Is Portuguese Similar to Spanish, and Which Should You Learn?

Is Portuguese Similar to Spanish

Is Portuguese similar to Spanish? For some reason, people keep asking about French and Spanish, or Italian and Spanish, but Portuguese?

Meh.

Unless you have a trip to Lisbon planned soon, or you recently met a cute Porto, for some reason you don’t think of studying Portuguese.

With French, for instance, many are forced to choose between French and Spanish as a second language at school. Naturally, those people would ask what are the similarities between the two languages. But Portuguese is rarely even taught as a second or third language.

Which leads me to believe that people who ask ‘Is Portuguese similar to Spanish’ already have a bit of experience in either one of the languages, and a very concrete motivation for learning them.

This is great!

There is a good reason many people say ‘I have spent X-amount of time of my life studying this language and I can’t even say a word.’ Because you were never actually committed to learning it! So be it for love, travel, or business, find your motivation and hold onto it, whether you choose to learn Spanish or learn Portuguese!

Is Portuguese Similar to Spanish?

First off, Let’s look at some stats, shall we? There are 567 million Spanish-speaking humans out there and 260 million Portuguese speakers. Just so that we are clear, this includes native speakers and people who have it as a second language. That should serve as a rough estimate of how many chances you will get to use either of the two languages.

The short answer to that being — probably plenty of them. Still, Spanish speakers are much more and besides, there are around 21 million people learning Spanish right now. There is much more interest in the language from foreigners (which is amazing, because Spanish is a really beautiful language… but so is Portuguese).

Apart from the number of speakers, both languages span continents.

What is more, both have different versions in different countries, to the point where Brasilian-Portuguese or Argentinian-Spanish can sound drastically different from what people speak in Portugal or Spain. Even within the countries, there is a variety of accents and dialects, which can sometimes make comprehension…

Absurdly difficult. No, but honestly, it is quite discouraging to discover that after investing so much time in learning a language you can hardly understand a word of a conversation between natives.

Which is my first point, a.k.a.:

One Frustrating Characteristic Of Both Languages

So I am an Eastern European girl, dating a Spanish guy, right? And when first I met them, I was actually at a point where I felt pretty confident in my Spanish skills. I had spent years studying, I had the certificates to prove my proficiency, and I even worked in Spain.

Imagine my utter frustration at his Southern accent.

Just a hint for you: they don’t pronounce half of the letters in a word. He literally had to repeat every sentence a few times for me to understand. Anyways, we got over it, or more like, I got used to it.

And this is a very mild example of how real-life Spanish (or Portuguese) bursts your happy bubble of ‘I’ve got this’.

It’s just natural if you think about it. Both languages have native speakers all over the world. These people live in different conditions, different communities, they even have different ethnicities (khm, native American people). You just can’t expect them to speak the same, which is why there can never be only one standard version of Spanish or of Portuguese. It is not just pronunciation, either, it is the vocabulary and sometimes even grammar, too. For instance, one of my favorite examples of why you should mind the local particularities of expression — in Spain coger means to grab something. You can safely say ‘Voy a coger el autobús.’ — I am going to get the bus. In Mexico, coger usually means to fuck. You can imagine the inconvenience of not knowing that.

But does this mean that both Portuguese and Spanish are just impossible to master because neither is just one uniform language? Of course not!

English is not uniform either, and people all over the world manage to learn it as a second language. There is, however, one crucial tip that you should hear, regardless of which one to learn:

There is only so much a textbook can do for you

With so many accents and variations, it is no wonder that a textbook can’t teach you all. And besides, call this a stereotype, but both Portuguese and Spanish people are very sociable, very party hard, and thus both languages have a rich and intricate slang.

If you try to translate how some people speak in Spanish — well that would be a whole lot of swearing, and it is not that frowned upon either. As a foreigner, trying to sound native will be awfully awkward at first, but you will have to try. Start by finding some native speaking buddies — be it over the Internet or in person.

One great option is Facebook groups for language exchange. If you live in a bigger city, it is almost certain that you will find a native Spanish or Portuguese speaker in your area. Many of those people are expats, usually ones that just arrived in your home country and will be looking to learn the local language/exercise their English. In my experience, they are also very friendly and just generally really cool people to know, so language exchanges are definitely something worth trying out.

If you prefer online communication — I get it, social anxiety can be really tough to overcome, not to mention that there is always some paranoia around meeting someone you only know through the Internet. Fortunately, there are a million and one forums and online communities for you to join. If you are taking an online course (and you should, they are at a much better value and let’s not even compare convenience), choose one that gives you access to a language learning community.

These closed forums tend to be better, as they are composed of people who are already committed to learning the language and constantly improving their skills.

You can also try learning them online—Rocket Spanish and Rocket Portuguese are great places to start.

As for the actual differences between the languages — there are a few, but not that many. Some would say Portuguese sounds like drunken Spanish, and although I kind of find this comparison funny, this is not true either. For grammar, the difficult things are more or less the same in both languages. Once you master the subjunctive verb mood in Spanish — it is practically the same in Portuguese.

The same goes for even simpler things, like verb conjugations or proper tense use.

But are they mutually intelligible?

Or in other words, can a Portuguese speaker understand Spanish and vice versa. Well, if they could do it fully, we would not be talking about two different languages, right? And sure enough, while you could get by with Spanish in Portugal and Portuguese in Spain, you will be struggling. I am not talking about native speakers here—they have it somewhat easier.

So when considering which one to study, first and foremost, consider where you would be using it. If it’s for an upcoming trip, or if you’re moving to the respective country the answer should be obvious. The same goes for the brave foreign girlfriends and boyfriends that are learning their significant other’s language.

If, however, it is just for the fun and you can’t really give me a practical reason for which you want to learn the language, I would have to say Spanish. I don’t mean to come across as biased, trust me—I adore the Portuguese language and culture, but there are two important considerations here.

Why you should start with Spanish

One, more people speak Spanish. Period. Not only do more people speak it, but people learn it.

It doesn’t have the lingua franca status of English, but it is still a very popular language, and a useful one, too.

Secondly, Spanish is easier when it comes to pronunciation. Don’t mind my earlier rant about accents within the Spanish language, as a whole, it is easier to pronounce. The sounds are more open, there are more vowels, the sentences flow easily. With Portuguese, it might be discouraging how many different sounds you will have to twist your mouth into emitting.

At the end of the day, whether you choose to learn Spanish or Portuguese, give yourself a pat on the back (and optionally, a hug) for wanting to master a foreign language. Too many English speakers take their good fortune of speaking the current international lingua franca for granted and never bother to learn a second language.

Plus, research says bilingual people have a significantly lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Just a bonus right there, even if you never end up using either of the languages.

Did I miss anything? Is Portuguese similar to Spanish? Which would you learn first — Spanish or Portuguese? Share your opinions in the comments 🙂

– Denny

PS: The best program to learn Spanish online is Rocket Spanish. Click here to learn more!

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