Brazil : Learning Portuguese

This is the first in a series about Brazil. See what these Brazil posts are about.

Despite what Brazilians may tell you, Portuguese is not the hardest language to learn in the world. There are several different aspects to learning Portuguese and each person will have different aptitudes with the different areas. This isn’t an official list, this is just my take on it. I never took a Portuguese speaking class, just a few years of Spanish speaking in High School. I have however lived in Brazil for 3 years, in a Portuguese language dorm for 6 months and visited Portugal, and navigated each situation successfully.

If you are planning on learning Portuguese, please know that Portugal Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese are two very different animals. The difference between them is greater than the difference between American English and British English. The Portuguese use a more formal grammar, more similar to Spanish and with a slightly different vocabulary. Brazilian Portuguese seems to play fast and loose with the rules, inserting more slang and with much less formality. You will want a dictionary that covers Brazilian Portuguese so as not to get confused.


Learning vocabulary is the most important piece of learning Portuguese. Gesturing will only get you so far, and if you don’t know what you are listening for, it’s going to sound like everyone is speaking very quickly. The key to building your vocabulary is going to be the phrase “O que é isso?” — “What is this?”.  After “Where’s the bathroom” and “Thank you”, “What is this” will be one of the most important ways to get by in Brazil. Constantly ask what things are, Brazilians are friendly and willing to help.

I had a pocket dictionary that I carried everywhere with me for the first 30 days. After 30 days I knew enough vocabulary to get by and could describe things well enough to find out other vocabulary without the dictionary. If there was anything really tough I would look it up at night.

Try to avoid speaking English. Make friends with people who don’t speak English or who don’t speak much. Turn off the English TV and radio programs, and immerse yourself. Also, try to make at least one trustworthy friend who will tip you off if a word is a swear/inappropriate. Your classmates and some adults will think it’s a riot to get you to swear in Portuguese.

Learn to laugh at yourself. Just when you think you are understanding the rules, you’re going to trip up. Quiz: The suffix ‘-inha’ makes words diminuitive. Camisa is shirt. What is a Camisinha? Turns out it doesn’t mean ‘small shirt’ like you would expect. It means ‘condom’ and using it when you mean shirt can make a lot of people laugh — hopefully yourself included.

Lastly, there are many words in Portuguese which are nearly identical to the same word in English or have a synonym. All in all, it’s not really that hard to get started with vocab.

Pronunciation and Listening

Brazilian Portuguese has been described as “speaking Spanish with a sock in your mouth” and “like singing while talking”. Portuguese really is a very beautiful language. The ‘sock in your mouth’ comment refers to the fact that there are a lot of soft consonants, especially compared to the staccato that Spanish has. This softness can contribute to the difficulty of separating words as you’re starting to learn Portuguese. The more vocabulary you pick up, the easier it will be to figure out where the words start and end. It may help to think of it as a mix of a French accent and a Spanish accent (although it isn’t really).

As you are listening you will probably want people to slow down. The phrase “Speak Slowly” was actually a pretty tricky phrase to say for me initially. Written, it is “Fala devagar” (Falar — To Speak, devagar — slowly). In English I would try to say it like this “Fa-la Dev-A-Gar”. My host brother took at least 20 minutes with me trying to get me to say “Fa-la Jay-va-gah”. The leading D takes an extremely soft sound, and the trailing R almost disappears.

Now the bad news. People speaking slowly won’t actually help you understand very much more than them speaking at a normal rate. We are guilty of this in English as well — when we speak slowly, we break words at each syllable, instead of at each word. What you really need is for each word to come out separately. As you listen to someone speaking in this manner you will need a smaller and smaller gap between words, and soon you won’t need people to slow down or separate their words for you.

Brazil has distinct accents in each region, much like we do in the United States. The North accent is different from the North East accent, is different from the Carioca (Rio de Janeiro) accent, from Minas, from the south, etc. A São Paulo accent is about the most standard since it is the accent most used by TV reporters on the national networks.

Reading Comprehension

Read everything you can, especially things where the context will help you understand words you don’t know. Read the cereal box. Read the comics. Read billboards, kids books, your favorite novels, text books.  If something has letters on it, figure out what they mean. So many things can be figured out by their context it doesn’t make sense not to take advantage of them. Anything you can read will help you build your vocabulary and see how Portuguese is written. Reading will improve your vocabulary, and help with pronunciation. By seeing words spelled out (and hopefully hearing them used as you learn) you will soon be able to tie certain letter sequences to the appropriate sounds.

I believe that I had a larger vocabulary than other exchange students by the end of my exchange because of the reading I did. Students who only worried about speaking only learned vocabulary relating to what other students talked about (music, getting around, school, dating, etc.). That vocabulary set will get you by during the day-to-day, but won’t be sufficient if you want to go back and do business in Brazil, for example.

When choosing specific things to read (as opposed to incidental exposure, like cereal boxes) choose books you are familiar with. I bought three of my favorite books in Portuguese and started with them. I read The Hunt for Red October, The Book of Mormon, and Calvin and Hobbes : Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat. By reading material I was already familiar with I a) already knew the plots, so misunderstanding a paragraph wasn’t a problem, b) I could compare texts to understand how different idioms and phrases would be translated.


Do your schoolwork. Your teachers will be happy to give you low marks and circle your errors. Especially if your history teacher is a socialist anti-American who doesn’t want you in her class (actually happened to me).

Don’t consider online chatting and forums to be good sources for learning writing in Portuguese. Brazilians use just as many abbreviations and just as much slang as Americans when chatting online. When I chat with Brazilian friends online, I’m the one with the most correct writing. Besides, you’re in BRAZIL. Go do something fun, the Internet will be here when you get back.


Learn as much Portuguese as you can before going, even if it’s just “where is the bathroom” and “thank you”. Portuguese isn’t frequently taught in US schools, but Spanish makes a decent second choice. Spanish shares conjugation concepts and some vocabulary with Portuguese. A year of Spanish will give you a head start compared to other exchange students.

I hope this post has given you an idea of what to expect while learning Portuguese and some pointers on how to do so more effectively. I loved learning Portuguese, and I love using it whenever I get the chance today. It can be an embarrassing and funny experience at times, but just keep trying. Keep your eyes and ears open and you’ll be speaking Portuguese like a pro in no time.

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