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. (more…)