A Look at the Portuguese Language

From here.

This post will look at the Portuguese language from the view of how hard it is to learn for the native English speaker. The European and Brazilian versions of Portuguese will both be looked at in this context.

Portuguese, like Spanish, is also very easy to learn, though Portuguese pronunciation is harder due to the unusual vowels such as nasal diphthongs and the strange palatal lateral ʎ, which many English speakers will mistake for an l.

Of the nasal diphthongs, ão is the hardest to make. In addition, Brazilian (Br) Portuguese has an r that sounds like an h, and l that sounds like a w and a d that sounds like a j, but only some of the time! Fortunately, in European (Eu) Portuguese, all of these sounds sound as you would expect them to.

Portuguese has two r sounds, a tapped r (ɾ) that is often misconceived as a trilled r (present in some British and Irish English dialects) and an uvular r (ʁ) which is truly difficult to make. However, this is the typical r sound found in French, German, Danish and Hebrew, so if you have a background in one of those languages, this should be an easy sound.  L2 learners not only have a hard time making them but also mix them up sometimes.

You can run many vowels together in Portuguese and still make a coherent sentence. See here:

É o a ou o b? [Euaoube] “Is it (is your answer) a or b?”

That utterance turns an entire sentence into a single verb via run-on vowels, five of them in a row.

Most Portuguese speakers say that Portuguese is harder to learn than Spanish, especially the variety spoken in Portugal. Eu Portuguese elides many vowels and has more sounds per symbol than Br Portuguese does. Portuguese has both nasal and oral vowels, while Spanish has only oral values. In addition, Portuguese has 12 vowel phonemes to Spanish’s 5.

Portuguese has also retained the archaic subjunctive future which has been lost in many Romance languages.

Try this sentence:

“When I am President, I will change the law.”

In Spanish, one uses the future tense as in English:

Cuando yo soy presidente, voy a cambiar la ley.

In Portuguese, you use the subjunctive future, lost in all modern Romance languages and lacking in English  (except for may, which  might be a case of this tense in English):

Quando eu for presidente, vou mudar a lei.

“When I may be President, I will possibly change the law.” (Literal translation.)

The future subjunctive causes a lot of problems for Portuguese learners and is one of the main ways that it is harder than Spanish.

There is a form called the personal infinitive in Portuguese that also causes a lot of problems for Portuguese learners.

In addition, when making the present perfect in Spanish, it is fairly easy with the use have + participle as in English.

Compare “I have worked.”

In Spanish:

Yo he trabajado.

In Portuguese, there is no perfect to have nor is there any participle, instead, present perfect is formed via a conjugation that varies among verbs:

Eu trabalhei – because Eu hei trabalhado makes no sense in Portuguese.

Portuguese still uses the pluperfect tense quite a bit, a tense that gone out or is heading out of most IE languages. The pluperfect is used a lot less now in Br Portuguese, but it is still very widely used in Eu Portuguese. The pluperfect is used to discuss a past action that took place before another past action. An English translation might be:

He had already gone by the time she showed up.”

The italicized part would be the equivalent to the pluperfect in English.

O pássaro voara quando o gato pulou sobre ele para tentar comê-lo.

“The bird had (already) flown away when the cat jumped over it trying to eat it.”

Br Portuguese has difficulties centering around diglossia. It is written in 1700’s Eu Portuguese, but in speech, the Brazilian vernacular is used. Hence:

“I love you.”

Amo-te or Amo-o [standard, written]

Eu te amo or Eu amo você  [spoken]

“We saw them.”

Vimo-los [standard, written]

A gente viu eles  [spoken]

Even Eu Portuguese native speakers often make mistakes in Portuguese grammar when speaking. Young people writing today in Portuguese are said to be notorious for not writing or speaking it properly.

The pronunciation is so complicated and difficult that even foreigners residing in Portugal for a decade never seem to get it quite right. In addition, Portuguese grammar is unimaginably complicated. There are probably more exceptions than there are rules, and even native speakers have issues with Portuguese grammar.

Portuguese gets a 3 rating, average difficulty.

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7 thoughts on “A Look at the Portuguese Language”

  1. Dear Robert
    Portuguese has 6 subjunctive tenses, 3 simple and 3 perfect ones: eu cante, tenha cantado, cantasse, tivesse cantado, cantar, tiver cantado.
    Port. actually has 7 perfect tenses, but the verb ter is used instead of the verb haver, although in the pluperfect both ter and haver will do. They are eu tenho falado, tinha or havia falado, terei falado, teria falado, and the 3 subjunctive ones: tenha falado, tivesse falado, tiver falado.
    As you said, there is also a simple pluperfect, so there are actually 3 different pluperfects. He had spoken = ele falara, tinha falado and havia falado. Tinha falado is the one normally used in conversation. The other 2 are found mainly in writing.
    The personal infinitive also has a perfect form. The personal infinitive is used as the object of a preposition and it replaces a clause.
    Fizemos tudo para vocês não precisarem fazer nada (personal infinitive) = Fizemos tudo para que vocês não precisassem fazer nada (clause) = We did everything so that you guys didn’t have to do anything.
    Só pudemos entrar depois de eles terem saído (perfect personal infinitive) = Só pudemos entrar depois que eles tinham saído (clause) = We only could go in after they had left.
    Anyway, you are right. Port. has the most complex tense system of the 4 West European Latin languages. I don’t know about Rumanian.
    Cheers. James

    1. Some people in French areas in America consider their area the most European. Keeping the tongue likely has a lot to do with it. French seem to set themselves apart in Europe and abroad.

  2. “Cuando yo soy presidente, voy a cambiar la ley.”
    I’m Brazilian, but I’m pretty sure the grammatically correct form in Spanish would be, “Cuando yo sea presidente, voy a cambiar la ley.”

  3. Something worth mentioning is the infamous “crase”. It’s a fusion of the feminine singular definite article “a” with the homonymous preposition “a”, and it’s spelled “à”. Here’s an example:
    A Bahia é bela.
    Well, almost no one in Brazil understands this

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