Brazilian Portuguese is a must learn language. It brings together the beauty of a romance language with a South American twist. Anyone hoping to travel around Brazil will be rewarded with a far richer experience by learning Brazilian Portuguese.
But, how hard is Brazilian Portuguese to learn?
The truth is that much like other romance languages, for an English speaker, Brazilian Portuguese is quite easy.
- Vocabulary – There are lots of words with borrowed Latin roots making the vocabulary similar to French, Spanish and Italian. There are also tonnes of English loan words and cognates. Learn these first to give you some core vocabulary which can then be built upon. The word formation rules is pretty straight forward so you can learn upward of 20+ words a day.
- Grammar – The problem areas for English speakers with the grammar are going to be the use of gendered nouns and the complexity of verb conjugation rules for the different -ar, -er and -ir ending verbs along with all those pesky irregular patterns. You have to dedicate a lot of time to learning these verb conjugation tables. There are lots of variations for subject and tense. This isn’t difficult, rather it just takes a lot of time and practice.
- Speaking/Listening – Most of the consonant and vowel sounds you will encounter, you will have used in English before. The biggest challenge is probably the nasal sounds which appear far more often than they would in English. The sound also appears at the start of the word unlike in English. This nasal sound is like the -ng in the word wing. Practice makes perfect, just be please you are not taking on some truly tricky pron issue like tones.
- Writing/Reading – Brazilian Portuguese uses the standard 26 letter Latin alphabet upon which are added 6 pronunciation markers which alter the sound in some way. To be specific, these markers denote stress or a change of sound. But don’t worry to much, these rules can be learnt in an afternoon. On balance, the writing system compliments the spoken language well and won’t be a problem for native English speakers.
That was a brief answer to the question. For a more detailed deconstruction then please continue to read on!
How Hard Is Brazilian Portuguese to Learn Really?
Portuguese has roots in Latin with some basic borrowings from languages like German, French, Italian, Spanish and Arabic. However, when Portuguese settlers began arriving in South America in the 16th century, what we now know as Brazilian Portuguese began to be influenced by other languages.
First there were the languages of the native peoples of South America like Tupi and Guarani which gifted loanwords for different animals and plants. Then with the slaves being brought over from west Africa came more loanwords for food, religion and music. These make up a significant part of the vocabulary.
On top of that, in modern times English vocabulary for technology, business and sports have been used as loanwords. Some notable examples are below.
- Football – futebol
- Rugby – rugby
- Hedge fund – fundo hedge
- Slogan – slogan
- Slideshow – slideshow
- Airbag – airbag
- Blockbuster – blockbuster
- Monster truck – monster truck
So, if you are familiar with Spanish, Italian, French or English, then you are going to have a distinct advantage when picking up new vocabulary.
The keys problem areas you will encounter in Brazilian Portuguese are going to be remembering the genders of a noun with all the associated effect on adjective, demonstratives and articles, and learning all the different verb conjugations for the -ar, -er and -ir verbs.
- Word Order – Brazilian Portuguese has a subject-verb-object word order. This is of course similar to English and many other romance languages.
- Pronouns – There are basic singular and plural pronouns but unlike European Portuguese there are is only one form for you. Most romance languages have both an informal/polite version of you.
- Nouns – In Portuguese, nouns have either a masculine or feminine gender. The endings of the nouns are good indicators of the gender but be aware you will have to drill the gender into you head for each word. The gender will influence any articles, demonstratives and adjectives that are linked to the noun and give them the shared gender trait. This is a common feature of many romance languages and can take some getting used to if you haven’t seen this before.
- Adjectives – The adjective is usually placed after the noun and is altered by the gender of the noun and whether it is plural or not.
- Verbs – There are three types of verbs in Portuguese. They are those whose infinitive ends in -ar, -er and -ir. There are rules for how each of these verbs change depending on the subject. The quantity of rules are daunting at first, but with practice become second nature. Also be aware that there are some irregular verbs which change in a different way and have to be learnt separately. The verbs for be (ser and estar), and the verbs for have (ter), are irregular and you will have to take a detailed look to understand the different forms for each subject.
- Direct and Indirect Objects — There are specific rules for the placement of direct objects and indirect objects which can vary depending on whether the sentence is affirmative or negative.
- Questions – The simplest way to form a question is to have an upward inflection on a statement. Otherwise there are a whole load of specific question words to be used instead.
So on balance. It will take a lot of time to drill these verb conjugations into your head. Think of it as a daily exercise. The gender of the noun is a place where beginners make initial mistake. If you get the wrong gender you will probably still be understood but keep working at it.
Keep an eye on the placement of stress and also the nasal vowel sounds.
- Consonant Sounds – There are 21 consonant sounds in Brazilian Portuguese and at first glance from the spelling they may look tricky. For example the rolled r sound takes some practice. They also have a sound similar to the ll part in the word billion. The difference in Portuguese is that this sound can occur within, at the start or at the end of a word, whereas in English in only occurs in the middle. If you have familiarity with Spanish you are certainly going to have an advantage with a lot of these sounds.
- Vowel Sounds – There are believed to be around 8 basic vowel sounds which combine to make up 12 diphthongs. In Brazilian Portuguese you also have an important nasal sound, similar to the -ng sound in the word wing. This can be mapped on to the vowels to produce another 5 nasal vowel sounds and 6 nasal diphthongs. The sounds themselves are similar to sounds produced in English, its just that some sounds are shortened and some use more of the nasal sound. The key thing is to really practice this nasal sound as if you skip it the meaning of some words can change.
- Stress – The rules for stress are broadly regular with a few key exceptions. The stress is placed on the second to last syllable unless the word ends in -r or a nasal sound. Then the last syllable is stressed. Also, some of the vowels have accented marks above them, see the writing section below. In such a case you have to stress that vowel syllable with the accent.
For English speakers the Brazilian Portuguese alphabet is pretty straight forward. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, the same a-z as in English. You should be aware though that there are 6 important extra markers that can be added to words.
- Acute and Grave – á, à, é, í, ó, ú – These are used to show the letter is stressed and to make it a little more open. The downward stress marker on the à is used when the à is written alone and not part of another word or in the case of às which means the preposition to.
- Circumflex – â, ê, ô – It changes what would have been an open sounding vowel into one with a more closed mouth.
- Tilda – ã, õ – This marker has the effect of denoting the nasal sound which is very common in Brazilian Portuguese.
- Cedilha – ç – This marker, which looks a little like a hook, changes a c sound into an s sound.
- Umlat – ü – This double dot above the u is used to show the sound is a base vowel rather than a diphthong.
The letters k, w and y are rarely seen in Portuguese apart from in borrowed words from other languages. As i have said before, these 6 rules can be learnt in an afternoon, no worries.
Why Learn Brazilian Portuguese?
Everyone has their own reasons for learning a language. Here are 5 of my own to give you a little motivation.
- Of all the people worldwide speaking Portuguese, those speaking Brazilian Portuguese number around 89% of the total. This dialect therefore gives you far greater potential for conversation than say the Portuguese spoken in Portugal, Mozambique or Angola. There are some key differences so it is best to choose one at the start of your language journey and work on the specific idiosyncrasies to that dialect.
- That being said, there are over 260 million people speaking Portuguese worldwide, so you can travel to places as diverse as Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Portugal, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Macau, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe. Few other languages have broken the 100 million mark, so it is well worth your time.
- Most Brazilians do not speak another language. If you plan to travel the country you are going to enjoy the experience of interacting with the local people a great deal more if you are able to have some basic conversation. The country is vast and there are so many places to visit so don’t let your lack of experience with the language hold you back.
- It is a truly beautiful language. As part of the romance language group the sounds and pronunciation have a pleasant sounding edge when compared with languages like Russian or German. Brazilian Portuguese in particular has a more rounded, poetic and relaxed sound to it when compared with its European cousin.
- The culture of Brazil is incredibly rich. There is the love for football, the immersive music scene and the fantastic cuisine. A working knowledge of Brazilian Portuguese allows to learn more and to dive deeper. The local people love to talk about their culture.
Brazilian Portuguese Facts
Where Is Brazilian Portuguese Spoken?
Portuguese is spoken in a number of countries and territories including Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Portugal, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Macau, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe. Of the 260 million people who speak the language across these countries, around 220 million speak it as their native language.
In Brazil around 205 million people speak Portuguese. Because the language arrived as recently as the 16th century, there isn’t much regional variation of Brazilian Portuguese across the country. So, once you learn Brazilian Portuguese you will be well understood by most native speakers.
What is the Brazilian Portuguese Language History?
Portuguese arrived in Brazil around the 16th century. However, initially it didn’t take off. The colonialists and Jesuit missionaries used the local languages like Tupi and Guarani to interact with the native people of the continent side by side with Portuguese.
The colonialists did eventually put a stop to this. They banned the use of local language in 1759. Nevertheless a lot of Tupi and Guarani vocabulary have made it into Brazilian Portuguese. Also, around this time the slave trade growing with large numbers of West Africans being abducted and transported to South America. These slaves would interact with the local people in Brazil and a lot of loanwords for food and music were also incorporated into Brazilian Portuguese.
In the modern era, with the advance of English as the world’s international language, Brazilian Portuguese has taken on a great deal of new English words in the spheres of technology, business and sport.
Why Do Brazilians Speak Portuguese Instead of Spanish?
Christopher Columbus discover the New World in the late 15th century. Thus began a race for territory in South America, mainly between the Spanish and Portuguese empires. In 1494 the two countries signed the Treaty of Tordesillas which divided up the continent into east and west. The Portuguese took the east. This treaty and the subsequent growing claims for land in South America cemented the use of Portuguese in Brazil.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1530 that the Portuguese began to develop their claims in Brazil, initially, in the hope of finding precious metals. At first they were unsuccessful in their search and instead took to logging the local Brazil wood and planting sugar cane.This meant they would advance further inland.
In the late 17th century the precious metals rush did take off and the Portuguese continued further inland expanding their claims on lands and the borders of the colony. During the Napoleonic era the Portuguese king actually fled to Brazil to escape Napoleon. These events and the return of the King to Portugal a few years later eventually led to Brazilian independence. Spanish was of course very influential across the other countries in South America but because of the political history of Brazil, Portuguese maintained its positions as the dominant language.
Is Brazilian Portuguese Similar to Portugal Portuguese?
Brazilian Portuguese and Portugal Portuguese have both key similarities and key differences. They obviously have a common language ancestor in the form of pre-15th century Portuguese. This means that there is a lot of similarity in terms of vocabulary, grammar rules, pronunciation and writing.
However, in the 500 years or so since they diverged some key differences have come to light.
Brazilian Portuguese has incorporated loan words from local South American languages and West African languages, while Portuguese has adopted new words from French. In terms of grammar Brazilian Portuguese has developed a more informal use of pronouns and tends to use more relaxed verb tenses compared with Portugal Portuguese. There are key differences in terms of spelling rules for some words. Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation of vowels is more open and rounded while Portugal Portuguese is more closed and somewhat garbled.
Finally, Portugal Portuguese is more rigid and changes less over time while Brazilian Portuguese adapts in terms of vocabulary and grammar more readily over short spaces of time.