Learning Brazilian Portuguese if you already speak Spanish

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Learning Brazilian Portuguese if you already speak Spanish

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

I had the chance to attend one of the world's most famous parties; Brazil's Carnival. While most visitors would check it out in Rio, which I have lived in, my experience of the Carnival in Olinda in the Northeast was incredible!

Some ‘gringos' (note: in Brazil that word is used affectionately, not derogatively, and describes all foreigners, even Argentines! You'll almost never hear “estrangeiro” in social situations even though that is the “correct” term) might be passing through Brazil briefly, and others may already be living there for a long time. After many years on the road, Brazilians remain my favourite people on the planet, so I'd understand if you end up staying in Brazil much longer than you originally planned 🙂

While some of you might be learning Portuguese as your first foreign language, quite a lot of you might have already learned Spanish before. So rather than dismissively (and inaccurately) say “they're almost the same, you'll be fine,” I'd like to actually write about how to leverage and transition your Spanish towards (Brazilian) Portuguese.

Starting point – European or Latin American Spanish?

I'm presuming here that you already have a fluent level of Spanish. The only thing is, which Spanish you are starting from will influence how easy it is. American variants such as Argentine or Colombian Spanish have several features in common with Brazilian Portuguese that European Spanish does not.

This includes the second person plural (you guys / Y'all) simply adopting the same conjugation as the third person (They). Luckily unlearning this from Peninsular Spanish (vosotros) is not hard as you would already be used to “ustedes” in formal studies. In both non-European Spanish and in Brazilian Portuguese, you will always use the ustedes / vocês conjugation (ustedes saben / vocês sabem) when addressing more than one person, even in the most informal of situations.

Even the pronunciation would be more similar away from Spain. The distinctive Spanish “c” is pronounced as “s” before e & i (rather than like “th”) all across South America, and South Americans general speak slower and opening their mouth wider to pronounce words clearer (depending of course on where you are and who you talk to) compared to Spaniards.

But what really makes a difference in South American Spanish compared to European Spanish as a starting point to Portuguese is the extra vocabulary. This is one of the many reasons I don't like the “they're the same” dismissal – it's too simplified! It really depends on precisely where you are coming from. Uruguayan Spanish is way more similar to southern Brazilian Portuguese compared to Mexican Spanish, and definitely compared to Spanish from Sevilla, for example.

Learning Portuguese actually helped me with later living in Spanish speaking South American countries, thanks to the extra “Spanish” vocabulary I had acquired and never seen in Spain, such as Bacán/Bacano (Sp) –> Bacana (Pt) meaning cool/awesome.

South Americans are also much more likely to create a Spanish version of English loan words, so you get computador(a) in L.A. Spanish & computador in Portuguese (but ordenador in Spain), and “mouse” in all of South America (for computers), but “ratón” in Spain.

Very important pronunciation differences

Now, even when you are dealing with words that are exactly the same or very similar in Spanish and Portuguese, pronouncing them the Spanish way is a mistake. Crucial Portuguese pronunciation traits that really distinguish the language include:

  • Nasalising every n/m you see at the end of syllables (not between vowels). The easiest way to get used to this at first is to imagine it was written as “ng” in English. So “bem” (well) would be pronounced as [beng] and “parabéns” (congratulations, and commonly “happy birthday”) as [pa-ra-beng-s].
  • One especially difficult sound in Portuguese (and also very frequent) is -ão at the end of words. This requires practice – it's like saying the English “ow” but entirely through your nose. Similarly, the first two letters of õe(s) are like a nasalised version of “oy”
  • ‘s' has a ‘z' sound except at the start of words and when doubled.
  • ‘d' and ‘t' turn to ‘j' and ‘ch' sounds before e/i (This doesn't happen in the Northeast and some other dialects, which act more like Spanish would). So the famous Brazilian word saudades is pronounced [Sa-oo-DA-jeez].
  • Unstressed “o” at the end of a word (and sometimes in other syllables, depending on the dialect) is pronounced as “u” is [oo in English]. So como is [KO-moo]
  • Unstressed “e” at the end of a word is pronounced as “i” [ee in English], and in many dialects it isn't pronounced at all. So “pode” could be [PO-jee] or just [POJ]
  • G before i/e & J are pronounced as in French (not aspirated like in Spanish). So “gente” is [zhENG-chee], with “zh” like the ‘s' sound in pleasure.
  • l‘ is pronounced as a ‘oo' at the end of syllables (when not between vowels within a word). So Brasil is [Bra-ZEE-oo], caldo is [KA-oo-doo].
  • Replace Spanish's trilled “r” with an “h” sound. The individually rolled ‘r' is pronounced as in Spanish (when between vowels, like in caro), but the trilled more continuous rolling ‘r' in Spanish must be replaced with something like an English ‘h' (sometimes more forced in some dialects). This occurs at the start of words, where two r's are in succession and (unlike in Spanish, which doesn't trill it) at the end of words (depending on the dialect). So “Rio” is actually [HEE-oo], “morro” is actually [MO-hoo], comprar ends in a [h] sound, which we don't do in English. Interestingly enough, I noticed that in parts of São Paulo state, this syllable ending [r] sound actually sounded way more like the English ‘r'!
  • Rio has a special accent with extra unique features that I wrote about in great detail here. This would be slightly more similar to the European Portuguese accent thanks to a few features.
  • Distinguishing between ô and ó can be tricky and requires a lot of practice.
  • Loan words that end in a consonant (other than ‘r', ‘s', or ‘m') must be pronounced phonetically as written and as if an ‘e' was added after that consonant. This “invisible vowel” adds another syllable to the word. This can get very confusing when it's a word you “should” know. So Internet is actually pronounced [eeng-teH-NE-chee] and “suite” (as in en-suite bathroom, where the ‘e' is silent in French and English) is pronounced [swEE-chee], and amusingly “hip hop” is [HEE-pee HO-pee] and “rock” is pronounced exactly like the sport hockey!

When reading a quick summary of Portuguese, you'll see that the basic rules of how consonants and vowels are pronounced are pretty much the same as in Spanish, but I hope this list shows you how more versatile Portuguese really is. Recognising this will bring you so much further in being able to understand the language and pronounce it correctly yourself!

Different vocabulary

Glancing at Portuguese text, especially formal text will make you feel like it's precisely the same as Spanish, just with some ã/õ thrown in for good measure. Perhaps 95 or 99% of the words are the same, and that's great and all, but the 1-5% that's different tends to be the most common words that end up taking up much more than 1% of conversations!

Here are some examples:

  • Cadê: This is how Brazilians are more likely to say “Where is..” than they would “Onde está”. It includes the verb, so “Cadê você” – Where are you?
  • Rua (not “calle” – reminds me more of the French rue)
  • Legal: While it also means what it looks like it does, the most common usage is “cool”
  • Ó! This one is pretty short and you'll hear it a lot in Brazil. It's a shortened down version of “olha” (look). As well as being used to get people's attention to see something, it's usually just added to simple indications like “aqui-ó”.

As well as different words there is a very long list of false friends that you should be aware of.

Even occasional basic words are nothing alike; “Rojo” (red) in Spanish is “Vermelho” in Portuguese, “negro” (black) in Spanish is “preto” in Portuguese, and apart from sábado and domingo, the days of the week in Portuguese are number ordered (Monday = segunda-feira, up to Friday = sexta-feira).

Different writing and word formation

You can usually equate some words directly between Spanish and Portuguese, but the writing changes for the style of the individual language. While Portuguese does have words ending in -ano/-am, quite a lot of the -ano/-an words in Spanish have their equivalents in Portuguese as -ão, which makes them hard to recognise at first. So you have mão (mano – hand), pão (pan – bread) etc.

The same -ão ending is used in comparing Spanish -ión. Many of the -(t)ion words in English work in both Spanish and Portuguese in this way, like nação, pressão, solução…

Por (for) is the same in both Spanish & Portuguese, especially with its use compared to para, but if “the” follows it in Spanish, you just add el or la. In Portuguese the word itself changes entirely. “Por el” –> Pelo, “Por la” –> Pela (never por a / por o, as it would be in Portuguese word-for-word).

The use of accents is also different. As in Spanish, most of the time the second-last syllable is stressed and in every other situation, apart from when the word ends in a vowel, you have to write the accent to indicate this. It's similar in Portuguese, but how you define “syllable” changes. In Spanish it's the group of vowels before the last consonant, but in Portuguese it's simply the second-last vowel itself.

To show you what I mean, an example I like to use is the translation of Pharmacy (drug store). In Spanish it's farmacia. The stress is on the underlined a and no accent is needed. In Portuguese, the word sounds similar but it must be written as farmácia. If you don't, then i gets the accent. This means that conditional verbs don't need accents: comeria, faria etc. while they do in Spanish (comería, haría).

Also ‘i' and ‘u' automatically get accented at the end of the word, so assisti in Portuguese, but you'd need to indicate it in Spanish asistí. And rather than an ending “ó”, as in Spanish, Portuguese would have an unaccented “ou”. Ele falou…

When using people's names, it's common to add “the” before it, which is not translated in English. So “O Benny”, “A Carol”, etc.

Conjugation: Easier and harder

Portuguese complicates conjugation somewhat by adding an entirely new tense. The future subjunctive, where Spanish just uses the standard (present) subjunctive, which Portuguese also has. So “Cuando seas” would be “Quando (você) for” (not sejas).

The good news though, is that Portuguese simplifies a few other things with regards conjugation. For example, you only really need to know three person-conjugations, and not six as in European Spanish (or five/six in other Spanish [where the sixth would be “vos”]).

So it's not I, you, he/she/it, we, you (pl), them, it's just I, you/he/she/it, we, you (pl)/them. This is simplified even further by the fact that “we” usually relies on a gente and not “nós”. This is similar to the French “on” in terms of replacing “nous”. Brazilians are way more likely to use it, and it's the same conjugation as você/ele – meaning you can get by fine knowing just 3 conjugations!

“A gente sabe” = “We know”

The vowel changes that occur in Spanish and make conjugation that extra bit complicated, are much less frequent in Portuguese. In Spanish you have contar –> cuento, cuentas… but in Portuguese, it's simply conto, conta… You still have some exceptions that need to be learned but the number is much less than in Spanish. Many nouns with a “ue” in Spanish have an “o” in Portuguese. Similarly for “ie” and “i”.

Meeting Brazilians will make the differences become natural

In a post like this, I can only ever give a superficial list of some important differences. For a more in-depth look at technical differences between Spanish and Portuguese, see this Wikipedia entry.

You really need to get busy speaking Portuguese if you are to learn how to communicate in the language!

There are many ways to make sure you don't mix up your Spanish and Portuguese. Constantly practising both is the best way. Can't travel to Brazil yet? There are so many ways that I keep writing about how that isn't a valid excuse. In fact I learned my Portuguese before ever even going to Brazil. Portuguese has an extra boost to help non-travellers learn it:


Facebook was late catching on in Brazil, so Google-run Orkut was the most active network among Brazilians until it closed in 2014.

Using social networking sites like Couchsurfing are great for learning any language, but with Orkut you could connect with Brazilian communities all over the world. After my first trip to Brazil, when I was dying of saudades and living in Barcelona, I simply logged into Orkut and searched for the Barcelona “comunidade”, and saw all the people there. I messaged a few directly to meet up with and even saw a discussion about getting together to watch a world cup match. Over 30 Brazilians showed up (I was the only non-Brazilian, but welcomed as the irlandês mais brasileiro do mundo).

I have continued to do this in other countries – and it's not just limited to major cities: I even met Brazilians in my hometown in Ireland through Orkut!!

Previously with Orkut, and now with Facebook, finding and hanging out with Brazilians is easy. Brazilians are way more friendly than locals in countries they are living in and once you show genuine interest in their culture and language, you can bet they will be extremely helpful.

Portuguese is my favourite language because Brazilians are my favourite people. So hopefully this post helps some people who have a “head start” with Spanish to be able to genuinely speak Portuguese, rather than get by with portuñol.

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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