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

How To Learn Portuguese

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.

Learn Portuguese online at LingQ

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?

How To Learn Portuguese

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

How To Learn Portuguese

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.

15 comments on “How To Learn Portuguese

Patrick O'Rourke

I’ve even trying to learn portuguese for 2 years and 10 months and it’s the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve been to Brasil 12 times now and my girlfriend lives there. I can only say a few things like you mentioned. Hello good bye please and thank you. I can order water and say a few other things. My girlfriend only peaks English with me because I can’t speak Portuguese and it’s very frustrating. We were never taught much English grammar terms in school so I don’t understand much like “infinitive, subjunctive, preposition, articles” or any of that which makes it difficult when reading rules in books. What can I do? The more I try the more confusion it seems to create. Thanks! Pat

    @Steve: Great article! Portuguese is a beautiful language. I recently moved to Lisbon and I’m trying to switch from the Brazilian form that I learned to the European form that I want to speak now.

    Re: this sentence:

    **They use ‘tu’ the singular form in Portugal; in Brazil they mostly only use the “Voce”, which is the third person for ‘you’.**

    Você is not the third person for you. You is always the second person. Você is a formal form of the second person singular in Portugal but is the informal form of the second person singular in Brazil. It takes the same conjugation as the third person singular (ele/ela – he/she), but it is not the third person itself.

    @Patrick: It’s true that in your native language, you don’t need to learn or know grammar. But it’s obviously very helpful when learning foreign languages. Maybe you should become more familiar with English grammar first and then apply that knowledge to Portuguese. In answer to your specific terms:

    infinitive: the full form of the verb, unconjugated. So an English example of an infinitive is ‘to speak’. The Portuguese equivalent is ‘falar’. Within the verb falar, there are many other forms, e.g. ‘eu falo’ is ‘I speak’. But falar is the infinitive form.

    subjunctive: a verb tense especially prevalent in the Romance languages such as Portuguese and one that is related to uncertainty or doubt. We don’t really have it in English (although it does exist in some minor forms such as ‘I recommend that he go there’ (i.e. not ‘goes’, as it usually is after he). In Portuguese the various subjunctive forms can follow trigger words like ‘que’ and ‘se’. At the level you’re at, the subjunctive is not important because you will be understood without it, but learning a set phrase or two with the subjunctive can be helpful, e.g. to say ‘if you want’ in Portuguese uses the subjunctive: ‘se você quiser’, rather than the indicative (standard) ‘se você quer’.

    prepositions: my non-academic definition is ‘little words’. Things like on, in, by, under, etc. They are used to form phrases and give context (often spatial, e.g. ‘on the fridge’ and ‘in the fridge’ mean different things).

    articles: there are two forms in English: the definite article (the) and the indefinite article (a, an). The Portuguese equivalents are o/a (and plurals os/as) for the definite article and um/uma for the indefinite article. The definite article is when there is only one of something (.e.g ‘the sun’, not ‘a sun’) or when it’s very clear that you’re talking about a specific unit. So if you have a dog, you would say, “I’m going to walk the dog,” because it’s obvious that you can only be referring to the specific dog that is your pet. But in another context you might say, ‘I’m going to buy a dog,’ because it’s not clear exactly which dog you’re talking about.

    Boa sorte!

      Patrick O'Rourke

      Thanks a lot Nick, I’m still working on it but haven’t had a conversation yet which is frustrating after 3 years and 8 months of studying and 13 trips to Brasil. Understanding spoken Portugues for me is like trying to wash a car as it drives by on the freeway, way too fast! I found a friend that doesn’t speak English to practice with every day so I hope that helps. I’m still having to translate because I can’t understand much written or spoken. My brain is stuck on English and wont switch to Portuguese I think. My teacher says my pronunciation is perfect so tjete is something positive. Thanks for the help! Pat

    Name *cm

    Hi Pat! Sorry your having troubles. I’m learning Portuguese too. I haven’t been to Brazil yet, but I joined a Portuguese speaking church in my hometown. I was very lucky to find it. I have noticed though that language habits form very quickly with different people…one of my friends speaks Portuguese to me and I have the bad habit of answering her in English. The easiest people to talk to are the ones that don’t speak any English. Then I have to use Portuguese. But I totally understand the silent frustration having a native Portuguese speaker talking to you in English and you are too tongue tied to say something in Portuguese and your hoping and praying they will change to Portuguese! As far as grammer goes, I barely know what an adjective is! I read alot of Portuguese everyday and somehow it helps me understand spoken Portuguese better. I have spent 1-2 hours everyday for the last 400 days watching Portuguese videos on youtube. I watch the news, documentaries etc with the Portuguese closed captions on. Its helped tremendously. The better I understand what people say, the better I can speak. Language learning has the lowest lows and the highest highs. This is the first foreign language I’ve tried to learn. Seasoned veterans like Steve have great advice. He doesn’t panic even when he temporarily forgets an entire language!

      Patrick O'Rourke

      Thanks! I have found a few friends that help me and speak Portugues with me but I haven’t been able to have a conversation yet after studying 3 years and 8 months and 13 trips to Brasil so it’s frustrating. They speak too fast for me to make out what they are saying and to be able to translate it because I can’t understand enough yet to know what is happening.

      Patrick O'Rourke

      Hello! I am here in Brasil for the 14th time and still can’t converse or understand what people are saying. It’s frustrating after studying for 4 years and 3 months. The woman I’m visiting can’t speak English but she is learning it faster than I’m learning Portuguese. I have to use a translator. I will keep trying though. I ordered food and water. Um coxinha e duas águas. Any ideas?

    Name *Felipe

    The problem is that your girlfriend speak in English with you. You need get your brain and dive it on Portuguese Language. Forget grammar, just speak.

      Patrick O'Rourke

      Exactly! She accidentally sent me a message in Portugues that was meant for another guy so it takes care of that problem. I have a nice Brasilian lady that speaks Portugues with me every day now. Thanks


For the ones who wonder if they should focus on Brazilian or European Portuguese, I would recommend the Brazilian for some reasons: 1 – around 200 million people speaking (higher chances of you having to talk to a brazilian than to a portuguese person); 2 – when it comes to international content on internet, sometimes you find the translation to brazilian portuguese and not to Portugal´s portuguese (maybe because of the size of the population); 3 – I don´t know if I´m right, but brazilian portuguese seems a little more flexible as we have influences of other languages in our modern vocabulary.

Name *Simon

I am an English Speaker planning to move into a Portuguese speaking country, with unfortunately no clue on the Portuguese language. Kindly help with hints on how best I can handle the language issue when I set foot in that country.

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