Is Portuguese a hard language to learn?

Portuguese and English: One happy language family

People interested in language learning are always asking me: “Is Portuguese a hard language to learn?” My answer remains the same: “Well, it depends.” That’s because there are 7,102 distinct living languages estimated to exist in the world (Ethnologue, 2015). Both English and Portuguese belong to the Indo-European family, which contains approximately 445 other languages, including French, Russian, Dutch, Greek and Icelandic. In fact, native speakers of Indo-European family languages make up about half of the world’s population. Nonetheless, each language has its own characteristics and idiosyncrasies. So, what makes these two linguistic cousins so different and how can a comparison help us determine if Portuguese really is a hard language to learn?

What makes Portuguese a hard language to learn

1. All nouns have a gender. Nouns in the Portuguese language (both Brazilian and European versions) have a gender associated with them (feminine or masculine) and those who want to learn Portuguese must memorize the gender of every noun in the language. Although masculine nouns usually end in –o and feminine ones in –a, there are several exceptions to the rule such as problema (problem), tema (theme) and mão (hand). In addition, in Portuguese, the gender of adjectives must also agree with the gender of the nouns they qualify. Nouns in English, on the other hand, have no gender. Also, English adjectives never change form. For a research-proven technique to help you memorize and learn the gender of Portuguese nouns, try this paper by D.O.Santos (2014). 

2. Verbs in Portuguese can take many forms. Verbs in Portuguese change their form depending on the number (singular or plural) and person (1st, 2nd, 3rd) of their grammatical subject. This applies to the present, past and future tenses. In English, the form of the verb only differs in the 3rd person singular (he/she/it) and only in the present tense (she giggles, it suffices, etc.), with the exception of the verb to be, which follows a somewhat different pattern. This fact certainly makes Portuguese verbs harder to learn than English verbs.

3. Portuguese has two types of vowels. Vowels in Portuguese can be either oral (a,e,i,o,u) or nasal (ã, ẽ, ĩ, õ, ũ). A large number of learners of Portuguese have a hard time pronouncing words containing nasal vowels (and there are many of them) with as much accuracy as native speakers of Portuguese.

4. Formal Portuguese has even more verb forms. In less colloquial Portuguese (especially in its written form), each verb can take more than 11 different forms, depending on its tense, aspect, and mood. If you take number and person into account, this number becomes even larger and certainly contributes to making verb forms in Portuguese hard to learn when compared with learning verb forms in English. Each verb can only take 4 different forms in English (eg. eat, ate, eaten, and eating), although the same richness of expression is still possible in both languages.

5. There are diminutive forms. In Portuguese, adjectives and nouns have a diminutive variant. The diminutive form can be used for indicating several different meanings such as irony, degree of intensity, or to provide a cushioning effect for what’s to come next, making it hard for Portuguese learners to understand the subtleties involved in using the diminutive form. This phenomenon does not exist in English.

Don’t forget, English is hard too

1. There are a lot of vowels. English has 12 pure vowels (diphthongs are not included), whereas Portuguese only has 7 (plus 5 nasal vowels). That’s why it is so hard for many people studying English to distinguish between words such as heat/hit, bad/bed and fool/full. Getting their pronunciation right is an even harder task.

2. Phrasal verbs are in abundance. English has many of those infamous phrasal verbs, which are combinations of a verb and one or more prepositions whose meaning is usually not the sum of its parts. Some examples include to put off, to call off, to put up with, to hit on (somebody) and to get around to (doing something). Phrasal verbs are particularly hard for learners to acquire and even very advanced speakers of English as a second language may not always be able to use them as naturally and well as a native speaker.

3. Questions require helping verbs. To ask a question in English, one usually needs to employ an auxiliary verb, such as do (e.g. Do you love her?), and have (e.g. Have you eaten yet?), which appear at the beginning of a sentence and change the form of the main verb. In Portuguese, asking a question is a much simpler task, since all that is required is adjusting the intonation of the sentence, whose form remains the same as in a statement.

4. There are a lot of important sounds. English has approximately 24 consonantal phonemes, that is, consonantal sounds that are essential for differentiating word meaning. Portuguese, on the other hand, has approximately 19. An example of a particularly hard to acquire consonantal phoneme in English is the one represented by the letter combination “th,” in words such as think, thorn, and forth. How do we know this is an important sound (therefore, a phoneme) in English? Because of the existence of this sound in what is termed a minimal pair. In other words, a pair of words in a language that are identical to each other except for a particular sound that gives them different meanings (e.g. think and sink). Therefore, the sounds represented by the ‘s’ in sink and the ‘th’ in think are phonemes.

5. The spelling of words is irregular. English spelling is significantly more irregular (and therefore less phonetic) than that of Portuguese. Have you heard the famous joke that the word fish may as well be spelled ghoti? That’s because, gh would be pronounced as in “enouGH,” o as in “wOmen,” and ti as in “naTIon.” Those readers with an understanding of linguistics may know why this argument doesn’t “hold water,” but the joke itself does illustrate how confusing pronouncing a new word can be for a non-native English speaker! This irregularity in the spelling system makes English spelling somewhat hard to learn.

Language difficulty is relative

What we end up realizing is that learning every language is both hard and easy. To make things more complicated, the language(s) you already speak can make the process of learning Portuguese (or any other foreign language for that matter) easier or harder depending on the degree of similarity between these languages.

Having goals is important

In the end, what really matters is dedication, plenty of written and oral exposure to the foreign language, and access to great tools to help you achieve your goals. How about committing one hour a day to reading in a foreign language? You can learn new words in both Portuguese and English with us. Pay close attention to the pronunciation of the words you look up, collect several new words a day and you will be amazed at how much progress you can make and how easy it will become to improve vocabulary in the foreign language you have decided to learn. And while you are here, don’t forget to check out some of our great posts on learning Portuguese. The most important piece of advice I can give you is don’t worry about difficulty, have fun learning and above all, enjoy the experience!

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