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Portuguese language and pronunciation

They always hear that I’m not really portuguese. My accent betrays me – apparently, but I don’t hear it myself. I can always tell about other foreigners from which country they originate, with the english being the easiest, followed closely by the germans.

Language experts claim that portuguese is five times more difficult to learn than spanish

Great. Not really motivating. Anyway, if you are going to live in another country, depending on your purpose, status, age and the like, it is polite to at least learn a few words and pronounce them properly.

I have always thought portuguese was a beautiful language

That helps a lot to learn it. Portuguese-portuguese, and brazilian-portuguese. Just as different as dutch and flemish, or “the king’s english” and scottish. Mother-portuguese sounds like ushushush; brazilian is twitter-like: tjiptjiptjip. Both very charming, in their own way.

Foreigners find it a difficult language. – Impossible! – one sighs, – Why so complicated – the other complains. Fortunately, the portuguese are speaking more and better english – which helps if you are a tourist in this country. But if you are an immigrant, you will still have to learn the language.

At least if you want to be able to talk to your neighbors.

The pronunciation of portuguese is considered the most complicated

You don’t exactly say it the way you write it, but that is the case in many languages. Grammar is difficult to master, but that is also the case in many languages. And then you have the conditional. This is nothing new for people who know french. You can compare it with computer language: if this, then that. But the portuguese take it a step further: “if it had been like this, it would have been…” – this verb form has three different tenses – past, present, future!

Let’s look at the pronunciation first.

Let’s start with the “eu” sound. Eu is pronounced as in sew. Chapéu, you’re starting to understand, as a sjaapew. Then the well-known “ão”, which you have to push through your nose as in loung(e). Tradição sounds like tradeesoung. I always liked the plural form of it the most: tradições is heard as tradiesowings. There’s something pleasantly bouncy about it.

You pronounce all o’s at the end of a word as u, and you keep some sounds a little longer: bom diiia, obrigaaada, while you have to hiss other things softly in front of you: com licença (with permission) which you use when you have to go right past someone else. You never say that well articulated, you just slur it a little down your nose towards the ground.

Furthermore, with most languages it is always advisable to speak as quickly and unintelligibly as possible, something I once picked up in France. When I tried to speak french clearly and neatly, I was not understood. On the other hand, when I tried to brush things I didn’t know under the rug by quickly and unintelligibly stuffing them into the rest of the sentence, everyone understood me perfectly!

The same applies to the portuguese language

A sentence is one long sequence of sounds, the opposite of, for example, hoch-deutsch, which must be spoken in a super-arti-kuliert-aus-ge-prochen way, in the front of your mouth. French goes towards your throat. Portuguese is more on your palate; brazilian in the front against the roof of your mouth.

You can probably push those ãos and ões through your nose more easily this way.

You simply have to learn grammar, sentence structure and parsing by heart and use the language a lot. In the beginning I had the strong idea that portuguese do everything in reverse. “They start at the end of the sentence,” I sighed to our dutch portuguese teacher Jeanine. “I’ll never learn…” She had probably heard that sigh before, but nevertheless responded very understandingly and positively. “Não te preocupes – don’t worry,” she would say, “daqui uns anos – in a few years … if you do your homework, that is.”

Yes, well … it doesn’t help to put a book under your pillow, nor does it help to fall asleep with a recorded language lesson; It’s just a matter of just doing it, talking a lot, and – an important point – not being afraid of making mistakes.

I have been very encouraged by the reaction of portuguese people to my clumsy childish attempts to speak their language. “Muito bem!” they would shout out, when I had managed to get a short sentence out almost flawlessly. That helps enormously to keep it up. What also helped was that few people spoke english, so you couldn’t fall back on something easy.

What helped me the most is that I was allowed to go to school with my sons. The youngest learned to read and write in portuguese, the eldest had to quickly retrain, but he did so in one year. I had to supervise that, because “stora” Ana Paula could not do 8 children at 4 different levels on her own.

Looking back, I think that is a special achievement: 8 children in 4 classes, lighting a fire in the winter before classes start, and then spending the breaks chatting with a bloody foreigner who doesn’t even understand a quarter of what you are saying, and is only able to respond with “Sim, sim!”

I particularly liked the chat breaks, which helped me make enormous progress.

Desde já muito obrigaaada, professora Ana Paula!


We moved here in 2000 from Rotterdam, Holland to the Termas-da-Azenha, Portugal.

A big step, especially with two small children.

We are busy to rebuild one of portugals cultural heirlooms: Termas-da-Azenha, an old spa which has been turned into several holiday houses, rooms and a campsite.

You’ll find mosaics and paintings everywhere.

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