Question: “I want to learn to speak and read Portuguese; how hard will it be?”
[First off, let me acknowledge that any thoughts on this topic are quite subjective, and as a passionate fan of the Portuguese language, I am arguably biased. That being said, I have learned a lot of Portuguese and also several other languages, so I feel as though it is appropriate and perhaps useful to discuss the difficulty level of Brazilian Portuguese.]
Portuguese is a very ‘learn-able’ language. Grammatically speaking, Portuguese is demonstrably similar to Spanish, Italian and French, though there are some Brazilian colloquial tendencies that in my opinion make proficiency more attainable in Portuguese (see bullets below). Anyone who has learned even a little it of a Romance language will have a leg up on learning Portuguese.
In terms of vocabulary, the ’80/20′ rule is certainly applicable here, generally speaking; one can understand 80% of what is spoken by knowing about 20% of the language. This is the way languages work – the most common word is twice as common as the second-most common word, which is twice as common as the third-most common word and so on. [If you are interested in learning the most common and useful words and phrases in Portuguese go here.]
Speaking Portuguese can be tricky; some sounds, such as nasalized vowels, are not very common in English. Also the letter ‘R‘ has several different sounds, some oh which sound like an ‘H‘ in English. The French language happens to share all of these sounds, and perhaps it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that Brazilian Portuguese is about as hard to pronounce for an English speaker as French. I am learning a little French now, and my instinct is that perhaps French is a bit more difficult, but again that is entirely subjective.
So that leaves us with comprehension, or understanding what the heck is going on around you! When I first visited Brazil, I was confident that I would be able to get around. I has just spent some time in a Spanish-speaking country (known for its cigars) and had had no problem getting around and hanging out with locals; surely Portuguese would be within reach I thought! I got on the airplane and picked up the newspaper. “Oh yeah… this is just like Spanish,” I said to myself. Then I moved on to the safety materials, “definitely just like Spanish except with these funny accent marks and stuff.” Then, the flight attendant began to speak. In Portuguese. I understood nothing. During my first visit I was a bit lost.
I hasten to point out that I had not made any effort to study the language at this point. Shortly after beginning to study something magical happened: the sound I heard coming from people’s mouths started to register as words that I could see! You have to learn all the sounds of a language before you can start to “see” the words when they are spoken. Portuguese is a beautiful, tonally-rich, sing-songy language with a unique cadence and an identifiable lilt. Once you get into the groove so to speak, it is very satisfying to listen to indeed.
Here’s the fun part: what makes Portuguese easierto learn than other Romance languages!
- You don’t need to learn the second person. The ‘tu’ form is rarely used in most parts of Brazil, and half the time you hear it, it is in conjunction with the ‘você’ form of the verb being used, as in “Tu sabe?” Most teachers don’t bother teaching the second person. This point alone will save you 1/3 of the verb forms you need to learn!!!
- You can use ‘a gente’ instead of ‘nos.’ Instead of using the 1st person plural ending, you can fake it by using the 3rd person singular. So to get ‘up and running’ with the language, all you really need is the eu, the ele/ela/você and the eles/elas/vocês forms. Ta da!
- Most common conversations are very similar. Small talk is easy; if you’ve heard a few different brief friendly conversations, you’ve heard ’em all.
- Brazilians love that you are trying to learn their languageand will typically bend over backwards to help you out. A patient native speaker is really the only way to become proficient at a high level, and Brazilians (in my experience and that of my friends) are just fantastic in this regard.
So now you know a little bit about what to expect. I encourage you to dive in if you haven’t already; Speaking Portuguese is well within reach.
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