How similar are they anyway?
If you already speak Spanish, Portuguese can seem like you’re searching for sounds your mouth (or nose) can’t quite make. Try the audio examples below if you don’t believe me…
But first, some context to get us started.
At its most basic level, Portuguese has two distinct varieties: European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese.
It’s similar(ish) to how Spanish has European Spanish and Latin American Spanish.
There’s variety within each, sure. But the overall sound is similar enough to compare in general.
As a side note, my ears tell me that the varieties of Spanish are closer in sound to each other than the varieties of Portuguese. I’m not sure if this is entirely true, as my Portuguese is nothing special. It’s below mediocre, really.
But (I think) a Brazilian in Portugal would have more trouble communicating than a Mexican in Spain.
Anyway, let’s start with the comparison I’ll use here–Brazilian Portuguese vs Latin American Spanish.
What my own experience tells me
I’ve studied Brazilian Portuguese on and off, but usually limited to when the mood strikes. Unless passively watching Onisciente counts, my true study time is probably around 30-50 hours.
However, even before I bought a basic Portuguese workbook, I didn’t have much trouble reading the news or listening to some podcasts, thanks to my years of Spanish.
Nowadays I can pick up 60-70% of what I read from say, an outlet like Folha de S.Paulo, an online version of the popular newspaper sold in Brazil.
I’m also comfortable with 40-50% of what’s discussed in an episode from Brazilian podcasts such as Mamilos—basically a pop culture podcast featuring guests from all over the country.
I’ve been able to do this with limited study using my Spanish ability as my guide.
I listen for words that are shared or similar sounding enough to latch onto. If you’re curious, here’s a short list of 20 examples from Spanish and Portuguese that I’d be able to pick out without much effort.
Even if you don’t know these words in either language, you can see just how similar they are. Some are even 100% identical in spelling and only differ in pronunciation.
That’s been a focus of my limited study time: familiarizing myself with the words that are most similar and then adjust my pronunciation.
Given that a native Spanish speaker has a much deeper vocabulary than a non-native like myself, he or she should be able to pick up much more than I’m able to, making it relatively easy to get started in Portuguese.
I’ll detail it below, but sentence structure is generally close as well, allowing a Spanish speaker to read basic Portuguese with relative ease.
Comparisons with audio
Here is the same sentence translated between Spanish and Portuguese with English as a guide.
I’m going to study at the library tomorrow.
Voy a estudiar en la biblioteca mañana. (Sp)
Vou estudar na biblioteca amanhã. (Pt)
You can see the similarities in structure and vocabulary. But that’s not all!
The way in which the vocabulary is used is also advantageous for a Spanish speaker.
I’m twenty years old.
Tengo veinte años. (Sp)
Tenho vinte anos. (Pt)
In Spanish and Portuguese, these translate to:
“I have twenty years.”
This type of “shared usage” between Portuguese and Spanish happens a lot and varies significantly from English usage.
Another similar example to reinforce the idea:
I’m from Peru.
Soy de Perú. (Sp)
Sou do Peru. (Pt)
Estoy enojado. (Sp)
Estou enojado. (Pt)
That’s right! Portuguese and Spanish have two different verbs that translate as to be, depending on context.
In contrast, English uses one verb in both contexts.
The fact that their verb conjugations are only off by one letter further demonstrates the similarities between Spanish and Portuguese:
I have; I am; I am
tengo; estoy; soy
tenho; estou; sou
Again, the similarities between Portuguese and Spanish aren’t strictly limited to vocabulary, but to the context/usage of vocabulary as well. This makes the transition from Spanish to Portuguese (and vice versa) easier.
An ocean of sounds
Native Spanish speakers indeed have an advantage in the flow of the language, because of things like sentence structure.
However, one potential problem could be the depth of vowel and consonant sounds that Portuguese uses.
Depending on the variety of Spanish that you speak, there are somewhere around 35 distinct sounds in the language. Brazilian Portuguese has something like 55 sounds.
These differences are especially noticeable with vowels, as Portuguese not only has more vowel sounds, but also includes nasal vowel sounds, whereas Spanish does not.
Some Brazilian Portuguese examples for vowel sounds that don’t exist in Spanish:
ébano, olha; nada; bonito; sim; compra; banco, mundo
And to further complicate things, five of those eight words are spelled exactly the same in both languages! (nada; bonito; compra; banco; mundo)
What differs are the underlined vowel sounds that don’t exist in Spanish.
The same, but different
I think this might be one of the most difficult things–to see a word spelled exactly as it’s spelled in your native language, but it’s pronounced differently.
Undoing Spanish pronunciation and adjusting to Portuguese pronunciation can be a lot of work.
Because both Portuguese and Spanish are Romance languages, similarities exist across grammar topics.
Things like gender, articles, adjectives and prepositions oftentimes function similarly.
Gender with nouns, articles and adjectives
Portuguese and Spanish use gender to differentiate nouns, adjectives and articles.
Starting with articles (the in English):
In addition to the languages requiring that nouns use gender, both specify that the articles have to agree in number as well.
Let’s take an example where the gender of the article (the) has to agree with its noun (cat). Then we’ll make them plural.
el gato (Sp)
o gato (Pt)
Adjectives work the same way.
the tall woman
la mujer alta
a mulher alta
the tall women
las mujeres altas
as mulheres altas
The article (the) matches both in gender and number to its noun (woman).
Can you spot the patterns?
In the example above, notice the rules are exactly the same in how they’re made plural:
- add an ‘s’ to the article
- add en ‘es’ to the noun
- add an ‘s’ to the adjective
Is your mind blown yet?!
That’s all I have for now; it’s just enough to get those gears turning.
I’ll eventually add some other grammar bits and colloquial phrases into the mix here. In the meantime, if you’re looking to make the jump between Portuguese and Spanish, I’d say go for it.
You’ve got a pretty good head start.
FYI: Brazilian accents in the recordings use the Carioca accent. Carioca refers to the accent from Rio de Janeiro. The recordings in Spanish are from yours truly, and reflect my work-in-progress accent.