October 8, 2015

On Languages: Portuguese


My adventure with the Portuguese language started almost three years ago, when after six long years of French at school I decided to try something new. Portuguese was definitely that. Even though I already speak Spanish, and was therefore expecting it to be quite similar, I was surprised by how different and well, foreign, it sounded to me at first. The Portuguese I was first introduced to was the European kind, which with its throaty Rs and fricative ʃ[1]and ʒ[2]sounds, can appear somewhat Slavic. It certainly does not resemble the Spanish or Italian pronunciation, perhaps more familiar to most people. However, I embraced this difference straight away, as after all I was after something new. Of course grammatically and lexically Portuguese resembles other Romance languages and having already had some knowledge of two other languages from that group, it was definitely easier to learn Portuguese. I cannot say what it’s like to learn it as your first foreign language.
But let’s backtrack a little. Why did I even start learning Portuguese? It doesn’t seem like the most popular language to learn in Europe, which is a shame, because it’s actually the 6th most spoken language in the world. Of course the biggest contribution to that number is Brazil, with over 200 million native speakers. And here comes another challenge: what’s the difference between the two dialects and which one do I choose?
Generally speaking, European Portuguese (EP) is the older, more traditional variant of the language. It’s characterised by more complex grammar and, of course, many lexical differences. Brazilian Portuguese (BP), having evolved differently with more influence of African and indigenous languages, such as Tupi, is the more exotic and grammar-free sibling. Of course the expression ‘grammar-free’ is used here as an exaggeration, but there are many cases of BP phrases that would be considered ungrammatical in EP. One of the biggest differences is the reduction of the personal pronoun system (I, you, he/she etc.) to just 3 verb forms, which makes learning verb tables a lot easier. The pronunciation is also quite different; BP favours more open vowels and the fricative ʃ and ʒ are reduced to the simple s and z, therefore reducing any resemblance to Slavic languages.
Which dialect is better?
This really is an impossible question as it’s all a matter of taste and individual preferences. I, personally, really like both for different reasons and I try to switch between them, depending on the interlocutor, but it’s not an easy thing to do. If you are considering learning Portuguese (and you should be!), I think you should ask yourself where you will be more likely to use it. If you travel frequently to Portugal and doubt you will venture out as far as Brazil, perhaps that’s something to consider. Of course the Brazilians and the Portuguese can understand each other, so it’s not like you won’t be able to use it in the other country, but misunderstandings do occur at times. Another thing to consider is that BP is a little easier to learn owing to its simpler and less strict grammar rules. So if you are up for a challenge or already have some linguistic experience, perhaps you will be more interested in EP. But if it’s your first attempt at foreign language learning, maybe you will find BP a bit less intimidating. This varies from person to person, so the best thing to do is to just try it and see for yourself. Regardless of which variant you choose, I recommend you learn Portuguese because it’s really fun and the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) countries make for some really great holiday destinations! And the satisfaction you will feel when you eventually do master it is totally worth all the work. Boa sorte! 

Written by Alicja Zajdel

Photos courtesy of Alicja Zajdel

[1] As in the words shop, sure or national.

[2] As in the words pleasure or vision.