How difficult is it to learn Portuguese as an English speaker?

Discussion in 'Português (Portuguese)' started by COF, Nov 9, 2008.

  1. COF Member

    English - Wales
    How difficult would it be to learn Portuguese as an English speaker? I know Spanish is generally considered to be one of the easier languages for an English speaker to learn (relatively speaking), would Portuguese come within that too? Is Portuguese grammatically any harder than Spanish? All I know is that European Portuguese is generally considered to be harder to pronounce than Spanish.

    I primarily want to learn European Portuguese, however, it seems to bulk of the material available is for Brazilian Portuguese - how much of a barrier would this be for conversing in Portugal? I know a lot of foreigners when learning to speak English learn from material that is based on American English, and watch American TV programmes, so they end up developing an American accent, pronounce their words in a more American way and end up using certain words that we wouldn't use over here in the UK - yet we still understand them fine, probably just as well as if they had have learnt from a course that uses British English. Could the same be said for using Brazilian Portuguese in Portugal?

    Also, are there any particular courses you would suggest? I actually have a copy of "Teach Yourself Brazilian Portuguese", which I brought a couple of years ago when I was toying with the idea but never got around to it - that was at the time I didn't realise there was a significant difference between the 2 dialects.

    Thanks for any advice.
  2. Ricardoreis Senior Member

    English (British)
    Personally I'm absolutely in love with the language, but I admit it is that love which has taken me through some tough times.

    Absolutely, in my opinion as a learner, Portuguese is considerably harder grammatically than Spanish. The confusing variety in placement of the clitic pronouns is one example, but another is the more extensive use of the subjunctive and a personal infinitive. There are definitely times when I wonder if I'll ever get the hang of it.

    As for the two varieties, I have found frustratingly significant differences sometimes in the two, in that many things seem odd, even in writing, to either side (though I would guess more to Brazilians hearing European Portuguese due to the the fact I imagine Europeans have more exposure to their Brazilian variant than vice versa, a bit like us in Britain and the US version). Many verbs and constructions make little or no sense. The lack of resource is particularly difficult for European Portuguese learners; and compared to English, Spanish or French, it is really hard to find clarification on some of the finer points of grammar and verbal regency - though there are some brilliant sites out there.

    It's definitely, in my view, a real challenge, but that's not enough to make it impossible. The Brazilian culture is vibrant and widespread, and even though there is far less European Portuguese across the world, there are sources if you look hard enough. The language is also simply beautiful, and although to the learner the flexibility in sentence structure and pronoun placement seems like an absolute headache, if you read enough poetry and literature you come to appreciate this flexibility and how the skilled wordsmith can use it to their advantage.

    I accept others might have different views, especially natives, or those with different access to resources than me, but as an internet learner, this is my feel for the language. I ended up giving up learning European Portuguese, in part because some structures are that much harder for a native English speaker, but largely because of the resource issue. It might be the original version but unless you're going to live in Portugal or learning from a Portuguese instructor it is very hard to find contemporary resources sufficient enough to approach fluency.

    None of these difficulties have however put me off and I endorse thoroughly learning Portuguese; it matters little whether those nightmare conjugations are much harder than English - the beauty of the language compensates and if you trust in your intelligence and perseverance I would completely recommend Portuguese, it grants access to an amazing history, culture and way of looking at the world :)
  3. Carfer

    Carfer Senior Member

    Paris, France
    Portuguese - Portugal
    Absolutely, although I'm afraid the other way around wouldn't be that true. So if your only practical option is brazilian portuguese due to lack of supporting resources or to any other reason, go for it. However frustrating the language differences might be, I believe they are just minor differences with no significant impact on your ability to read, speak or make yourself easily understood in PT portuguese. Anyway, you can always count on us in this forum. We will not solve all of your problems, but I think we can iron out a few and help to ease your path. Good luck.
  4. Denis555

    Denis555 Senior Member

    Cracóvia, Polônia
    Brazilian Portuguese
    In the last years I've been having a lot of contact with Portuguese from Portugal despite not living in Portugal.
    Specially because I have a good Portuguese friend, in turn, she knows more Portuguese people. Yesterday, I talked to a guy from Oporto (Portugal) and he had a hard Northern "accent", so to speak. And he said that even other Portuguese have sometimes problems getting around the Oporto accent. But of course we could talk feeling that we're using the same language.

    As to my friend and the other Portuguese that I have contact with, I have no problems AT ALL. Sometimes I use a "so-called" Brazilian expression with her and I ask her: do you this expression? And she always answers: claro! (=of course!)

    Besides that, I occasionally meet some Angolans (and a Mozambican once) and again I feel at home talking to them as well.
    So in other words whatever variant of Portuguese you choose, welcome to OUR world!
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2008
  5. COF Member

    English - Wales
    Thanks for the great replies so far. This is probably somewhat of a controversial debate but is European Portuguese considered more "proper" and "academic", than Brazilian Portuguese, or is it the same scenario as British English and American English where they are both official standards and none is considered more correct than the other, simply both have their fans.
  6. Ricardoreis Senior Member

    English (British)
    I guess I should clarify that the differences I have found mostly have not hindered communication at all - but I've been accused by either side of sounding 'archaic', or 'clumsy' or 'disrespectful' to the language! So I think this issue just depends on your goals. Do you want to sound natural, or just communicate? Personally, I'd like to learn both variants one day so that I can switch a little bit - but at the end of the day I'm always a foreigner and will have my own unique style too and I'm cool with that :)

    I do remember one time having a Brazilian looking at me confused when I said "desporto" meaning sport. They really didn't understand what I was saying and it took me a while to remember this was the Portuguese version. So whilst this is an exception to the rule, my experience is that communication issues can occur, at least for the non-native, and I guess a lot depends on the intelligence and literacy of the person you're speaking too. Though in that case I was really surprised that such a mainstream word caused confusion - it makes more sense when slang variants aren't understood!

    As for the last question, that's for natives to answer but I think it's kinda controversial, I've heard some pretty heated views on both sides of the Atlantic :)
  7. Denis555

    Denis555 Senior Member

    Cracóvia, Polônia
    Brazilian Portuguese
    To put it simple:
    They're EQUALLY CORRECT. Just like US and UK English. I've recently bought a Portuguese (from Portugal) grammar and there are a number of occasions where they talk about what Brazilian grammarians say or recommend.
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2008
  8. starwoodboy New Member

    I'm hoping to learn Portuguese (Brazil) for fun and as a possible addition to my resume for work. My focus would be verbal not writing. Does anyone have advice on where (how) I could start my studies? I'm not looking to be completely fluent - more than a visitor but less than an expert. Anyone have luck with Rossetta Stone? I hear a lot about them but...

    Thanks in advance for any help.
  9. GamblingCamel

    GamblingCamel Senior Member

    USA English CULTA + RUA
    As a start, I'd encourage you to read the posts every day here in the Portuguese forum. You'll hear how real PT speakers use their language.
    Also, it'd be great to have one more EN speaker on board (we're far outnumbered by Brazilians and Portuguese).
  10. starwoodboy New Member


    Happy to do so but I could really use a reference book/course/cd/whatever to get started. Anyone got a suggestion for a beginner?
  11. GamblingCamel

    GamblingCamel Senior Member

    USA English CULTA + RUA
    This is the WR PT Resources thread.
    Maybe it'll be helpful.
  12. englishmania

    englishmania Senior Member

    European Portuguese
    Good luck, COF. We'll be here to give you a hand.
  13. Istriano

    Istriano Senior Member

    Well, there are sites which consider Portuguese easier than Spanish which may be true.
    in Brazilian Portuguese you can live with 3-4 verbal forms
    (eu canto, você canta, a gente canta, vocês cantam, eles cantam; only 3 forms)
    eu/você/ele/a gente cantava; vocês/eles cantavam only 2 verbal forms)

    This is different than pensinsular Spanish with 6 verbal forms.

    Also, Spanish has a lot more irregular verbs, even many gerunds are irregular!
    Or simple verbs like: errar: yo yerro!!!

    So, no wonder some sites give Brazilian Portuguese 1, and Peninsular Spanish 2
    for difficulty degree for English speakers (1: the easiest; 5. the most difficult)

    This site gives 2 to Portuguese for English speakers, but some give it 1 for difficulty:

    As for the variant, learn the variant you're interested in; if you like Brazil better prefer the Brazilian dialect,
    if you like Portugal better, opt for the Continental dialect. Stay consistent and don't mix the two (or
    it would sound as ridiculous as ''way awesome, dude'' spoken with a British accent).
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2011
  14. Istriano

    Istriano Senior Member

    Rosetta Stone is not very good for Brazilian Portuguese because it gives you the formal written form only: Dê-me, Diga-me this sounds pretentious, even rude in a normal conversation.
    A friend of mine bought it and asked me how I liked it, but I persuaded her to send it back to Amazon, it's no use.

    These books are better:

    01. Modern Portuguese (Mário Perini) Yale University Press 2002
    02. Talking Brazilian (Mário Perini) Yale University Press 2003
    03. Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar: A Practical Guide (John Whitlam) Routledge (2010)
  15. GamblingCamel

    GamblingCamel Senior Member

    USA English CULTA + RUA
    Hi I. Actually, I like being exposed to both PT's on this forum. It gives me the impression that I'm participating linguistically in a broad historical adventure.
    I feel like a bilingual child, with a EuPt father and a BrPt mother, who learns early on how to vary my PT to fit different situations.

    I wouldn't find it strange to hear "Awesome, dude!" with a British accent. Nowadays, pop culture and the Internet is often one's "ancestral soil".
    There's a lot of language remixing going on, all over the world.
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2011
  16. Marcelo Bruno New Member


    Phonetically speaking, Brazilian Portuguese (BP) and European Portuguese (EP) sound quite different, especially due to the different pronunciation of unstressed vowels (and a few consonants) in the European variety. Sometimes it is claimed that those phonetic differences make it hard for BP speakers in particular to understand EP speakers, whereas EP speakers on the contrary don't seem to have any particular difficulty understanding Brazilians (resulting therefore in "asymmetric intelligibility"). The extent to which that claim is true is controversial. In most cases, educated BP speakers actually understand spoken EP reasonably well, but uneducated Brazilians, particularly native speakers of dialects like "caipira" might struggle with European speech. Certain varieties of BP such as "carioca" (spoken in and around the city of Rio de Janeiro) are phonetically closer to European Portuguese.

    Brazilian vocabulary also differs somewhat from its European counterpart due to lexical borrowings from non-European languages. Differences in vocabulary however are not really major as the percentage of non-European words that are exclusive to BP is actually quite small and confined mostly to some specific categories such as names of plant/animal species or a few food items. In ordinary day-to-day conversation, the most common differences in Brazilian and European Portuguese vocabulary are akin to those between British and American English, thus not a major impediment to mutual intelligibility.

    As far as grammar is concerned, the answer needs to be qualified. Standard written BP as used for example in national newspapers is roughly identical to standard EP. There are a few differences in spelling (most of which were eliminated in the 1990 orthographic reform) and minor differences in style and syntax (for example placement of clitic pronouns), but any neutral observer would recognize a standard written piece from a Brazilian paper as a sample of the same language as written EP. The spoken language in Brazil, however, irrespective of the speaker's social or educational status, does not coincide with the standard written language.

    "Educated colloquial BP", which I would define as the language spoken by the upper-middle class in the major cities (especially São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro), already differs somewhat from the written standard, though not that much. It would still be recognized by an European speaker as a sample of the same language as his/her own, albeit with a funny accent and sometimes unconventional grammar. The most striking feature of educated colloquial BP from the point of view of an EP speaker probably is the absence of 2nd-person singular verb forms (i.e., "tu" forms) and an associated confusion/inconsistency in the use of personal and possessive pronouns, e.g. "te/teu" used with "você", "ele"/"ela"/"você" many times, though not always replacing "(l)o" and "(l)a", etc.

    The so-called " Brazilian popular vernacular", spoken by everybody else in the country (lower-middle class, working classes, etc.) , differs considerably on the other hand from the standard language with major deviations in both syntax and morphology, showing a strong tendency in particular to regularization and simplification (along the lines for example of Afrikaans when compared to standard Dutch). Those deviations become increasingly more pronounced the less educated the speaker is, or the further you move inland, away from the coastal regions. The latter is related to the fact that Portuguese settlement and colonization were originally concentrated on the coast, whereas the countryside was only sparsely populated and experienced a longer period of time during which the Portuguese language brought by the European settlers co-existed with local Amerindian languages. I assume a Portuguese person (from Europe) could still understand, let's say, a Brazilian vernacular speaker from a rural area or an urban "favela", but he/she would identify that speech variety probably as a dialect at best, and not as the Portuguese language as he/she knows it.

    Generally speaking, Brazilians must learn the standard written language at school, as knowledge thereof is required for example in university and civil service entrance exams. For the upper-middle class, learning the standard, known in Brazil as "norma culta", is not a major hurdle as their own spoken variety is already closer (though not identical) thereto. For the working classes, however, it is considerably harder and, due to the extremely low quality of Brazilian public schools, most poor kids graduate from High School without adequate knowledge of the standard language. That is a major obstacle to social mobility in Brazil.

    A good way for a native English speaker to get acquainted with "educated colloquial BP" as spoken by the upper-middle class is probably to watch voiced-over American movies or TV shows in Brazil, as they are dubbed in that particular variety of Portuguese. If you are familiar with EP and/or standard Portuguese grammar, you'll immediately pick up the differences (apart from the accent of course), but you'll also notice, as I mentioned before, that they are still clearly speaking Portuguese and not some other language or unintelligible dialect. Getting acquainted with the popular vernacular is a bit trickier, because it would require that you actually lived in Brazil and interacted with people on the streets.
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2011
  17. Vós

    Vós Senior Member

    The same difficult to the spanish, maybe just a little hard, since that, spanish in U.S.A is in the other side of corner easily sometimes.
  18. Marcelo Bruno New Member

    Latin American Spanish and European Portuguese have 5 person forms in verb conjugations as 2nd person plural forms are no longer used in ordinary speech. Brazilian Portuguese on the other hand has 4, not 3 as you claim, since it is not true that "a gente canta" has completely replaced "nós cantamos" in the spoken language.

    The number of (truly) irregular verbs in Portuguese and Spanish on the other hand is actually about the same, as is the number of vowel-alternating verbs (which are not really irregular). The vowel alternation in the latter class manifests itself though in different ways. For example, in Portuguese, the infinitive "errar" as well as "erramos" or "errei" are pronounced with a closed "e", whereas in "eu erro", or "eles erram", or "que eu erre", the vowel changes to an open "e", which is pronounced differently. In Spanish, that same alternation is expressed by the insertion of a diphthong instead ("yo yerro").

    Portuguese verbs do have a few additional complications though when compared to spoken Spanish, such as the subjunctive future, the personal infinitive, and a larger number of irregular past participles (e.g. suspenso, eleito, entregue, preso, pago, pego, etc.).

    And, of course, as other posters explained before, Portuguese is phonetically much harder than Spanish as it has a much bigger number of vowel sounds whose alternation is, as indicated before, relevant to the morphology of the language (e.g. novo v. nova, povo v. povos, or meto v. mete, or errar v. erro).
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2011
  19. mglenadel

    mglenadel Senior Member

    Rio de Janeiro
    Brazilian Portuguese
    I'd agree with Vós if the original poster were American: Spanish right around the corner (and in some places, ALL around the corner, like Miami and LA). In Wales though Portuguese and Spanish are equally alien.
  20. Vós

    Vós Senior Member

    Em Português Brasileiro!

    Eu canto (x)
    Tu cantas (y)
    Você canta (w)
    Ele canta (w)
    Ela canta (w)
    Nós cantamos (z)
    A gente canta (w)
    Vós cantais (r)
    Eles cantam (k)

    x + y + z + r + w + k = seis declinações do mesmo verbo diferentes, sendo a declinação mais comum a do tipo w, que abrange, a segunda pessoa do singular, a terceira pessoa do singular, e a primeira pessoa do plural e a menos comum a declinação do tipo r e y, respectivamente.

    Last edited: Aug 12, 2011
  21. Marcelo Bruno New Member

    BTW, going back to Istriano's comment, both Portuguese and Spanish incidentally have fewer irregular verbs than French or Italian, which IMHO are harder to learn. French pronunciation and spelling is also much more difficult.
  22. Ariel Knightly

    Ariel Knightly Senior Member

    Rio de Janeiro
    Brazilian Portuguese
    Well, I'm a member of the carioca upper-middle class and I often have a hard time understanding European oral speech. Mind you, it's not so hard to communicate with well-educated people, but understanding "the mob" is another animal altogether. So in order to complete your "educated BP speakers actually understand spoken EP reasonably well" I feel I should add "when those EP speakers are also well-educated".

    Marcelo, your English is as amazing as the content of your text. Brilliant! :)
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2011
  23. Vanda

    Vanda Moderesa de Beagá

    Belo Horizonte, BRASIL
    Português/ Brasil
    Só lembrando que o tópico é de 2006. ;)
  24. Vós

    Vós Senior Member

    Did I say, something about italian or french?
  25. William Stein Senior Member

    San Jose, Costa Rica
    American English
    I wouldn't say Spanish is easy. One common factor of all the people who say Spanish is easy is that they don't speak it well and they've never read a single Spanish novel. They think "speaking Spanish' means saying "buenos días" and "Señor" so they've mastered the language ;-). In fact, the main difficulty in Spanish is similar to that of Portuguese: there are huge differences from country to country, sometimes to the point of being mutually incomprehensible (which is generally the difference between 2 languages as opposed to 2 dialects).
    Anyway, you can do it, it's just a matter of devotion and persistence and a hell of lot of work, but if you like it., it's like learning how to play chess (which also requires a hell of lot of work but is fun if you're perverse enough to enjoy it, as I do).
    As far as methods go, Living Language: Brazilian Portuguese is generally pretty good, but there are quite a few typos.
  26. Vós

    Vós Senior Member

    The spreech is really harder than many guys think.

    In my vision when you learn portuguese, spanish is easier, because portuguese is a variation of spanish, which, turned out another language.

    In the written is too easy, if you speak portuguese...
  27. William Stein Senior Member

    San Jose, Costa Rica
    American English
    It depends on what you're reading. If it's a Spanish scientific text, it would be very easy for you to understand, but if you read a Mexican or South American novel it will be full of hundreds of modismos and words of native origin that you wouldn't know from Portuguese. The same thing is true of a Spanish-speaker who reads Jorge Amado, for example.

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