You may have heard horror stories about learning Portuguese: the gendered articles, the verb tenses, the accents! So you're probably wondering – is Portuguese hard to learn?
In reality, learning Portuguese is just like learning any other language: it requires some time and dedication. The good news about that is that anyone can learn Portuguese, including you!
So, what’s got people so confused with Portuguese? We’ll explore some of the language’s trickier areas and how to manoeuvre them, and also highlight some ways in which learning Portuguese is easier than you might think.
Gendered Articles In Portuguese
For gender-neutral languages like English, discovering that everything, from tables to foods to cities and rivers all have genders in Portuguese can be very confusing at first. Truth be told, it does take a bit of practice to wrap your head around this.
While in English, we would use the gender-neutral article “the” in front of objects, in Portuguese they use a for feminine objects and o for masculine objects.
But how do you know if an object is masculine or feminine? Luckily, there are some clues. In Portuguese, words that end in “o” tend to be masculine, and words that end in “a” tend to be feminine.
Here are some examples:
Feminine words that end in “a”
- The table = a mesa
- The map = a carta
- The window = a janela
- The door = a porta
- The bed = a cama
- The bottle = a garrafa
- The shirt = a camisa
- The pan = a panela
- The lamp = a lâmpada
- The star = a estrela
Masculine words that end in “o”
- The book = o livro
- The roof = o telhado
- The neck = o pescoço
- The fork = o garfo
- The cup = o copo
- The cake = o bolo
- The car = o carro
- The state = o estado
- The shoe = o sapato
- The way = o caminho
There are, of course, some exceptions. The word for day, dia, for example is masculine even though it ends in an “a” so the article would be “o” as in o dia.
But as a rule of thumb, you can make an educated guess that if a word ends in an “a” it will be feminine and if it ends in an “o” it will be masculine.
The rest you’ll have to memorise over time. The good news is that if you use the StoryLearning® method and read a lot in Portuguese, you'll pick up the word genders naturally without having to “study” them.
Implied Subjects In Portuguese
It’s common in Portuguese for people to leave off the subject of a sentence. That’s because the conjugation of the verb in Portuguese implies what the subject is. This can trip people up who haven’t learned their verb conjugations yet!
- I left this morning.
Instead of saying:
- Eu saí hoje da manhã.
It’s common for people to drop the subject eu and just say:
- Saí hoje da manhã.
The subject eu is implied by the conjugation of the verb sair.
Here are some more examples:
- Did you go to the bakery?(Você) Foi para a paderia?
- They liked the book. (Eles) Gostarem do livro.
- We met at the movies. (Nós) Encontramos no cinema.
Leaving off the subject is very common in spoken Portuguese, but once you master the verb conjugations, this habit native Portuguese speakers have of dropping the subject won’t confuse you anymore.
The Portuguese language has approximately 171,000 words. That’s a lot of vocabulary to learn!
But there’s a silver lining. Portuguese is a Latin-based language, as are all the other Romance languages (Spanish, French and Italian). But did you know that approximately 60% of English words are Latin-based?
That means that there will be a lot of words you can easily recognise in Portuguese because of the shared Latin roots.
- Document = documento
- Justice = justiça
- Ability = habilidade
- Timid = tímido
- Export = exportar
- Hospital = hospital
- Vegetarian = vegetariano
- Carnivore = carnívoro
- Territory = território
- Municipality = município
If you took Latin, French, Spanish or Italian in high school, you’ll be able to recognise a lot more words than you think in Portuguese.
Just beware of the false friends (words that look similar but have different meanings):
- Assistir means “to watch”, not “to assist”
- Educado means “polite”, not “educated”
- Legenda means “subtitles”, not “legend”
- Parentes means “relatives”, not “parents”
- Novela means “soap opera”, not “novel”
Portuguese pronunciation is very different from English and there are certain sounds that exist in Portuguese that may be awkward at first for an English speaker.
The best thing to do as a beginner is to learn the pronunciation of the letters of the alphabet in Portuguese. This will start to tune you in to the sounds of the language.
When learning the alphabet, you’ll notice that the Portuguese “i” is pronounced like the English “e” and that the Portuguese “u” makes the sound of “oo” in English.
- Vida (life) = vee-dah
- Amigo (friend) = amee-go
- Futuro (future) = foo-too-ro
- Lugar (place) = loo-gar
With the consonants, you’ll learn that the “h” is mute and the “r” makes the sound of the English “h” while the “x” makes the sound of the English “sh.”
- Hotel (hotel) = o-tel
- Heroi (hero) = er-oi
- Rico (rich) = hee-co
- Ritual (ritual) = hee-too-al
- Xicara (cup) = shee-ca-ra
- Raio-x (x-ray) = hi-o-sheez
Portuguese also has some consonant combinations that make distinct sounds when they’re together. For example:
- ch – In words like chacara (farm), the ch sounds like the English “sh”: sha-ka-ra.
- lh – In words like milho (corn), the lh sounds like the English “ly”: mee-lee-yo.
- nh – In words like amanhã (tomorrow), the nh makes the sound of nya (like the Spanish ñ): ah-man-yan.
Portuguese is an accented language and while some people dread having to learn all the accents, they are actually very useful guides in learning pronunciation. They basically tell you how a word is pronounced.
So instead of seeing them as an obstacle, see them as a helper that will improve your Portuguese pronunciation.
Here’s how to tackle the accents in Portuguese:
Acute accents emphasise the sound of the vowel they’re used on, elongating them slightly.
- á – aah
- é – ehh
- í – ee
- ó – ohh
- ú – ooh
- á – necessário (necessary) is pronounced: ne-se-saah-rio
- é – ética (ethic) is pronounced: ehh-tee-ca
- í – possível (possible) is pronounced: pos-ee-vel
- ó – óculos (glasses) is pronounced: ohh-coo-los
- ú – público/a (public) is pronounced: poob-lee-co
While acute accents elongate the vowel, circumflex accents shorten them. When you see a circumflex accent over a vowel, you know that vowel will have a sharp, abrupt pronunciation.
- Metrô (subway) – meh-tro
- Bistrô (bistro) – bee-stro
- Bebê (baby) – beh-be
- Âmbito (scope) – am-bee-toh
In these cases, the pronunciation of the vowel will have a shorter, more closed vowel sound.
The cedilha in Portuguese is borrowed from the French. It is a little hook underneath the letter ç that indicates an “s” sound.
- Maça (apple) – ma-sa
- Faça (do) – fa-sa
- Relação (relation) – he-la-saonh
The tilde accent is a wavy line over a vowel that gives it a nasal sound.
- Pão (bread) – paonh
- Cão (dog) – caonh
- Mãe (mother) maih
- Pães (plural of bread) paihs
- Coração (heart) – cor-a-saonh
Every language has slang. There’s no way of getting around it. The best way to approach learning slang is with curiosity and a sense of humour.
Here are some examples of Brazilian Portuguese slang:
- Viajando na maionese – This expression literally means “travelling in the mayonnaise.” It means to be without clarity or direction and a bit clueless.
- Bater papo – this expression means to have a casual chat. A friend who sees you on the streets might call you over and say: vamos bater um papo (Let’s chat).
- Legal – This may well be one of the first slang words you hear in Brazil as it is so widely used in all parts of the country that it’s impossible to escape it. While it literally means “legal,” unless you’re talking about a court case, it will likely mean “cool” or “good.” If you go out on a date and your friends ask you how it was afterwards, you could reply, Foi legal (It was good). If someone comes to you with good news about something, you could say, Que legal! (How great!).
Is Portuguese Hard To Learn?
Learning any language will require effort. But there’s no reason to give up before you start.
So, is Portuguese hard to learn? There are some special challenges to learning Portuguese such as the gendered articles, implied subjects and slang.
But there are also some aspects of Portuguese such as the common Latin roots, the helpful accents and the fun you can have with slang that will make it easier. Boa sorte e bons estudos!