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How to Learn European Portuguese When You Live in the U.S.

Updated: Nov 5, 2019

Lisbon, Portugal (Photo Credit: Frank Nürnberger)

Stroll through the language section of any major American bookstore, and you’ll likely find resources for learning Brazilian Portuguese. It makes sense. Brazil is not only our neighbor to the south, but it’s the fifth largest country, with 209 million residents. Yet materials for European Portuguese are much harder to find.

While Brazilian Portuguese is more widely spoken, European Portuguese is definitely worth learning. Portugal is the gateway to the Iberian Peninsula, and its European dialect reaches as far as Angola, Macau, and Goa, India.

Although European and Brazilian Portuguese are mutually intelligible, you may struggle to understand European speakers if you learned the Brazilian dialect. (Even Brazilians complain that the Portuguese are hard to understand.) So, whether you’re planning a trip to Portugal or just want to be different, you’ll have to do some digging to find the resources to learn it.

But before we get to those, let’s take a look at some of the differences between European and Brazilian Portuguese.

Differences in Pronunciation

The difference in pronunciation is immediately noticeable. If you don’t understand Portuguese, it can sound like two separate languages. European Portuguese sounds less clear, due to its nasal vowels. This pronunciation largely masks the similarities between Portuguese and Spanish, and makes the former sound more like a South Slavic language than a Romance one.

Brazilians speak more clearly because they open their mouths wider and sound less nasal. (They say Europeans speak as if they have an egg in their mouth.) Additionally, people from southern states, such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, sometimes have an Italian-sounding accent. This is due to a wave of Italian immigration in the late 1800s.

Aside from the accent, a few other distinctions standout. European speakers pronounce the letter “s” as “shhh”, whereas Brazilians pronounce it as “ssss”, similar to English. When a word ends in “e”, the letter is silent in European Portuguese, but has a long “e” sound in Brazilian Portuguese. And when a word ends in "l" in Brazilian Portuguese, they pronounce it as if it were a "u." For example, Brazilians refer to their country as Braziu, not Brazil, as someone who is Portuguese would.

These are just a few of the more noticeable ones. If you travel throughout either country, you'll likely hear even more differences due to regional accents.

Differences in Grammar

There are several minor differences in grammar between the two dialects. The biggest is the formal and informal you. In Portugal, people use the word você when speaking to their superiors and strangers, and tu, when speaking informally with friends and family. But in most parts of Brazil, people use você informally and o senhor or a senhora formally. Verbs are conjugated differently for the tu and você forms in European Portuguese, but are conjugated the same in Brazilian Portuguese.

Differences in Vocabulary

As with British and American English, European and Brazilian Portuguese have differences in vocabulary. For example, a pineapple in Portugal is called o ananás, while that same fruit is known as o abacaxi in Brazil. Similar to American English, Brazilian Portuguese has adopted words from indigenous, African, and other European languages over the years, giving it a richer vocabulary.

European Portuguese Resources

Now, the section you’ve been waiting for. Here are a few resources to help you learn European Portuguese, without buying a plane ticket.

Portuguese Lessons with Carla (Free)

Carla Sabala is a native European-Portuguese speaker who starting teaching it as a second language in England. She now hosts a free podcast to teach English speakers around the world.

Practice Portuguese ($16.49 per month)

Practice Portuguese is an online subscription service that focuses on conversational European Portuguese. You’ll learn vocabulary, grammar, and Portuguese culture from native speakers. The subscription includes podcasts with English transcripts, videos, and quizzes to test your skills.

You can also download the Practice Portuguese podcast for free (without the transcripts) and check out the Youtube channel.

Pimsleur European Portuguese ($119.95 for Level 1)

One of the most famous language learning programs, Pimsleur is also one of the few that offers a European Portuguese option. If you’re not sure you want to drop over $100, you can try a free lesson first.

Instituto Camões ($200 to $356 per 12-week course)

If you want to take a more traditional approach, the Instituto Camões offers online courses year-round. Courses last 12 weeks and cost anywhere from $200 to $356, depending on the package you choose.

From Brazilian to European Portuguese

Since resources for European Portuguese are hard to find, you may want to start by learning Brazilian Portuguese. With a little practice, or even just listening to podcasts or watching Portuguese movies, you can quickly pick up the European dialect. (I’ve done this myself.)

Whichever you choose, European or Brazilian, you can always learn the other later. Each one opens a different door to a unique history and culture that’s worth exploring.