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Common Mistakes Portuguese Learners Make

Learning a new language is an exciting journey filled with new sounds, cultural insights, and the thrill of unlocking communication in a new idiom. 

But like any other language, Portuguese has its own quirks and potential pitfalls for learners. Let’s look at a few common mistakes language learners tend to make along with tips to help you steer clear of them. Read on.

1. Assuming Spanish and Portuguese are the same

While sharing many similarities, Portuguese pronunciation differs significantly from Spanish. There are also lexical differences and many false friends between the two.

Good on you  If you have previous knowledge of Spanish because it can be very useful indeed. At the same time, embrace Portuguese as a language in its own right and make sure you learn its unique sound system.

If you want to dive deeper into how Portuguese compares to Spanish, take a look at this other article: Portuguese vs. Spanish: How Similar Are They Actually?

2. Neglecting false cognates

As already mentioned, there are many “false friends” (aka “false cognates”) between Portuguese and Spanish. These are words that look similar in either language but have nonetheless different meanings, which is of course misleading. 

To help you with identifying the culprits of potential misunderstandings (and often hilarious moments), I’ve put together a Portuguese-Spanish false-friends list for you: Spanish-Portuguese False Friends to Keep an Eye Out For.

3. Neglecting verb conjugation

Portuguese verbs conjugate to reflect person, number, tense, and mood. You can still push your message across without using the proper verb form, but it will sound, somehow, rudimentary.

If you are serious about learning Portuguese (or any Romance language for that matter), you’ll have to come to terms with its verb system. While it might seem complex at first, the system becomes more manageable with practice.

My advice is for you to learn the regular conjugational patterns and give special attention to those most frequently used verbs (many of which are irregular).

Here are a couple of reads to help you out with this: Portuguese Regular Verbs in the Present Tense and 50 Most Common Verbs in Portuguese.

4. Forgetting about the definite articles

Unlike English, Portuguese (particularly European Portuguese) uses definite articles before nouns and possessive pronouns. Mastering their usage is crucial for clear and natural-sounding sentences. 

While leaving them out won’t fatally affect your ability to make yourself understood, getting used to saying them will make you sound better, that is, more natural.

Here’s a read for you in case you want to dive deeper into this topic: Portuguese Definite and Indefinite Articles – How and When to Use Them.

5. Skipping pronunciation and listening practice

Most people will say that learning Portuguese is more challenging than Spanish. I agree with them. But that’s not because Portuguese has more complex grammar. Concerning the latter, Portuguese and Spanish are about the same. The culprit is hands down pronunciation.

The Portuguese sound system is way more complex than the Spanish. Take vowel sounds for example. In European Portuguese, there are 9 vowel sounds against 5 in Spanish. And that’s not taking into consideration nasal vowel sounds, which Spanish misses altogether.

Portuguese students who neglect pronunciation (it happens often) will have a hard time progressing in their learning journey. They will stall when speaking and experience great difficulties in making out what they hear. 

It is then crucial to devote some of your time to understanding the Portuguese sound system as well as practicing your listening skills.

Here are a few reads to get you started: Improve Your Portuguese Listening Skills – Best Practices and Main Features of European Portuguese Pronunciation.

6. Being a perfectionist (and refraining from speaking)

Being a perfectionist often gets in one’s way and that is no less true when someone is learning a language. Accordingly, many students shy away from interacting in their target language because they don’t feel ready just yet.

The problem is that that day when you finally feel ready won’t ever come. You have to make do with what you have. Besides, the more you practice speaking the better you’ll become at it. Practice makes perfect. Perfectionism, on the other hand, stops you from practicing.

So, forget about perfection and instead dare to put yourself out there and concentrate on making yourself understood (regardless of all the mistakes that come with it). 

Finding a good tutor to practice speaking is also invaluable. Here are a couple of reads related to this topic: How to Get Better at Speaking Portuguese and How to Find Portuguese Language Tutors and What to Look for?

7. Focusing too much on grammar

Many students put too much weight on grammar in my opinion. This is often connected with the point above of being a perfectionist. 

Because learning grammar gives you a sense of progression and control, it becomes all too easy to hide behind it until you feel “ready” to go out in the real world…

The problem with this is that there’s a falsehood to that sense of progression. See, you can make tangible progress in understanding the principles governing Portuguese sentences and even master pen-and-paper grammar drills. And that’s all very fine. 

But! The relationship between learning and knowing grammar and being able to interact and speak in real life is not that strong. More to this point, being too obsessed with grammar often gets in our way in that we become too self-conscious about it, which will negatively affect our speaking flow.

Note that I am not saying that studying grammar is useless. Understanding the structure of our target language is helpful and surely has its place in language learning.

All I’m saying is that we should be mindful of how we distribute our learning efforts between a textbook-oriented approach and a more pragmatic hands-on attitude (like interacting with others or reading and listening to short stories).

Of course, we all are unique, and certain learning approaches might suit us better than others. For example, I enjoy grammar and will spend some time with it when learning a new language.  But I will also make sure that I am not overdoing or hiding behind it (due to insecurities or a perfectionist mindset).

8. Trying to learn too much, too fast

We often start our language learning journey highly motivated, which is good in and of itself.  But we might set an unrealistic time frame to achieve our goals, which in turn leads to disappointment and, ultimately, we may give up.

There’s no secrets here. Learning a language is a long-term project and it requires time and dedication. We all should have that in the back of our heads at the outset.

So, don’t rush. Instead, try to be consistent with your practice, that is, try to practice every day even if only for half an hour. Consistent practice and continuity are key elements of language learning.

Importantly, celebrate your progress no matter how small. And be sure, if you keep at it long enough, you will eventually achieve your goals.

Here’s a read for you in case you want to learn more about language learning strategies: The Best Way to Learn Portuguese: Key Strategies to Become Fluent.

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Olá! This is Pedro and I'm the founder of Portuguesepedia, a platform created to support and accelerate your Portuguese learning journey. Até já, p

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