I’m sometimes asked in surprise why I’ve chosen to learn Portuguese instead of its close – and more pushy – relative, Spanish. Unlike Spanish, Portuguese is hardly ever taught as a foreign language in schools in English-speaking countries. It’s taken up only by only a small number of adult learners, most of whom seem to have already studied Spanish. Do we approve? No! No! No! This is all sooooooo wrong 😉 Spanish may be great, but here are ten reasons why I’m learning Portuguese first, why you should too….and why Spanish can wait.
1. Portuguese is one of the most spoken languages in the world You want a big, fat, widely-spoken language, right? There are an estimated 200-210 million speakers of Portuguese, which puts it firmly in the world’s top ten languages. True, there are only about 10 million speakers in Europe, so we’ll quickly get through that lot. Brazil, though, has 200 plus million speakers, which will take a little longer. Numbers suggest utility but, the trouble is, while Portuguese is big Spanish is over two times bigger (400 million native speakers and counting). Mmmm. You’ve probably guessed that my heart was not really in the numbers game. I’m a fan of Welsh and Basque, after all. All the same, if size matters to you, forget those relative (but for some reason more popular) tiddlers German (112 million) and French (118 million) and get started with Portuguese!
2. The Portuguese diaspora: Little Portugal and pasteis da nata London has a vibrant Portuguese community. I first heard the language when I lived near London’s “Little Portugal”, the concentration of Portuguese-speaking migrants centred on London’s Stockwell neighbourhood. I was soon hanging out in local Portuguese cafés, reading, people watching and trying to limit my intake of double espressos and the delicious bolo d’arroz (a kind of sponge bun confusingly called a “rice cake”) or pasteis da nata (rich custard tarts). London has a fair on O Dia de Portugal (Portugal Day, 10 June) and several Portuguese newspapers.
It’s not just London. In Europe, Portuguese speakers live in numbers many European countries, such as Germany and Luxembourg. There are sizeable communities in Boston, the New England states, California (although Spanish is of course, much more widespread in the US). There are also communities in Canada, several Australian cities and in several Latin American countries besides Brazil (Argentina, Chile). Wherever you are, there’s a pretty good chance you will be able to find Portuguese speakers based near you and put your language to immediate use.
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The biggest Portuguese-speaking country has an enticing image of rhythm and colour, with its expansive beaches, rainforests, exotic plants and wildlife, vibrant culture of music, dance and football and its beautiful people. The Amazon and the threatened rainforests, Oscar Niemeyer’s modernist capital Brasília; iconic images from Rio de Janeiro too: Christ the Redeemer, the Sugar Loaf mountain, Copacabana and Ipanema….I don’t need to sell it to you. My first visit to Rio was very memorable, though downtown Rio, for all its wondrous sights, was more of a mixed bag than I had expected, with tatty, overpriced hotels, unhealthy food, shoddy skyscrapers, astonishingly neglected monuments and polluted bays. It seemed like a cross between Barcelona and Moscow surrounded by the no-go slums that are the flip side of Brazil’s image abroad.
Warts and all, there is no doubt that this country is addictive. I got the bug more on my second trip (note there was a second trip). Maybe my expectations were lower. An early morning jog along Copacabana beach felt like a magical homecoming. It was great to hook up with a couple of guys I’d met in Rio the first time round. All seem agreed: it’s the Brazilian people that make it special. Meet-ups and house-stays via Couchsurfing.com provided further entrée and it helped that my Portuguese had advanced from very bad to simply bad. This is an enormous, varied and fast-developing country and, if you want the real thing, you won’t get very far without the lingo.
4. Portugal? Spanish not Portuguese, but if Portuguese, Brazilian not European. Brazil is hip, Portugal is not. That’s my sense of language learning trends and prejudice, at least among the internet linguarati. I didn’t visit myself until October 2013. I knew some of the history: the Age of Discovery, England and Portugal as old allies (the Treaty of Windsor, 1386 and still in force), Salazar’s right-wing dictatorship, similar to Franco’s in Spain. There was port wine and fado music and images of Lisbon, blue seas and sky, crumbling buildings, sheer hill-side streets all trams, steps and cafés spilling onto cobbled streets. When I got there I loved the topography, architectural variety and those trams; the clumsy playfulness of the Torre de Belém lurching out into the waters of the River Tejo, the Jeróminos monastery with the tombs of Camões and Vasco de Gama.
I also visited Coimbra, further north with its historic and thriving university with its famous student houses and carried on north to Porto, which spills down the steep right bank of the Douro, a river spanned from a height by majestic bridges over to the port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia. Next on my list are two cities in the far north: the historic religious centre of Braga, the medieval capital and European “Capital of Culture 2012”, Guimarães. Also: Sintra (on the coast near Lisbon), with its extravagant, multi-coloured Palácio de Pena and then the Roman town of Evora in the sun-baked, southern Alentejo region. So a big yes to Brazil but, if you’re trying to choose between Spanish and Portuguese, don’t discount all that Portugal has to offer, especially if you’re based in Europe.
5. Geographical reach. Welcome to Lusofonia. The wider Portuguese-speaking cultural sphere is the “Lusofone” world. The word comes from “Lusitania”, the Roman province which covered most of present-day Portugal and some adjoining parts of Spain. Lusitania was inhabited by the Lusitani people. The modern Portuguese regard them as their ancestors. The first colonies in Brazil were even called Nova Lusitânia. There are Lusophone territories on five continents: Europe, South America, Africa (Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, Angola, Mozambique) Asia (Macau (China) Goa, Daman and Diu (India); on six if we count East Timor as part of Australasia. It’s a geographical and cultural reach you just don’t get with Spanish, despite its Peninsular and South American strongholds. If you want to travel the world with your language, don’t limit yourself with Spanish.
Before we go on to reason 6, don’t forget to join the Howtogetfluent Email Club and for “Discover how to get fluent”, my free, one-week video course on how to get off to a solid start learning Portuguese (or any other language). Sign up in the box!
6. Phonological fascination or “Shchshch! Here come the Atlantic’s wannabe Slavs”? Before I knew it was European Portuguese, the strange language I was overhearing in my part of south London left me confused but intrigued. Not only did all the words seemed to run together but it seemed to be snippets of something Slavonic, if with Romance characteristics. It’s all those “s” and “z” sounds, particularly in European Portuguese. Then there are the nasal sounds. “M” at the end of a word sounds like “ng” in “sung” [ŋ] so that bem (good, well) is pronounced “baing”. So far, so bem, but Portuguese has in ãe, õe and ão three “nasalized diphthongs”. Ãe is a bit like the “ie” in pie but through the snout: mãe (mother), pães (loaves). Õe resembles the “oi” in “boil”: lições (lessons). Ão is a nasalized version of “ow” in “how” or “crowd”. In Brazil, especially, ão can be pronounced in a gloriously elongated, exaggerated and expressive way, not only in short words such as important little não (no) but at the end of the hundreds of easy-to-remember words which have equivalents in “-tion” in English or French and “-ción” in Spanish (comunição, relação, imaginação). So, if you don’t want to sacrifice good wine and weather but you do want to get in touch with your inner Slav, Spanish just won’t cut it. You have to learn Portuguese. No more northern European Protestant reserve for me, I wanna make new noises! Ãããoooooooow!
7. Great but little-known literature. Paulo Coelho aside, how many writers in Portuguese can you name? “Portugal Day” is on 10 June because that’s the day, in 1580, of the death national literary icon Luís de Camões (born c. 1524). He is not nearly so well-known in the Anglophone world as his Spanish counterpart Cervantes. Camões’s poem The Lusiads Os Lusiadas is the national epic. Camões has been compared to Dante, Virgil and Shakespeare. Zola was said to consider Eça de Queirós (1845-1900) as greater than Flaubert, but which of the two had you heard of? There are significant writers, such as Queiros’ great rival, Camilo Ferreira Botelho Castelo-Branco (1825-1890), none of whose works have been translated into English. Portuguese has a great but, from an Anglophone perspective, under-appreciated literature.
Some Portuguese writers are better known to us, such the great Lisbon flâneur Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), who wrote in different styles under different names. José Saramango won the Nobel Prize in 1998. The modernist Jorge Amado (1912-2001) is one of the most translated and internationally-known of Brazil’s authors. Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839–1908) had a unique style and is often considered the greatest Brazilian writer and one of the world’s great novelists. Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987) is widely regarded as the country’s top poet. Portuguese letters are not just a Portugal and Brazil affair. The Camões prize is the highest award in Portuguese letters. Since it was first awarded in 1989 there have been four winners from elsewhere: José Craveirinha (1922–2003) from Mozambique, Artur Carlos Maurício Pestana dos Santos (pen name Pepetela) (b. 1941) from Angola, Arménio Vieira (b. 1941) from Cape Verde (2009) and Mia Couto (2013) again from Mozambique. There’s lots to discover, from across the world. Let’s join the fray!
8. Great, well-known (and not so well-known) music Portuguese-language literature might be a voyage of discovery for the learner, but world-famous music genres in the language may well be some learners’ prime motivation for getting into it. It might be fado (meaning “fate”), Portugal’s famous lyrical expression of sad but dignified resignation. It might be samba, synonymous worldwide not just with Rio’s carnival but with Brazil as a whole. It might be another of the renowned genres that emerged from samba: the jazz-influenced bossa nova, samba funk, sambass (samba + drum and bass), Música Popular Brasileira. But wait….there’s more! For a start, the language offers the learner the full range of more derivative, main-stream offerings. If you don’t fancy Brazilian hip hop and rap, you could start with populist Portuguese crooners or…erm, sertanejo, h-h-h-huge in Brazil, it’s a kind of Brazilian “country” music…. 🙂 If you’re still reading following those suggestions, how about the many other exotic styles of rhythm and dance associated with carnival in Brazil beyond Rio: afoxé and axé in Bahia region (north east Brazil), maracatú in Pernambuco (further north and further east), carimbo and lambada in Pará in the north? Wider Lusophonia is rich with variety, with music in indigenous languages part of the mix. The national style in Cape Verde is the blues-like morna, which is often sung in Cape Verdean creole. In Angola, semba is still vibrant. It was a precursor to Brazilian samba and to other Angolan styles such as kizomba and kuduro. In Mozambique, the Chopi people are famous for their traditional music, in their own language. Marrabenta is an urban fusion with lyrics in local languages and in Portuguese. The Portuguese world even has its own range of instruments. Fado is often accompanied only by the distinctive Portuguese guitar. The mind boggles at some Brazilian devices, such as the single-stringed berimbau with a dried gourd as a sound chamber. I have to give the Portuguese bagpipes (gaita) a mensh and hope, before too long, to have a blow myself.
Whether you want to understand much-loved favorites from the inside or tap your feet to something completely new, Portuguese is the language for you!
9. Hardest first? I have heard from both Portuguese and Brazilians is that Spanish speakers don’t understand their language, even though they can make sense of Spanish. Why is this? Those difficult Portuguese sounds (see above) don’t help. Portuguese has more vowels and vowel combinations than Spanish. Unstressed vowels in European Portuguese may be hardly voiced at all, including at the end of words (which seems to make separating words from the flow of sound harder for a beginner). There are various contractions which can hinder early comprehension. So, the Spanish “en la escuela” (in the school) is “na escola” in Portuguese and this sounds more like “nascola”. In grammar there are additional complexities. The Portuguese verb has more tense inflections than any other Romance language. A rare feature is “mesoclisis”, the placing of object pronouns on the end of the verb stem before the future or conditional endings, for example “vendê-la-iam rápidamente” (“they would sell it (fem.) quickly”; colloquially: “vendiam-na rápidamente”. Most of these complex features are present in Continental Portuguese and the Brazilian Portuguese of the educated elite, although there is a strong tendency towards regularisation and simplification lower down the Brazilian social scale. Some would say start with the easier language. But I’m never one to walk through a gate if there’s a fence there to be scaled. The insecure striver in me says “prove yourself first with the real business”. I don’t want to scare you off, though. That fence, remember, is still not too high. Portuguese, like Spanish, is in the “easiest” category in the United States’ Department of State Foreign Service Institute scale of difficulty. The bargain hunter in me takes note of this and says: “this way round sounds like two for the price of one”. Do either of these viewpoints work for you too?
10. Just to be different….and to cock a cheeky snoop in the Basque Country and Catalunya!….. It’s true, I rather like standing out from the crowd of Spanish learners. Portuguese speakers certainly seem flattered when you tell them you’re learning their language and you don’t speak Spanish. It beats being just another of those awful travellers who regales Lusophones with ropy Spanish and hopes for the best. Does such crass behaviour really beat just speaking louder in English? Then there’s my personal take on Spain as someone instinctively sympathetic to minoritised languages. A Basque learner, like any other minoritised language learner, sometimes has to make an extra effort to get exposure. Speaking the big, bad “imperial” language is hardly going to help. It’s a problem I don’t have. I don’t speak Castilian. End of. You don’t speak Basque, you, Mr Spaniard, despite twenty years residence in Donostia? You wanna say something? How’s about this: I regale you with my ropy Portuguese or….I speak to you louder in English. The choice is yours. ¿Vale? 😉
No, I don’t say you have to buy into my views in the minoritised language sphere 🙂 but I do say get clear on your own reasons for your choice of language….it will help you keep going on the road ahead. So, it’s Portuguese for me. At least first of all. I do admit, you see, that it’s never really “either…or”. Not for me or for any true language lover. Whisper it quietly, but I do feel some of the allure of Spanish. It’s just that it will simply have to wait. If you’re starting with Portuguese (or if you really much prefer Spanish), it’d be great if you told me your reasons in the comments section below.
Update: if you fancy starting to learn Portuguese (or taking it further) as part of an online study group, check out my review of the 90 day Add1Challenge here. I’ve done three Add1Challenges and highly recommend it. Applications tend to open monthly. Follow the link at the bottom of my review.