to get into the language, for a visit to, say Brazil, which I highly recommend, there are 200 million people there. A great place to visit, full of friendly people. So why not try to really learn the language.
Free Portuguese Grammar Guide
I never like to put too much emphasis on learning grammar, but it can be useful to have an overview, even if you can’t understand or remember much of what you see there. So take a peek at LingQ’s free Portuguese Grammar guide. It’s simple, easy-to-read, and has a lot of information that can help you.
It’s a resource that you can go back to again and again because you can’t absorb all the grammar rules and all the endings the first time, not even the second time. You go back and you go back and every time you pick up a little more.
Generally speaking, there are a number of things that Portuguese does differently from Spanish. For example, if you’re familiar with Romance languages, typically the auxiliary verb to indicate the past tense, is “avoir” in French, “haber” in Spanish, or “avere” in Italian, but in Portuguese they use “tener” as the auxiliary verb. You have to get used to that, and if you are coming from another Romance language getting used to that can be difficult.
There are some other differences. For example, ‘to think’ is not just “pensar” as in Spanish, Italian and French, it’s also “achar”. Then they have very handy words like “ficar” which is ‘to be’, or ‘to get’, “ficar” or the equivalent is a word that doesn’t exist in other Western European Romance languages. It has a lot of different meanings that you have to get used to in context.
These are just some of the things to discover when learning Portuguese that make it a very interesting language. Portuguese has interesting uses of the infinitive that we don’t find in other Romance languages; a personal infinitive and a future subjunctive that resemble the infinitive. However, you can’t learn the grammar from the get-go. Therefore, I would still recommend that you expose yourself to the language. There is a lot of beginner material for Portuguese on LingQ.
Which Portuguese Should You Learn?
Some people wonder before they start studying Portuguese, should I learn the Portuguese from Portugal or the Portuguese from Brazil?
My own experience is that when you start out it doesn’t really matter. Yes, the two types of Portuguese pronunciation are quite different. Probably the pronunciation in Brazil is easier to understand because the Brazilians pronounce the vowels more clearly while the Portuguese sometimes chew certain vowels, or don’t pronounce them clearly. So there are some differences in terms of how the ‘r’ is pronounced. You’ll discover, in fact, that the ‘r’ is sometimes a rolled ‘r’ and sometimes a guttural ‘r’ and it varies depending on where you are within each country.
While these differences exist, you may not notice them at first. I prefer to acquire words when I start into a language, and don’t worry about these kinds of details, even if I notice them, which is often not the case. I prefer to listen and read to acquire words. When I start out, I’m motivated to work my way through whatever content I’m listening to and reading regardless of pronunciation.
If you’re a Spanish speaker, whether a native speaker or speaking Spanish as a second language as is my case, you have to change your habits. Often that is difficult to do. We’re kind of reluctant to let go of the comfort of a language we know, say Spanish. Spanish and Portuguese are so similar that we may think we can just pick up a few Portuguese phrases and fake it. This is not going to do it, in my experience anyway.
When I first started learning Portuguese, I wasted a lot of time trying to just pick up the few ways in which Portuguese differed from Spanish. Then I went to Portugal and hoped that I would be able to wing it. Even though I had put 2-3 months into Portuguese, I wasn’t able to speak at all, and didn’t understand what people were saying very well. This was before we had Portuguese at LingQ.
Always Learn From Interesting Content
So I decided to really engage with the language, and especially engage with interesting content. I had a LingQ tutor in Brazil, Ana Paula, from Belo Horizonte, who created a lot of content about her life in Brazil, just spontaneous monologues that were transcribed after the fact. We also got permission to use podcasts from Café Brasil at LingQ, and I also found some wonderful podcasts from Portugal. I was mixing both versions of Portuguese but the main thing was listening to and reading interesting content in the language, just letting the language penetrate my brain, saving words and phrases on LingQ as I went along.
Listening to both versions of the language I just got used to the differences while acquiring vast amounts of vocabulary. They use ‘tu’ the singular form of “you” in Portugal; in Brazil they mostly only use the “você”, which is the third person, for ‘you’. There are a lot of things like that that you just get used to without realizing it, as you gradually become more familiar with the language.
I think a person should do a lot of listening and reading in both forms of the language. If you pick up a Portuguese book written by Paulo Coelho, the famous Brazilian author, it’s not obvious most of the time which form of the language it is written in. The words are mostly the same. So I would learn from both forms of the language and then at some point decide which accent you want to focus on.
Portuguese is very similar to Spanish, so either one is a great gateway to the world of Romance languages.
What Motivates You to Learn Portuguese?
The main tip I have on learning a language is, first of all, get motivated. Every person has to discover the language on their own and stay with it until they achieve what they want to achieve. Work on getting the language into you, lots of listening and reading.
If you become familiar with Portuguese through listening and reading, and acquire lots of words, you will find that speaking comes along pretty quickly. With a strong base in the language you are now ready to hook up with the very sociable Brazilians, or the somewhat more reserved but polite and gentle Portuguese. As you make friends and find that you understand more and more, your motivation to improve will only grow. Even if you are only moderately motivated at first, early success in Portuguese will pull you along to fluency.