What is it like to speak Portuguese in Brazil? In a word: enchanting. I have found few things in life more satisfying than being able to navigate the dips and curves of this laid-back yet precise, subtle yet charmingly vulgar, and bizarre yet hypnotically musical language.
However, it may not be like that when you start. Especially in São Paulo, Brazilians use so much slang that the language you learn in school bears little resemblance to the one you actually hear. Brazilians insist that their language is very hard to learn, and they are proud of it.
That being said, the language is not inaccessible. In this post, I will portray Portuguese as I have come to know it, clarifying some common misconceptions and providing some tips on how to make it your own.
Portuguese v. Spanish
Brazilians like to say that they can understand their neighbors but their neighbors have no clue what Brazilians are saying. This is somewhat true. Well-spoken Spanish has clear, well-enunciated pronunciations with sharp consonants and a partial resemblance to English, particularly closer to the United States. Portuguese has enough unique sounds to make it utterly indecipherable to those who have not studied it or grown up speaking it.
I started learning Portuguese after having taken six years of Spanish. As a gringo, I have found Portuguese to be “harder,” since many of its sounds are more unfamiliar and many of its rules less logical and well-regulated. Spanish helps a lot with grammar, but it also produces many traps. Portuguese is a minefield of false cognates and words imported from other languages with highly palletized pronunciations. An example? Take the word “saco,” which in Spanish means “sack” or “jacket.” It technically has the same meanings in Portuguese, but it is more often used to signify something really bothersome or to refer to male genitalia (what a coincidence!).
Nonetheless, because Portuguese and Spanish have similar roots, learning one will likely wreak havoc on the other, particularly for non-native speakers. Alternating between the languages helps, but even Brazilians who have studied Spanish find the two languages tricky to keep separate.
Top 10 Favorite Gírias (Slang):
10. tipo = A filler word that most closely corresponds to “like” in American English, though it also means “type” or “kind.” Not to be used in formal conversation.
9. E aí! = “What’s up!” or “Hey!” Used everywhere, particularly amongst younger people. Can also be spoken as a question.
8. velho, brother, cara, mano = All of these mean something akin to “dude” or “man.” “Velho” is chiefly used in São Paulo, whereas “brother” (pronounced “brodah,” with a slightly rolled “r”) is more Rio de Janeiro. “Cara” also means “guy,” as in, “He’s a very nice guy.” “Mano” is more common amongst our parents’ generation.
7. topar = to be down to do something.
6. zoar = to play a prank, joke around, mess with someone. Often used when people are drunk, though normally in a light-hearted manner.
5. brisar = to space out, to have one’s head in the clouds. Also used in a drug-related context.
4. pau-mandado = used to describe a guy who is “whipped,” i.e., helplessly obedient to the desires of his girlfriend.
3. Nossa! = Wow! Used all the time, partly because there are many things about which to be amazed in Brazil!
2. É animal / É bárbaro! = Sick! / Gnarly!
1. folgado. = This is a tricky word because it has no exact equal in English, but it is a must-know in Brazil. Used to describe someone really lazy, to the point of being very disrespectful and unpleasant. The closest parallel is “bum.”
Most Difficult Aspects of Portuguese
What makes Portuguese tricky? First, the accents. People from São Paulo arguably use the most “normal” accent of Portuguese, such as one you might study in a classroom. However, by being such a diverse and expansive city, this is a loose category. São Paulo has several hundred thousand residents of Italian and Japanese descent, many of whom speak with accents as strong as those you might hear amongst people of the same origin in English. Paulistas also use a dizzying array of gírias. Cariocas (people from Rio) have a much heavier accent, arguably Brazil’s most famous. The accent inclues a lot of “sh” sounds at the ends of words, and while other Brazilians love to parody it, they usually find the Carioca inflection to be very attractive.
Also, Portuguese is full of sounds that are difficult for an English speaker to distinguish. One classic example: I often go to a bakery (padaria) for breakfast. For the first couple of weeks, I would ask for different kinds of bread using what I thought was the correct word, “pão.” The only problem is that I would pronounce it as “pau,” which I learned later is a slang word for “penis.” You can imagine the looks of confusion I received.
Finally, almost every Brazilian will moan about the challenge of writing in Portuguese. It is relatively easy to write notes and emails, but anything formal requires a detailed understanding of complex rules, social contexts, syntax, and vocabulary. This could be said about many other language, but Portuguese is hard because of its bizarre accents and spellings, which make written Portuguese appear very different from spoken Portuguese. If you have to choose, I would recommend mastering spoken Portugese first. That way, when you inevitably get lost in São Paulo, you will at least be able to ask for directions!
How to Practice Portuguese
If you plan on working or living in Brazil, I would highly recommend taking at least a quarter of Portuguese at Stanford. I took three quarters before coming, and I still felt only half-prepared for the task of putting it into practice.
Also, a number of Lusophone publications can help you get accustomed to written Portuguese. My favorites are Estado de São Paulo and Exame (a Brazilian version of The Economist), but Folha, Globo, Veja, and Valor are also quite good.
Ultimately, the best way to get good at Brazilian Portuguese is to date a Brazilian. This is a little easier for American women because Brazilian men are quite aggressive and will try whatever they can to get a girl’s attention. Brazilian women are typically harder-to-get, somewhat due to the fact that they have so many willing suitors. If you are an American guy, though, do not lose heart. Offering to teach a Brazilian girl some English is almost always a winner!