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With 221 million native speakers, Portuguese is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world. Yet it has two distinct dialects which--to the untrained ear--sound like two different languages. That leaves potential Portuguese language students with a choice: study European Portuguese or Brazilian Portuguese.
Maybe you have already decided on a dialect. Maybe you planned a trip to Brazil or want to connect with your Portuguese heritage. Or maybe you just prefer one accent over the other. However, if choosing a dialect has you at a standstill, this article should help you decide.
But first, let’s take a look at some of the major differences between European and Brazilian Portuguese.
Although the two dialects of Portuguese are mutually intelligible, there are a few key differences that are worth learning. Do keep in mind that both countries have their own regional dialects, and there is some overlap with European and Brazilian Portuguese in parts of Brazil.
Even if you don’t speak a word of Portuguese, you’ll notice some major differences between the two dialects.
European Portuguese has stronger nasal vowels, which can make it sound more like a Slavic language than a Romance one. When a word ends in the letter “e”, the “e” is silent, similar to English. Europeans also pronounce the letter “s” with a “shhh” sound.
Brazilian Portuguese vowels are less nasal, which makes them sound clearer. When a word ends in the letter “e”, Brazilians pronounce it with a long “e” sound. They also pronounce the letter “s” with a “sss” sound. When a word ends in the letter “l”, they pronounce it with a “u” sound. The word Brazil, for example, is pronounced “Braziu”.
Another odd feature of Brazilian pronunciation involves the letters “d” and “g”. Some Brazilians pronounce the letter “d” with a soft “g” sound. For example, you’ll often hear the preposition de (of/from) pronounced “jee”.
Finally, in some parts of Brazil, such as the southern states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, people pronounce Portuguese almost as if they have an Italian accent. This is due to a major wave of Italian immigration at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. So don’t be surprised if you hear the letter “t” pronounced “chi” in many instances.
As with other Romance languages, Portuguese has two forms of the word “you”. The informal you is used when you speak with friends and most family members. The formal you is used when you speak with strangers, your superiors, and sometimes elder family members.
In European Portuguese, the word for the formal “you” is você and the informal “you” is tú. When you speak to someone in the formal “you” form, you conjugate the verb as if you were speaking in third-person. Yet in most parts of Brazil, people use você as the informal “you” and retain the third-person conjugation. As for the formal “you”, Brazilians typically use o senhor or a senhora.
Another major grammatical difference is the use of or lack of gerunds. A gerund is a noun that is formed as a verb to refer to action, a process, or a state. In English, you do this by adding “-ing” to the end of a word.
In Brazilian Portuguese you do this by adding “-ando”, “-indo”, or “-endo”, depending on the verb ending. In European Portuguese, gerunds don’t exist. For example, a Brazilian would say:
“Estou cantando” (I am singing), while a European would say “Estou a cantar.”
As with British and American English, European and Brazilian Portuguese have several differences in vocabulary. Overtime, Brazilians imported words from indigenous, African, and other European languages. For example, words such as capoeira, abacaxi (pineapple), and arara (macaw) were all borrowed from Tupi-Guaraní languages.
Now that you know a little more about each dialect, let’s explore the reasons why you may want to choose one over the other.
If a trip to Portugal is in your future--be it for business or pleasure--you’ll want to learn European Portuguese. Yes, they understand the Brazilian dialect, thanks to the popularity of Brazilian telenovelas (limited-run soap operas), but you’ll sound foreign if you speak it.
Literature alone is reason enough to learn European Portuguese. From Fernando Pessoa to José Saramago, Portugal is world-renowned when it comes to the written word. It’s also the birthplace of many notable artists, designers, and architects.
As for folk culture, you’ll find influences from the Celts, Lusitanians, Visigoths, Moors, and other groups who made their way to the Iberian Peninsula.
Aside from Brazil, everyone in the Lusophone world speaks a dialect that is closely related to European Portuguese. It’s the official language of eight African countries and Macau, and is spoken in parts of India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Portuguese communities throughout Europe.
Brazilians, with their laid back approach to life, can get a bit lax when it comes to proper grammar. Their opinion on imperative and conditional tenses? Or even direct pronouns? Estão nem aí. (I don’t really care.)
So, if you’re the type who corrects people’s grammar on Facebook, you’ll likely prefer the formality of European Portuguese.
Again, if you plan on visiting, it’s definitely worth your time to learn Brazilian Portuguese. Most Brazilians only speak Portuguese and rank low on the English Proficiency Index.
Plus, Brazilians tend to have more trouble understanding European Portuguese than Europeans have understanding them. Brazilians often complain that European speakers sound as if they have an egg in their mouth (similar to how Americans complain about Bristish speakers).
Samba, capoeira, and the Carnival, are a few of Brazil’s most famous contributions, but the country has much more to offer. Like the United States, Brazil is a multicultural society with influences from European, African, Asian, and indigenous cultures.
It’s also the birthplace of world-renowned novelists such as Paulo Coelho and Grammy-winning musicians as Maria Rita.
Brazilian speakers open their mouths wider and pronounce vowels more clearly when they speak. If you aren’t familiar with the sound of Portuguese, you’ll likely find them easier to understand. (But don’t worry. European Portuguese is only slightly more difficult to understand.)
From language software to Netflix shows, you don’t have to look far to learn Brazilian Portuguese. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for European Portuguese. While there are apps such as Drops, you may struggle to find other resources to learn it.
Regardless of the dialect you choose, you can always learn the other with a little practice. No matter your reason for learning, Portuguese is a beautiful (and useful) Romance language, and the choice between European or Brazilian shouldn’t deter you!