The Help and the Hurdle: Learning the Lingo

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Erik Brunar and Lucy Gray

On a popular forum for immigrants living in Portugal, someone asked what were the three hardest adjustments people experienced when moving here. Responses differed from noisy village dogs to slow bureaucracy, but the consensus said learning the Portuguese language was their biggest hurdle.
The Foreign Service Institute ranked difficulty in learning the world’s most spoken languages (for English speakers, at least) – and placed Portuguese in Category One, the easiest to learn. So what’s the obstacle?

Differing Dialects
The Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) world reflects the legacy of Portugal’s empire, with Portuguese currently the official language in 10 countries on 4 continents. Brazil has the most speakers, and as such, many of the learning and translation resources available online are developed for Brazillian Portuguese.
The differences between Brazillian and European Portuguese can catch out foreigners when they start their learning journey, because not only are there differences in pronunciation, but also some differences in grammar and vocabulary. Thankfully, as more people consider moving to Portugal, more learning tools are now available for learning European Portuguese, so be sure to check before investing your time.
As with any country, there are also differences between regional dialects. Here in the west, the dialect is closer to that in Lisbon than in Porto, but you may even encounter words local to your area, particularly for specific kinds of coffee!

Speaking Like a Local
Mastering pronunciation is a game-changer for learning to speak Portuguese – and also for understanding what you hear. There are a few rules that demystify what you’re hearing and also ensure people understand your efforts when you speak.
It can help to soften unstressed vowels, especially a, e and o. The -a, -as, -e, -es, and -o, -os at the ends of words are unstressed unless accented as in está. In words of three syllables or more, the vowels at or near the beginning of the words are generally unstressed. When unstressed, the letter e almost disappears. That is why está sounds like shta. An unstressed o is rendered as a short u sound. Estamos is pronounced shtamoosh, but that oo is very short. An unstressed a sounds like the English article a, as in ‘take a chance’. Hence the second a in Caldas is soft and short, like the second a in the word package.
Portuguese heavily features the sh sound and the related zh sound (as in the English word vision):
S is pronounced sh at the end of a word, or before c, f, p, q, or t (unvoiced consonants).
S is pronounced zh before b, g, m or v (voiced consonants).
J is always pronounced zh.
G is pronounced zh before e or i.
Z is pronounced zh at the end of a word or before m, as in felizmente (happily).
X is most commonly pronounced sh, as in xarope (syrup).
There are four more ways to pronounce X: ‘sheesh’ (X-box); ss (próximo); ks similar to the English X (táxi); and zz when a word starts with ex then a vowel (exemplo).
For nasal sounds, say the English word ‘honk’, but stop just before the k sound. The vowel you get is the om in bom. ‘Hank’ without the k gets you close to the em in bem. For ão, say ‘noun’ with a final k, ‘nounk’, but then stop just before the k.
A Language with History
The Portuguese language is a living history of the people who’ve lived here, including influences from Hispanic, Celtic, Latin, Galician, Germanic and Arabic languages. This may have contributed to the occasional pronunciation quirks and is certainly evident in the vocabulary. For instance, pato (duck) comes from Arabic; esquerdo (left) from Basque, berço (cradle) from Celtic, and guerra (war) from Western Germanic.
Rocket-Boost Your Learning
Finding what suits your personal language learning style is key to progress. Find the online tool that you like the best; sign up for the state-funded Portuguese classes for foreign adults available in public schools and vocational centers; and add private lessons if you can.
Taking that learning into the real world fast-tracks learning, but not everyone has a Portuguese family or friend group with whom they can practise – yet!
Sit alone at a busy pastelaria, then put away your phone and listen to the chatter. Listen to European Portuguese podcasts, slowed down if needed. Watch the Portuguese TV news channel. Find a local group related to your hobby. Join environmental groups for beach cleanings and hikes, whose members are often eager to talk about the region. Join a choir that sings Portuguese songs; rehearsals are repetitive, which naturally boosts learning.
Whichever method you choose, keep going! Speaking any amount of the language will enrich your experience of living here in Portugal. Aside from the practical benefits of navigating services for health, tax and finance; you’ll open up a whole world of experience that will enrich your life and Portuguese experience. ■

Acknowledgements: Rebecca McLauchlan (Editor)