Portuguese for Spanish Speakers

Spanish speakers come to Portuguese with great strengths and unique challenges that call for a specialized approach to learning. As a speaker of Spanish, you already have a huge vocabulary of cognates and a knowledge of the basic grammar. Most likely you can read Portuguese very well, but you might stuggle to understand the spoken language. When you speak, you might speak with a Spanish accent, or you might speak portunhol.

It’s in the everyday spoken language where Spanish and Portuguese are most distant. Unfortunately, the similarity between Spanish and Portuguese often gets overstated. This tends to obscure the fact that there are significant and broad differences at every level. To see what I mean, check out the Wikipedia page on Differences Between Spanish and Portuguese.

As a Spanish speaker, your challenge is first to focus on the very different pronunciation of Portuguese, where words are rarely pronounced the way you might expect. Then you can begin to learn the major differences in grammar. For example, personal pronouns are used differently in Brazil than in Portugal, Spain, or the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. Verb tenses in Portuguese don’t quite map onto their Spanish equivalents as simply as you might expect, and object pronouns have their own set of rules, when they’re used at all.

Then there’s the matter of language interference, where because the two languages are so similar, you get confused and end up using Spanish words in your Portuguese and Portuguese words in your Spanish. I suspect this is mostly a problem for native English speakers who have learned Spanish as a second language, rather than for native Spanish speakers.

Recommended Resources for Spanish Speakers

Tá Falado, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site, is a free podcast series designed to teach Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation and grammar to Spanish speakers. The podcasts focus on the major differences between the languages, and I think they’re particularly good at explaining the more complicated pronunciation of Portuguese. Each lesson contains a Portuguese dialogue that has been translated into both Spanish and English, and you will hear two Brazilians and a Venezuelan readings the dialogs so that you can really hear the differences in both grammar and pronunciation. The explanations are in English.

Pois Não: Brazilian Portuguese Course for Spanish Speakers 

I don’t own this book, but I’ve had it recommended to me by Spanish speakers as a great introduction to Portuguese.

Portuguese for Spanish Speakers – this website hasn’t been updated since 2010, but it’s got many good articles.

Vocabulary

You already have a vast knowledge of vocabulary and will recognize the many cognates easily, so reading will be a piece of cake.

Many, many words are almost identical once you learn how to translate the different endings:

  • Spanish -dad -> Portuguese -dade [da-dji]
    • ciudad -> cidade
    • habilidad -> habilidade
  • Spanish -ción -> Portuguese -ção
    • nación -> nação
  • Spanish -zon -> Portuguese -ção
    • corazon -> coração
  • Spanish -ble -> Portuguese -vel
    • invisible -> invisível
    • comparable -> comparável
    • Note that the letter l at the end of a word is not pronounced like a normal Spanish or English L. Instead, it acts like a w glide, so –vel is pronounced like a dipthong, somewhere between “veu” and “vew”, which means you then have to add an acute accent to the preceding vowel to keep the stress on that syllable.
    • invisibles -> invisíveis
    • comparables -> comparáveis
  • Spanish -an -> Portuguese -am
    • ellos compran -> eles compram
  • Spanish -b (in btw. two vowels) -> Portuguese -v
    • ella nadaba -> ela nadava
    • haber -> haver
  • Spanish j -> Portuguese lh or x
    • mujer -> mulher
    • hoja -> folha
    • hijo -> filho
    • debajo -> debaixo
  • Spanish h (at the beginning of a word) -> Portuguese f
    • hablar -> falar
    • hacer -> fazer
    • hijo -> filho

Spanish often uses dipthongs where Portuguese doesn’t:

  • cuenta -> conta
  • fuego -> fogo
  • asiento -> assento
  • ciudad -> cidade

Then again, sometimes Portuguese uses dipthongs where Spanish doesn’t:

  • debajo -> debaixo

The vast majority of Spanish words are either identical or recognizably similar in Portuguese, once you learn the substitutions above. But occasionally, you’ll run across a common word that is substantially or completely different, having branched off the Latin vernacular at a different point in time:

  • la ventana -> a janela

And occasionally, you’ll find a word that just doesn’t exist in Spanish. The extremely useful verb ficar (to be, to be located, to become, to remain, to stay) has no direct equivalent in Spanish, yet it’s used in so many different situations, from describing where a place is located to signalling changes in emotional states, it’s almost like having a third copula to go along with ser and estar.

Brazilians also love using idiomatic expressions, especially with verbs like dar, fazer, estar com, etc. and many of these don’t translate into Spanish.

And sometimes, it’s just a matter of word choice, where Portuguese has the Spanish word but Brazilians prefer to use a different word:

  • creer -> crer, but Brazilians prefer achar [to think] instead
  • necesitar -> necessitar, but Brazilians prefer precisar [to need] instead

Pronunciation

Before we get started, a quick note on how I transcribe pronunciations. Anything you see inside [square brackets] is written using the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA. I love IPA because it makes it possible to write down pronunciation in a precise, unambiguous way. If you are passionate about learning or teaching (or hacking) languages, or you just want to really impress people with your native-like pronunciation, then learning a little bit about phonetics and the IPA is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. It’s not that difficult to learn, and it will give you a good ear for the subtle variations in sounds that make the difference between speaking with a native vs non-native accent. That said, since not everyone can read IPA, I’ve also tried to transcribe words using English phonetics (in parentheses) when possible. On occasion I’ve used a sort of modified IPA-lite that contains some English phonetics, whenever I thought the actual IPA was too obscure. And, for anyone who may care, I’m using broad IPA, concentrating only on the phonemic differences and ignoring the details.

So, Portuguese pronunciation…

Here’s a quick video that gives an overview of the major ‘unexpected’ differences in Portuguese:

Perhaps you’ve noticed that Portuguese speakers tend to pronounce the letter e at the end of a word like [i] (ee) instead of [e] (ay) as in Spanish, or the letter o at the end of a word like [u] instead of [o]. This phenomenon is called “vowel raising”. Or maybe you’ve heard the simple word de pronounced [dʒi] (dji), a phenomenon called “palatalization”. Both of these phenomena happen when you have unstressed syllables, which is why for example Rio de Janeiro sounds like (HEE-u dji zhaNAYru) [xiu dʒi ʒaˈnejɾu]. Not all Portuguese speakers palatalize, and you’ll be understood just fine if you don’t, but I happen to love the sound of palatalization and vowel raising because they give Brazilian Portuguese its characteristic sound — they’re part of the reasons it sounds distinct from Spanish.

In general, Spanish has only five vowelsa, e, i, o, u, plus some dipthongs like ue, ie which are just combinations of them. To these five, Portuguese adds an open é, open ó, and a bunch of dipthongs and even tripthongs, and nasalized versions of many of these.

Nasal vowels are sometimes (but not always) marked by a ~ sign, as in irmã (“sister”), coração (“heart”), nações (“nations”). Nasalization can actually change the meaning of a word: pau (not nasal) means “wood”, but pão (the same vowel sound, but nasal) means “bread”. Nasal sounds don’t exist in Spanish, but they do in French, usually with vowels that come before an n or m, as in bonen passant or l’indifférent. In the same way, Portuguese vowels that come before an n or m are always nasal, even if they aren’t marked by a ~ sign: entre (“between”), entender (“to understand”), implicante, eles compram (“they buy”). In these cases, the n or m sound shouldn’t actually be pronounced, it’s just a signal that the preceeding vowel is nasal. In fact, the Portuguese word bom (“good”) is almost identical to the French bon. You do not actually bring your lips together to form the m in bom, just like you don’t touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth to pronounce the n in bon.

The best way I’ve found to describe how to make the nasal sound is this: Say the English word “bringing” and notice how when you say “ng” your soft palate in the back of your mouth closes off. Once you notice what’s going on you can actually practice opening and closing your soft palate by saying “ng” over and over. When you close the soft palate, it lets the sound resonate in the nasal cavity instead of the mouth. Then practice saying the Portuguese word bom, but imagine that it’s actually pronounced with that “ng” sound at the end, like “bong”. Say the “ng” at the end very lightly, silently even, just enough to close off your soft palate so that the o sound becomes nasal. Again, it should sound similar to the French bon.

Now try another word: compram. Remember that the m at the end of each syllable should not be pronounced, it’s only there to make the sound nasal. Pretend you are actually saying “congprang” to get a nice nasal a at the end. Saying it this way also keeps you from closing your lips to pronounce the m‘s, which, remember, are always silent when they occur at the end of a syllable. It should sound quite similar to the French je comprende, except that the stress is on the first syllable: COMpram.

As in Spanish, accent marks (diacritics) indicate the stressed syllable, but only when it deviates from the normal rules of stress (to oversimplify greatly, stress normally falls on the second-to-last syllable, except in words ending in -l, and -r).

But unlike in Spanish, accent marks in Portuguese also serve the purpose of distinguishing between different vowel qualities. The circumflex accent is only found on eo, and a (where it indicates the closed version of these vowels) while the acute accent can occur on all vowels (where it indicates the open version of e, o, and a, or the regular and u since these two are always pronounced the same):

  • ê = Closed e. This is the normal sound of e in Spanish, somewhat like the sound in English “bait”. IPA [e].
  • é = Open e, like the sound in English “bet”. This sound is not present in Spanish. IPA [ɛ].
  • ô = Closed oThis is the normal sound of o in Spanish, somewhat like the sound in English “boat”. IPA [o].
  • ó = Open o, like the sound in English “bought”, “caught” or “ought”. This sound is not present in Spanish. IPA [ɔ].

Technically there is also a difference between open á and closed â but the difference is minor and not something most students need to worry about. Suffice it to say that letter A is not always a pure, open, Spanish-like aah but sometimes it is more like the clipped, indistinct English schwa, more like an “uh”, especially when it falls on an unstressed syllable at the end of a word. Á with the acute accent is the pure Spanish sound, while  with the circumflex is the schwa sound.

It’s important to know the difference between open and closed and o, because mixing up these sounds can actually change the meaning of the words you say. For example, avô with a closed o means “grandfather”, while avó with an open means “grandmother”.

When e and vowels do not have an accent mark, they could be either open or closed, and you have to know a few rules. These are the sort of rules that you learn unconsciously by exposing yourself to the spoken language as much as possible.

For example, on unstressed syllables, e and o are always closed. On stressed syllables, they can be either open or closed.

Here’s an interesting example with comer (to eat). If you say Eu como (I eat), the stress falls on the first syllable of the verb: COmo. Stressed vowels can be either open or closed, and since there’s no accent mark to help you out, you just have to know that in this case, that first o is actually an open ó. It sounds like you’re saying “CAW-mu”. Same thing with Você come (You eat). Come sounds like “CAW-mi”. But! Conjugate comer with nós and you get nós coMEmos (we eat). That first o has now become unstressed, so now it must be closed ô, because unstressed vowels are always closed. It sounds like “coMAYmus”.

The same thing happens with open and closed e in verbs like querer, beber, and correr. The only exception to the rule that unstressed e and o are always closed is when they are in the last syllable of a word. In this case, that vowel raising phenomenon happens, and e becomes [i] and o becomes [u].

Here’s another rule. When you have a stressed syllable and there is no accent mark to guide you, sometimes the gender of the word can help – masculine words often used closed vowels while feminine words use open vowels. For example, the masculine version of the word “famous” is famoso, pronounced with a closed like [fam’ozu]. But the feminine version is famosa, pronounced with open like [fam’awza]. Another example: The male third-person pronoun ele is pronounced [ele] with a closed ê, but the female pronoun ela is pronounced [ɛla] with an open é. Like I said, it’s good to learn these rules at first so you can listen for the different sounds, but after speaking the language for awhile, you will develop an ear for when the vowels should be open or closed.

As for consonants, here are the ones most likely to give Spanish speakers trouble:

  • the digraph nh (eg, montanha) is equivalent to the Spanish ñ, though a bit softer.
  • the sound lh (eg, mulher, folha) isn’t present in Spanish, but it’s the same as the Italian gl  in foglia or the ll in the English word “million”. It’s like saying l followed by y.
  • the letter j (eg, jardim, cajú) is not pronouned [h] like in Spanish. It sounds [zh] like the French j in jardin or the s in the English word “measure”.
  • the same goes for the letter g, which has a soft [zh] sound when it comes before letters e or i (gente, página) but retains the hard English [g] sound before an a, o, u or consonant (goiaba, frango, paga). This is just like how g behaves in Italian. When letter g comes before an [i] or [e] sound but the sound is supposed to be hard [g], it can be hardened by inserting a letter u after it, in which case the u is silent: pague [‘pagi], guerra [‘geʁa]
  • the letter x is not pronounced [h] like in Spanish, but can be either [sh] (maxixe = [ma’shishi]), [s] (próxima = [‘prɔsima]), or [z], (except in English loanwords, when it is pronounced [ks] like in English (taxi = [‘taksi], saxofone = [sakso’foni]).
  • the digraph ch is not pronounced like in Spanish, but is always a soft [sh] sound. Compare Sp. churro [‘churo], the tasty fried snack, to Pt. choro [‘shoɾu], the Brazilian musical genre. Another example is the Brazilian spirit cachaça = [ka’shasa]
  • the Spanish ll [y] sound doesn’t exist in Portuguese, but when that sound is present in foreign loanwords it is approximated using a dipthong beginning with the letter i. iate = yacht. iogurte = yogurt. caiaque = kayak.
  • the letter s is always [s] in Spanish, but in Portuguese it can be either [s] or [z] depending on position in a word. When it comes between two vowels, it is [z]. casa = [‘kazə], not Sp. [‘kasa].  The exception is when it is double ss, which is always pronounced [s]: cassava = [kə‘sava].
  • the letter d is articulated with the tongue on the back of the teeth, just as in Spanish. But only the hard [d] sound (eg, Spanish dos, cuando) occurs in Portuguese. The sound known as soft d, eth [ð], or a voiced dental fricative, as in Spanish nada or ciudad, does not exist in Portuguese. This means that Portuguese nada is pronounced [nadə], not [naða]. The only exception to this is when the letter d comes before i or unstressed e, in which case (in most but not all Brazilian accents) it gets palatalized and becomes a [dj] sound which is pronounced with the tongue touching the alveolar ridge on the hard palate of the mouth, just as in English. For example, cidade [si’dadji], digo [‘djigu]. See this StreetSmart Brazil video on the various sounds of d.
  • the letter t is pronounced similar to Spanish, with the tongue on the back of the teeth. The only exception is when t comes before i or unstressed e, in which case (just like with d) it gets palatalized and becomes [tsh]. For example, abacate [aba’katshi], tijolo [tshi’zholu].
  • the letter b is always pronounced like a hard English b (ie, a stop), never like a soft Spanish b (a fricative).

The Portuguese R

And then there’s r. Oh man, r’s are fun. And frustrating. As with many languages, r can take on a kaleidoscope of different sounds depending on its placement within a word and the dialect of the speaker. See this Wikipedia entry on r in Portuguese. It’s pretty much impossible to give any hard and fast rules that apply across all dialects. But I’m going to try to give you a sense of the variation.

In all Portuguese dialects, there are two different sounds associated with the letter r. The first, sound, which I’ll call <r>, is pronounced the same way in all dialects. And fortunately for Spanish speakers, it’s exactly the same sound as the r in Spanish words like barato, corona,  and cristo, a sound known as the “alveolar tap” (or “flap”). The IPA symbol for this is [ɾ]. It’s called a tap because your tongue taps the roof of your mouth just once, very lightly — but you don’t roll or trill the r.

You use the [ɾ] sound in the same situations as in Spanish — whenever r appears in the middle of a word between two vowels (barata), or after a consonant but before a vowel (cristo). Try saying these Portuguese words with a crisp alveolar tap: quatro, trem, carioca, caro, para, barato.

But! There is a second rhotic sound in Portuguese, which I’ll call <rr>, that occurs whenever letter r is doubled (guerra, correr, carregar), when it appears at the beginning or end of a word (rio, restaurante, roda, beber, doutor), or when it appears at the end of a syllable next to a consonant (corpo, parte, quarto). The temptation for Spanish speakers here is to roll the r. And this is not wrong. But to a Brazilian ear, it will sound like either (a) you have a Spanish accent, or (b) you come from Rio Grande do Sul state where people speak with a distinctive accent known as  gaúcho or fronteiriço.

How Portuguese speakers actually pronounce <rr> varies widely depending on the dialect, region of the world, and idiosyncrasies of the speaker. Depending on who you’re talking to, you might hear any of these <rr> sounds:

    • a voiceless glottal fricative [h], like a thick English h (throughout much of Brazil)
    • a voiceless velar [x] or uvular [χ] fricative like the CH in Hebrew Chanukah, Scottish loch, or Welsh achos (e.g. rio in the carioca accent)
    • an alveolar approximant [ɹ] like the American English r (falar or quarto in the Paulista and caipira accents from São Paulo)
    • a voiced alveolar trill [r] like the Spanish rolling r (rio, as pronounced in the gaúcho dialect of Brazil’s deep south, also in Lusophone Africa)
    • a voiced uvular fricative [ʁ] like the French guttural r (rio, in much of Portugal)
    • or it can disappear from the end of a word entirely (falar or any other infinitive in the carioca accent, sort of like British English car, bird, yard)
  • To the extent that there is a ‘neutral’ Brazilian pronunciation of <rr>, I would say it is most common to hear [χ], [x], or [h]. Always voiceless. If you’re doing something along these lines you really can’t go wrong in Brazil. These three sounds are pretty similar in practice, the only difference is how heavy or thick they sound. My own <rr>‘s alternate fairly indiscriminately between these three, though I usually opt for a heavier, more uvular [χ] at the beginning of a word like Rio, a lighter [x] at the end of a syllable like corpo, and a very light [h] or [x] at the end of a word like falar. My advice, then, is to choose the dialect and accent you want to learn, and listen to how speakers with that accent pronounce their r‘s. But don’t sweat it too much: no matter which r you say, you’ll be understood just fine. There’s really no such thing as a wrong r in Portuguese.
  • A quick hack for producing the [χ] sound: This sound is much like the French gutteral r, which sounds a bit like you’re gargling water in the back of your throat. The big difference is that in French it is a voiced sound, where as in Portuguese it is voiceless, so you’re not vibrating your vocal cords while you say it. A little less gargle-y, too – it’s more velar and less uvular, and it’s not trilled at all. But the place of articulation is about the same to my ear. Compare French restaurant and Portuguese restaurante on Forvo.
  • If you can’t manage that, just use a plain old English [h] in words like rio [hiu], corpo [kohpu], falar [falah]

You can hear the difference in the two r‘s by listening to a speaker pronounce quatro (<r>) and then quarto (<rr>).

All this said, could you get by in Brazil just speaking Portuguese with a Spanish pronunciation? Well, here’s some advice from Orlando Kelm:

No, there will be no problem when you try to speak some Portuguese with a bit of a Spanish accent.  The Brazilians will appreciate your effort and they will love talking to you.  To be sure, your ability to converse would be enhanced by your understanding of Brazilian Portuguese.  But the bottom line will be some delightful hours while sitting with new friends, munching on pão de queijo and drinking a cold one (Chopp for you, fruit juice for me).  And for anyone else out there, Bob’s example is wonderful, don’t let the need for perfection in a foreign language get in the way of your enjoyment of the experience along the way.

Pronouns (or, Why Portuguese conjugations are easy!)

Let’s first look at the literal equivalence of each pronoun in Spanish and Portuguese:

  1. yo -> eu
  2. tu -> tu
  3. él/ella/usted -> ele/ela/você
  4. nosotros -> nós
  5. vosotros -> vós
  6. ellos/ellas/ustedes -> eles/elas/vocês

The equivalence is straightforward, but the way they are used is quite different. As with many languages, it’s the second-person pronouns that cause confusion. Just like how there are differences in pronoun use between Latin American Spanish and Castillian Spanish, so there are differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese. Let’s look at each one of these in more detail.

#1 is the most straightforward. yo always equals eu, and just like in Spanish, you can usually drop the pronoun because the verb conjugation makes it clear that you’re talking about yourself. eu is pronounced [‘eu] or AY-u.

#2. Here’s where it gets more complicated. In European Portuguese, tu is used similarly to Spanish, to refer to close friends, family members, children, and people assumed to be of lesser status, while você is used like usted for strangers and more distant relations.

Brazilians, however, tend to be much more relaxed when it comes to formalities, so the usual T-V distinction of most Romance languages breaks down.

In Brazil, tu is rarely used outside of songs and poetry. Instead, most Brazilians use você and vocês in a wide range of situations to refer to friends, family, acquaintances, people on the street, colleagues, and strangers. This is not to say you won’t occasionally hear Brazilians using tu, but when they do, it conveys an unusually high degree of intimacy, much great than in Spanish or French. So tu is used in much more limited contexts in Brazil. Meanwhile, você, as the default “you”, is used in many more contexts than usted in Latin American Spanish.

#3. The circumflex accent on você indicates that the stress is on the second syllable, and the e is closed: [vo’se] or vo-SAY. Luckily, você is conjugated in the third person singular, the same as ele and ela. What this means is that you can essentially forget about learning the tu forms of verbs if you’re studying Brazilian Portuguese. You should definitely be aware that it exists, and it’s not all that hard to learn later, but at the beginning stages you shouldn’t worry about it. And ele and ela, of course, correspond exactly to Spanish el and ella.

#4. Brazilians use the pronoun nós in the same way as nosotros. Note that the o is open, so it’s pronounced [nɔs] (rhymes with English “boss”). But in speech it is more common to hear the alternate pronoun a gente when a speaker refers to we or us. This phrase literally means “the people”, and so is conjugated in the third person singular like ele, ela, and você. Although it might feel a little weird at first to say “the people” when you mean “we”, if you listen to Brazilian speech you will hear it used all the time — it’s extremely common. While you would not want to use it in a formal speech or in writing, it is by no means slang or something that only certain groups use — everyone says it. You should be comfortable using both a gente and nós, depending on the situation. (Here’s a StreetSmart Brazil video lesson on using a gente).

#5. Vós is technically the equivalent of vosotros, but with the exeption of a tiny region in Portugal, its usage is confined to extremely formal, ritualized contexts like sermons, Biblical texts and archaic writing. Just like vosotros in Latin America, you won’t find vós used very much in Brazil. I imagine that to a native speaker, it sounds something like the “ye” of the King James Bible does to an English speaker. It is hardly ever used in normal speech or writing, so of all the conjugations, it’s the one you least need to know.

#6. Just as você is the default pronoun for “you” when referring to one person, vocês is the default “you” that you will always use when referring to more than one person. Eles and elas correspond exactly to Spanish ellos and ellas.

There is actually one other, very formal, way to say “you” in Portuguese, and that is using o senhor, a senhora, os senhores, and as senhoras, all of which are conjugated in the third person singular, just like você. These are used in three rather limited situations in Brazil:

1. When addressing an elderly or much older person, as a sign of respect.

2. In very formal or dignified situations, such as a legislative hearing or diplomatic functions.

3. In customer service contexts, employees will usually address customers this way, similar to the polite use of “sir” or “ma’am” in English. If you are travelling to Brazil, this is probably the most common situation where you will encounter o senhor/a senhora. Even if you are addressed by an employee this way, it’s normal to respond using você.

Some guides, such as Pimsleur, tend to overstate the use of o senhor/a senhora. In general, you do not need to use it when talking to a stranger or someone you’ve just met — você will suffice. Even in the business world, I think você is appropriate 90% of the time.

To recap the second person pronouns in Brazilian Portuguese:

você/vocês = the default pronoun for friends, family, colleagues, strangers

o senhor/a senhora = the most formal form of address in everyday life, but still fairly limited usage. Customer service, the elderly, government or very formal business functions.

tu = the most intimate form of address, used only in love songs, poetry, or in certain parts of Brazil to refer to loved ones and family members. May occasionally be used in other contexts like advertising to convey a sense of intimacy. In Portugal, it is more widely used, similar to Spanish tu.

vós = not used in modern speech or writing, except for a few communities in Portugal. Used only in sermons, Biblical texts, very old writing.

While you should be able to recognize tu and vós when you encounter them, as a foreigner in Brazil you will probably never need to use them in your own speech, and o senhor/a senhora only rarely.

So now here’s our updated, ‘practical’ table for going from Spanish to Portuguese:

  • yo -> eu
  • tu, usted -> você
  • vosotros, ustedes -> vocês
  • nosotros -> nós / a gente
  • el, ella, ellos, ellas -> ele, ela, eles, elas 

The upshot of all this is that learning verb conjugations in Brazilian Portuguese is amazingly simple. In Spanish and French it’s necessary to know six conjugations for every verb tense. But in Portuguese, by leaving out tu and vós, now you have only four forms to remember:

  1. eu preciso (I need)
  2. ele/ela/você/a gente precisa (he/she/you/we need)
  3. nós precisamos (we need)
  4. eles/elas/vocês precisam (they/you all need)

If you consider that most of the time you’ll be using a gente instead of nós, then that’s only three forms. And then if you consider that in some tenses and moods, such as the imperfect, the subjunctive, and the conditional, the eu form is identical to the ele/ela/você form, well now we’re down to just two forms that you absolutely need to know: 1. eu/ele/ela/você/a gente, 2. eles/elas/vocês. Piece of cake.

* A quick note about dropping pronouns: Since by the above logic the word gostaria could mean “I would like”, “He would like”, “She would like”, “You would like”, and even “We would like”, it’s very important in Portuguese to signal who the subject of sentence is, and only drop pronouns when the context makes it clear who the subject is.

Other Differences

We’ve only just scratched the surface of differences between Spanish and Portuguese. There are quite a lot of surprising grammatical differences, especially concerning the use of direct & indirect objects (i.e., Brazilians don’t like to use them) and verb tenses (even when verb tenses morphologically look the same in Sp. and Port., they may not mean exactly the same thing). If you want to know more about these differences, I encourage you to check out the Tá Falado podcasts. But here’s just one example, and it has to do with the Portuguese word já.

How do you say “I have done something” in Portuguese? “I have been to Brazil.” “I’ve eaten.”

This is a weird verb tense called the present perfect. It’s weird because it references something you did in the past, but the focus is more on how doing it (or not doing it) has affected your current state in the present. In English, you use “have” plus the past participle. In Spanish, it’s similar to English: you use haber plus the past participle:

Yo he comido. Él ha estado en Brasil.

But in Portuguese, you don’t use the equivalent verb haver. You actually use the word (= Sp. ya = Engl. “already”) plus the preterit:

Eu já comi. Ele já esteve no Brasil.

It’s a bit like saying, literally “I already ate.” “He already was in Brazil.”

Meanwhile, Portuguese uses haver a lot less than Spanish uses haber. Pretty much anywhere you would use haber in Spanish, you can use ter (tengar, to have) in Brazilian Portuguese:

  • Tem muita água aqui. (“There’a a lot of water here”)
  • Tem trinta alunos na aula. (“There are three students in the class”)

Há muita àgua aqui would be perfectly acceptable too, but in everyday speech most Brazilians would probably choose tem.

You can even use ter with the past participle of other verbs, just like haber, to form various past tenses:

  • Ela tem estudado muito ultimamente. (“She’s been studying a lot lately”)
  • Eu disse pra ela que ele já tinha ido pra casa. (“I told her that he had already gone home”)

29 Responses to Portuguese for Spanish Speakers

  1. CM says:

    very helpful, thanks!

  2. Ivson Oliveira says:

    I reallu don’t want to make ir harder, but threre is a point that I’d like to comment. About “o senhor/a senhora” and “você/tu”, the text is fairly correct, but if you are in the northeast of Brazil, you should use a little more “o senhor”, “a senhora” and “tu” much more than “você”. “Você” is used and uderstood by everyone, but it’s not very commonly used this way, in the singular. Most of the times, people use “tu” (for friends) and “o senhor/a senhora” for stranges. And when we have just a superficial relationship with the person who we are talking to? Don’t worry! You can just elide (not say) the pronoum, choose anyone of them, or say “você”, if you are insecure.

  3. Lauren says:

    Obrigada Ivson por raising an excellent point! For those following along, Ivson points out that, despite what I’ve said about using você instead of tu, people in the northeast of Brazil use tu quite frequently with close friends and family and o senhor/a senhora with strangers. Contrast this with the south, where você could be used both for friends/family and for strangers in all but the most formal situations.

  4. André says:

    The soft “d”, soft “b” and soft “g” exist in European portuguese though. Maybe you should note that

  5. Yoshi Komada says:

    I just learned more from this one page than from 60 lessons on Pimsleur. Thank you for writing.

  6. jo says:

    Spanish and Portuguese are still the closest pair of Romance languages by far.

  7. Xolang says:

    thanks a lot for pointing out the correlation between closed and open vowel and gender! ^_^

    about the pronunciation or accent in general, I think Spanish speakers shouldn’t worry too much.
    I got the impression that Portuguese speakers are way more used to (IMO) extremely different accents.
    within Brazil the variations are big enough, added to that the accents from outside of the country (Portugal, Mozambique, etc.).
    the only thing Spanish speakers need to take heed of are cases of minimal pairs like avó & avô.

    one more thing: “Although [å senhor(a)] function as the more formal pronouns in the language, they are used much less often than vous in French or vosotros in Spanish.”
    ¨vosotros¨ in Spanish is not formal. it is simply the plural equivalent of ¨tú/ti¨.
    the formal form would be ¨usted(es)¨.

    all and all, you impressed me (again) with the great article. bravo! (-:

  8. Xolang says:

    btw, even in the case of minimal pairs like avó and avô, it’s unlikely that one doesn’t get what is being meant through the context.
    for example, the words avó and avô in maybe 98% of the cases are accompanied by another word that shows which one is being meant, even if one doesn’t manage to distinguish ó and ô in pronunciation.
    e.g.:
    a avO & o avO,
    minha avO & meu avO,
    sua avO & seu avO,
    etc.

  9. Valerie says:

    Wow! Thank you so much! Your explanations are clear and extremely helpful. One of the two best Portuguese resources I’ve found anywhere on the web (after a lot of searching). I’m looking forward to exploring the rest of your site. :)

  10. Adrian Estrada says:

    Hello very insightful article and website thanks for the effort.

    I’m a Spanish speaker currently learning Italian and would love to venture into Portuguese.

    Is there a standard version of Portuguese, like there is for Spanish and Italian ?

    For example you could learn Standard Spanish in Mexico city, buenos aires or Madrid and be able to use what you’ve learned anywhere in the Spanish speaking sphere.

    Could the same be applied to Portuguese learned at in educated level in say, brasi, Portugal and Mozambique ??

  11. Thanks for a lot of great information. I’m just getting started on Brazilian Portuguese, so this has been really useful for me.

  12. Michelle says:

    oh thank God for this. I didn’t know Portuguese would be so difficult to pick up knowing Spanish. I think Italian pronunciation is a bit easier coming from Spanish. I can read stuff okay, but the accent and weird consonants and vowels are driving me nuts! Someone spoke to me in Spanish, but it was still with a weird accent. idk. this seems a lot harder than italian, but I’m used to Italian sounds from music notation.

  13. Juiio says:

    First off, Italian is not as close to Spanish as many people WRONGLY believe. There is too much variance between Spanish and Italian when it comes to everyday vocabulary. Italian grammar deviates quite a bit from Spanish. The only real similarity may be in the accent, but even there there is variance i.e., Spanish from Madrid versus Italian from Rome. Okay, if lots of hand gestures are used (Italians are annoyingly good at this), and if both parties speak very, very slowly, they might be able to have a very basic, short conversation….everything else gets muddles very quickly. I’m originally from Spain and have travelled extensively in South America and I have been to Italy, so I know what I am talking about.

    Now Portuguese is the language the most closely approaches Spanish in every way. Portuguese truly is the brother language of Spanish. Spanish and Portuguese grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary is 89% similar. We can have lengthy conversations in our own languages, about most things, and understand each other remarkably well. People say the Portuguese accent is strange – it is not! There are people from certain parts of Portugal who almost sound like they are speaking Spanish. And the Portuguese who have a heavy accent hardly pose any difficulty at all, because we Spaniards are able to identify most of the words quite easily. Remember, you can find 90% or more of Spanish words in the Portuguese dictionary and vice-versa. And the odd word that differs has a predictable cognate in either language. Having said this, the Brazilian accent can sound more Spanish, but there are various accents in Brazil too that sound a little unfamiliar. Still, similar accent or not, Portuguese and Spanish speakers are ABLE to communicate effortlessly with one another in their own language, because our words are either the same, or reasonably similar, our grammars are almost the same, and the way in which we construct our sentences is quite similar too. Plus, we share many everyday expressions that we easily understand among ourselves, that no other romance speakers share. Plus, we share a large Arabic inventory of vocabulary as well. Notice either the same spelling, identical spelling, and/or very similar spelling i.e., arroz (rice), aldeia/aldea (small countryside town), oxala/ojala (if god wills) or algodao/on (cotton). When I am speaking with a Portuguese speaker it’s like I’m hearing a very familiar variety of Spanish in terms of style and accent.

    Culturally, historically, we are also very similar. We are basically the same people, virtually the same bloodline, and we even practically share the same first and last names. How much more similar can 2 peoples and countries be?

    There will always be people who will choose to deny the plain, hard facts, but I have pretty much given you the close language situation between Portuguese and Spanish in a nutshell.

  14. ter is TENER in Spanish not tengar. And there are MANY false friends so you have to be careful I am good at catching them, but one threw me off borrcheiro which is someone who repairs tires not a drunken spree like borrchera in Spanish. The meaning of ficar depends on the context when talking about location it easily translates to quedar . With become it is a little bit harder since there are so many verbs for that in Spanish including separate verbs.

  15. Nick says:

    Interesting post. The plurals of words ending in “-ão” can be a little tricky as well, but if you know their Spanish equivalents it’s much easier :). Here’s an except from my book that simplifies this:

    “Already knowing Spanish gives you a leg up on this. To figure out how you would make the plural, just take the Spanish cognate, eliminate the letter “n”, and see how it would be pluralized in Spanish and take it from there. Thus, you get these rules:

    Spanish Plural Form Portuguese Plural Form
    -iones -ões
    -anas -ãs
    -anos -ãos
    -anes -ães”

    I’ve been working on this topic (Portuguese for Spanish Speakers) for a little bit and wanted to share a couple videos I’ve made. I will also point you to the website for my ebook on this exact topic where you can get the first chapter and a half for free if you want (gum.co/easyportuguese, you can also get the book for 50% off with the code ELLIOT)

    1. Pronunciation of the letter T – http://vimeo.com/76529048

    2. English loan words – http://vimeo.com/77510325

    Curtam!

  16. Kelly says:

    Julio – I ready your post and while there are similarities, let’s face it both languages can’t get very far in having a conversation. I respect you’re opinion but I can’t relate. The first time I started learning Brazilian Portuguese I was probably able to understand less than 15 percent, and that was just guessing. Although, certain words may be the same they are pronounced differently. This is why for Portuguese speakers is easier to understand Spanish versus the other way around. Portuguese has a lot of conjunctions that do not exist in the Spanish vocabulary. This will throw off any Spanish speaker, not so much a Portuguese speaker listening to Spanish because they don’t exist!

    I had Brazilian friends, and we couldn’t get very far in conversation. It was always putting words and sentences in your head – while doing some kind of translation / guessing game. When they tried speaking portonol – it was a correction game, making sure this is what they meant to say.

    My point is, although you may feel they are similar there are so many in betweens that don’t really make it as such. Spanish can be read / pronounced as you see it, while Portuguese you can’t.

    Again, I respect you’re opinion but certainly don’t relate or agree.

  17. Robyn says:

    There are a couple of references to Pimsleur in the posts. I am about half way through the Pimsleur French course. It’s a language I had next to no functionality in. They have put up with my complete ineptness at a French meetup group that I joined. One of the members didn’t need his Pimsleur course any more so gave it to me. It has made a huge difference. Other members of the group, including native speakers, have all noticed. I also joined a Portuguese meetup group to prepare for upcoming trip to Brazil later this year. I would state my level in Portuguese as advanced beginner or beginning intermediate. Because the Pimsleur helped me so much with French, I checked a local library for the Pimsleur Portuguese version. Sure enough, the library had it. I was very excited to check it out. THE FIRST LESSON BEGAN USING O SENHOR AND NOT VOCE. I got half way through the lesson then pulled the CD out in disgust and took it back to the library. It really astonishes me that Pimsleur could be excellent in French and so off in Portuguese. Although I was coming to French with no personal experience to judge the course by, it seems faithful to how native speakers and very fluent Americans in the meetup group speak. I have been in different regions of Brazil twice, about 2 weeks each, and have heard O Senhor used exactly twice (and tu used exactly once). The Pimsleur course, incidentally, was specifically titled “Brazilian Portuguese”. What a shame that, in spite of the Pimsleur METHOD, the material is wrong. (And what a shame, and how UNBELIEVABLE, that the native speakers recording the lessons never told anyone at Pimsleur that, “Hey, we would never say that” – and refuse to take part in this misleading project.)

    • Claudia says:

      The course is not totally off. Let me explain that to you: “senhor/senhora” is still used in formal contexts (when you’re speaking to your grandmother, on a customer service call, in stores, etc.), but mostly by older people. My parents used to say “senhor(a)” when addressing their parents and older people, but I myself never done that; although they tried to teach me that, I never did it because most of my peer didn’t. Growing up, I still refer to elderly people as “senhor(a)” never as “você”, but I use “você” to everybody else. If you use “senhor(a)” people will think you’re saying they are old, so they don’t like. To wrap this up: use the formal version for elderly people only, and você for everybody else. This is basically a generational issue.

    • Lauren says:

      Hi Robyn — I agree, Pimsleur teaches you an overly-formal way of speaking that desperately needs to be updated. I too was frustrated by ‘o senhor’ right out of the gate. However, if you give it another shot, they eventually do switch to você, I think toward the end of Series I. Despite the stiffness of the language they teach, I still found Pimsleur very useful for internalizing grammar and sentence structure.

  18. Timothy Halls says:

    Guía do Espanhol para quem só fala Portunhol.
    http://www.fabianohosped.xpg.com.br/CAS/QuemFalaPortunhol.pdf

  19. Lorena says:

    Portuguese is basically Spanish with a French accent. On paper both languages are almost identical to each other. If you can pronounce these 3 words properly in Portuguese, you will definitely master the Portuguese accent:

    1) paixão

    2) coração

    3) saudade

  20. Isa says:

    Oi! The Portuguese usage of já for present perfect is not totally absent from Spanish. Having lived for 2 years in the Dominican republic, I can surely say that ya+preterite conjugation is almost always used for present perfect in everyday language, and haber+past participle can sound tooo formal to them.

    • Ali says:

      Yes, the Dominican Republic is a country. It’s on the same island as Haiti, near the island of Puerto Rico.

      Isa, I agree – I lived in the DR for a year and noticed the same thing

  21. Lucas says:

    I think the pronounciation of “nh” is wrong , we brazilians dont pronounce like italians and portuguse people do , we pronounce these words nasalized

  22. Ali says:

    I’m a speech language pathologist (audiofonologa?) and use IPA every day at work – you have no idea how helpful this way for me! I’m so happy I could find a resource that used IPA!

  23. Katrina says:

    This is a fantastic list — thank you so much for publishing it! I’ve been studying both Spanish and Portuguese for several years and have been meaning to put together a “hacking” guide for my Spanish-speaking friends wanting to get by in Brazil. This is by far the best guide I’ve found.

  24. Marcos says:

    “the sound lh (eg, mulher, folha) isn’t present in Spanish”

    That’s not true of all dialects. In particular, in castellano, “ll” sounds exactly like Portuguese “lh” or Italian “gl”.

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