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How Hard is Portuguese to Learn? Posted by on Oct 10, 2007 in Learning

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.

Most of the readers of this blog are actively trying to learn Portuguese at some level.  If you’re looking for other powerful resources to help you learn Portuguese free, you should check out Byki Express. It leverages the fact that adults learn foreign languages differently than children, by first building a reservoir of word and phrase vocabulary. The more items you have, the more able you are to use your foreign language.  Check it out!

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Comments:

  1. Aline:

    Difícil é para nós aprendermos outras línguas, como o inglês, por exemplo!

    Mas assim, aprender português em escolas de idiomas, aquele português formal, não ajuda muito. Aqui, as pessoas usam muito as gírias, como: “Beleza?”- How are you “Nóis vái”- We go…

    E por aí vai ^^

  2. Eduardo:

    I must say that what is written in this article is quite true, however!, I, as a Portuguese person, feel the European portuguese is a lot richer than the Brazilian Portuguese. If you listen to the Brazilians speaking, sure, it sounds like they are singing a bit, but the Europeans are just as good and their sentences (generally) are more correct because the Brazilians try to simplify everything as much as they can and that makes some of the words they say a bit ridiculous.
    That said, it doesn’t matter which you choose to learn, as long as you learn PORTUGUESE!

    • Cobra:

      @Eduardo What makes European pt good for writing their sentences the right way if they omit vowels when speaking? I agree with you tho, Europeans write the beautiful Portuguese but they speak it like crap, Brazilians speak better.

    • Caique:

      @Eduardo My dear.
      It isn’t redicule “to simplify”. Like North American the Brazilian Portuguese has a lot variations. Each state speaks of you own way . It’s cultural make new forms to speak. Britain’s English is more easy to understand than American’s English. But the form that American simplify somethings in their languages make this cultural and beautiful.
      Excuse me me for my mistakes ^^

  3. Carol:

    Sou Americana, que estive no Brasil por muito anos Morando agora em estados unidos no estado do Kentucky. Eu gostaria bate papo com brasileiros ou pessoas do Portugal no Skype . Me ligar. Carol.storch. Adorno a lingua Portuguese , e achei muito facil aprender.

    • Roberto:

      @Carol Você me ensina inglês e eu te ensino portugues

    • Mauro:

      @Carol Oi Carol,
      Encontrei você no blog. Também gostaria de bater um papo.

    • Ramon:

      @Carol Hi, would you like speak portuguese with me?
      Oi, vc gostaria de falar portugues comigo?

    • Amanda:

      @Carol Ola tenho um grupo no whats de trocas de aprendizado ingles x portugues. Caso querira participar me enviei seu email.

  4. lilian:

    We Brazilians do have a beautiful language because of our accent (specially in music). People usualy find Brazilian Portuguese more pleasent to hear. That’s the true! Take some free classes here: speakbrazilian.blogspot.com

  5. Eddie Ozorio:

    Hi everyone. I am a native Portuguese speaker, and I would like to make a few comments about the text you’ve posted here. Learning personal pronouns is not that easy at all, once you cannot simplify and change persons as you’ve told. “Tu” is largely used in the south and northeast of Brazil, but “Você” is spoken mainly in São Paulo. Most part of people say tu rather than você. In addition, you also have formal pronouns, like “a senhora”, “o senhor”, “a senhorita”, “vós” etc andall of them mumust be learned once they are very used in many contexts. Finally, it’s not very polite to say “a gente” rather than “nós”. “A gente” is extremely informal and many people correct one another if they heard you speaking like that. So, prefer to use “nós”, because “a gente” sounds very bad educated in formal contexts and also in familiar contexts sometimes. That’s it! Good study!

    • Penélope:

      @Eddie Ozorio “Tu” não é difícil aprender rapidamente se você sabe/tu sabes as formas dos verbos para “você.” Você só precisa de um “S” no fim das palavras. Você come –Tu comes, Você anda –Tu andas, etc. É fácil.

  6. cat:

    I’m sorry but if you don’t learn the proper portuguese grammar, how do you expect yourself to be considered fluent? Maybe in Brazil most of the people don’t conjugate the 2nd form nor use the proper pronoun declinations, but if you were to speak to a portuguese person or to read a book/newspaper how would you understand and be understood by others? This is only portuguese to get by.

  7. Tirso Duarte:

    Hi. I’m Brazilian, from the state of Goiás, and I agree with the author. I’d like to point some things, after Eddie Ozorio’s comment. Here in central Brazil we speak just like in São Paulo (Brasília is more like RJ, but it’s almost the same), with an accent like that of MG and interior of SP. Since Brazilian population is concentrated in the southeast, most of the population speak this way. In south they use “tu” with the conjunction of “você”, as the author said. In northeast, I’ve heard they use the real “tu”, but I’ve been there once last year and it was no big deal, in fact the bigger differences are the accent and some words like macaxeira (mandioca), but it’s very easy to understand and be undestood anyway. Formal pronouns like “a senhora” and “o senhor” are used in very specific situations (like by a waiter or in formal language), a tourist doesn’t need to know it. Besides, the conjunction is the same of ele/ela/você. “Vós” is virtually extinct, not even in formal language we use it anymore. I’ve never really heard of “a gente” sounding uneducated, unless in very formal language (like in an official document of a court, but even in journalism is ok). I think I use it as much as “nós”, but I’ve never really cared about it, because both are very common in daily use.

  8. phil:

    You’re talking about Brazilian, not European Portuguese

  9. jamerson:

    Hello! I have to say that there is a lot of difference between the European portuguese and Brazilian portuguese. We just speak what is needed, we don’t waste time like a portuguese does (it doesn’t mean we speak wrong). Actually, a portuguese sounds like a “robot”, especially when they say: “tu estás a fazer, a comer, a dormir…”, instead of using the gerund form that we use a lot. And I can say “Graças a Deus!” our language was influenced by the Spanish as well as Italian language, for example. That enriched our pronuciation with rythm and passion! What sounds ridiculous is the portuguese way of speaking it’s like they have something in their mouth…kkkkk(LoL).

    PS: Haters gonna hate! Portugal, essa soberba não leva a nada – por isso, é a esquecida da Europa.

  10. Rubens:

    Hi,
    So in my opinion (I’m not agreeing with Eddie) Yeah ..you can use VOCÊ almost all the times… AGENTE it’s a bit more complicated but totally ok to use to make yourself understood. I’m sure that most brazilians will not judge the excessive use of this words. I guarantee you!!
    I think the most importante thing in learning a new language it’s the communication. If you can make yourself understood and understand what others say… that’s great!!After all you can improve your skills along the way.

  11. Georgia:

    I completely disagree, I moved to Portugal at the age of 7 and I had to teach myself the language, it took me 6 months to learn it but it is completely different from English, its an intense and beautiful language that Ifeeling pronounced wrong could mean an entirely different thing.
    As a native English speaker attending portuguese school, it was a very long process, all acentos and the verbs and all the different pronunciations, I wouldnt consider it to be an easy language to learn, in fact it’s extremely difficult yet so rewarding.
    The Brazilian portuguese is so different to portuguese, yes you can have a conversation but yet again the pronunciations are so different.

  12. Patrick:

    “A patient native speaker is really the only way to become proficient at a high level?” Or something like that? Exactly! My Brasilian girlfriend of 2.5 years and going to Brasil 11 times hasn’t helped because she only speaks English with me. It’s frustrating.

  13. Shinya:

    It’s kinda sad that people say Brazilian Portuguese is the same as normal Portuguese, as the two have different structures.
    I live in Portugal, so I speak the original Portuguese, and I guarantee you that Brazilian Portuguese is way different from ours, just say Brazilian Portuguese instead of Portuguese, because both in Portugal and Brazil, we say “Português” (Portuguese) for the language we speak in Portugal, and “Brasileiro”/”Português Brasileiro” (Brazilian/Brazilian Portuguese) for the language spoken in Brazil.

    This is a touchy subject for both countries, so please mind how you call both this languages, as they might give you the cold shoulder because of this.

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