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Introduction to the Portuguese Language

Portuguese is a descendant of Latin, and hence one of the languages that fall into the Romance group, along with Spanish and Italian (with which it is most closely related), French, Catalan, Romanian, and Rumansch. It is the official language of Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé & Príncipe. It is also spoken in Macau and East Timor, and there are numerous countries throughout the world with large numbers of Portuguese-speaking immigrants. It is estimated that over 200 million people worldwide speak Portuguese—it is the fifth or sixth most widely-spoken native language in the world. Portuguese developed out of the common Latin speech on the Iberian Peninsula at the same time as Spanish; by the 9th century AD, it had developed into a distinct language.

Like Spanish, Portuguese was spread worldwide as a result of exploration. As a note of interest, the words pan (bread) and arigatoo (thank you) in Japanese were borrowed from the Portuguese words pan and obrigado during the Portuguese trading adventures to the Japan islands.

There are two main dialects of Portuguese, European and Brazilian, with numerous subdialects of each. Only the European and Brazilian versions, however, are used for teaching. Brazilian Portuguese was influenced by both Native American and African dialects and had around 300 years to develop in isolation from its European sister, resulting in significant pronunciation differences. Each variant, however, is mutually understandable by the other.

Because it is closely related to Italian and Spanish, Portuguese is still considered one of the easiest languages to learn for an English speaker to learn.

Portuguese has many cognates—that is, words that are related to similar words in English. Because English adopted such a huge percentage of its vocabulary from French after the Norman Conquest of 1066, and because French and Portuguese are sister languages, many words in Portuguese are easily recognized and learned by English speakers. Here are a few examples:

In English English In Portuguese
atheism ateísmo
dentist dentista
abstinence abstinência
separately separadamente
simplify simplificar
conversation conversação

There are thousands of such cognates, and once a learner has recognized the patterns, many words can be created on the fly. That said, some cognates are “false”, and two words that look similar may have entirely different meanings—more on that later.

English has already borrowed many words from Portuguese that are familiar to us: albacore, caramel, mango, piranha, tank, stevedore, tapioca, and many others.

What are some of the challenges for an English speaker learning Portuguese?

  • As mentioned above, cognates are a great help in learning a language, but there are pitfalls. Fortunately, the “false friends” are much less common, but the learner should be aware of them. Portuguese assistir means to watch, not to help; cândido means innocent or naïve, not candid; and piedade means pity, not piety.
  • Portuguese pronunciation is more difficult than Spanish or Italian. The Portuguese trilled “r” is difficult for some English learners, and Portuguese vowels—particularly the Brazilian kind—encompass many nasals and glides that can be difficult for an English speaker to master. Fortunately, these sounds are not as hard to grasp as, for example, the tones used in Mandarin Chinese, and it will just take practice.
  • Portuguese verbs can be complicated. Like all Romance languages, there is a difference between a familiar “you” and a formal “you”. We have a remnant of this in the English “thou”, but it appears only in Shakespeare and the King James Bible, as far as most people are aware. There are many verb forms that we do not use in English, particularly the subjunctive mood, but fortunately these are not necessary to be understood in basic conversation. They are worth mastering, however, if you wish to learn the language well.
  • All Portuguese nouns have gender, masculine and feminine. There are some rules and some patterns, but for the most part every noun has to be learned with its gender by repetition.

People wonder how long it will take them to learn Portuguese. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, because everyone is different. Some people learn languages easily, depending on how their brains are wired. Others have a more difficult time. That said, you should plan on six months to a year of intensive study for basic conversations, and two years or so for being able to handle unfamiliar situations. Once you get started, you may never want to stop. As an added bonus, once you have learned Portuguese, you will find that learning Spanish, French, or Italian will be a comparative breeze, and you might just want to tackle another language.

Word Examples in Portuguese

horse: cavalo

mother: mãe

father: pai

tea: chá           

come: vir

teacher: professor

friend: amigo


Useful Portuguese Sentences

Hello. Bom dia.

What is your name? Qual é o seu nome? (informal)

My name is … Me chamo…

Good morning. Bom dia.

Goodbye. Adeus.

Where is the toilet? Onde é a casa de banho (Portugal) / o banheiro (Brazil)?

I don’t understand. Não entendo.


Although it’s widely spoken as a native tongue, Portuguese is not as commonly learned as other Romance languages. As a result, for travel or business, a mastery of Portuguese will make you a stand-out individual and open many doors for you that would otherwise remain closed.

Are you Ready?

If you're ready to start learning Portuguese, head over to the Portuguese for Beginners section!