Are you struggling with your pronunciation?
That's because you have yet to learn the Sounds of Portuguese.
Portuguese and Spanish are Romance languages that share a common root: they both stem from Vulgar Latin. But how similar are they actually?
Portuguese and Spanish are different enough to be considered separate languages, but they have nonetheless a similar grammar and lexicon that makes them closely related and, to some extent, mutually intelligible. The aspect that differs the most between these languages is their pronunciation.
Now, can Portuguese native speakers understand Spanish native speakers?
Yes, it is relatively easy for Portuguese native speakers to understand Spanish, even speak it. But this is not entirely reciprocal.
Spanish native speakers seem to have a harder time following along with Portuguese native speakers. This unbalance is mainly due to differences in pronunciation between the two languages (we’ll soon look at them in more detail)
Mutual intelligence between native speakers apart, from a language learning perspective, Knowing either language will definitely help you to learn the other.
In what follows, we’ll look at similarities and differences between Portuguese and Spanish in greater detail. Let’s get started.
- First impressions
Let’s take a quick glance at how Portuguese and Spanish look and sound like in the written and spoken forms respectively:
|O nosso mundo atual apresenta problemas muito complexos e difíceis de resolver. Entre eles estão as alterações climáticas, a desflorestação, o esgotamento dos recursos naturais, a perda de biodiversidade, fortes desigualdades socioeconómicas e centenas de milhares de pessoas a viver sob pobreza extrema.||Nuestro mundo actual presenta problemas muy complejos y difíciles de resolver. Entre ellos se encuentran el cambio climático, la deforestación, el agotamiento de los recursos naturales, la pérdida de biodiversidad, las fuertes desigualdades socioeconómicas y cientos de millones de personas que viven en extrema pobreza.|
|Our current world presents very complex problems that are difficult to solve. Among them are climate change, deforestation, depletion of natural resources, biodiversity loss, strong socio-economic inequalities and hundreds of millions of people living in extreme poverty.|
As you can see, Portuguese and Spanish are quite similar in the written form.
In the text snippets above, it becomes apparent that almost all verbs and nouns look alike on either side, and so native speakers of either language can easily read the other tongue.
On the other hand, you’d probably agree that the differences in pronunciation are greater than the differences in text. Spoken Portuguese and Spanish, while still relatable, are less mutually intelligible compared to their written forms.
Now, Portuguese native speakers are more likely to understand Spanish than the other way around. Why? Well, Portuguese native speakers are clearly more intelligent! This was me joking.
The reason behind it has to do with the fact that Portuguese phonology is generally more intricate than Spanish. We’ll get there in a while. But first, let’s take a look at similarities and differences in vocabulary between the languages.
Cognates are words that share a common origin and thus look and mean nearly the same. Since both languages originate from Vulgar Latin, cognate words between Portuguese and Spanish are in the thousands.
As a matter of fact, Portuguese and Spanish share nearly 90% of their vocabularies, meaning that most of the words have either a cognate or an equivalent in the other language.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that 90% of the words used in daily life in Portuguese and Spanish will be the same. See, there are several so-called high-frequency words that won’t find a cognate in the other language.
But even if the 90% figure is a bit overrated in practice, it is undeniable that Spanish-Portuguese cognates make these languages mutually intelligible to a high degree, at least in the written form.
Here’re a few examples of Portuguese-Spanish noun-cognates:
|. . .||. . .|
A few more cognate examples concerning verbs and adjectives:
|. . .||. . .|
Let’s now take a look at personal pronouns. With the exception of the formal second-person singular, they also look similar on both sides:
|You||Tu/você (formal)||Tú/usted (formal)|
The same goes for demonstrative pronouns (Portuguese demonstratives on top):
|Masc sing||fem. sing.||masc. pl.||fem. pl.|
|that over there||aquele|
! Sometimes, the gender of cognate words might be different on either side. For instance, Portuguese words ending with –agem are normally feminine, whereas their Spanish cognates, ending with –aje, tend to be masculine (e.g. a viagem vs. el viaje).
Further reading. Dive deeper into Spanish-Portuguese cognates: Portuguese-Spanish Cognates and False Friends.
Semi-cognates are cognates that, though semantically relatable, slightly mean different things.
Other times, cognates may share approximately the same meaning, but their usage frequency differs considerably in either language.
For instance, the Portuguese word câmbio is a cognate of the Spanish cambio. However, while the former specifically means exchange rate, the latter signifies change in general and is, therefore, more widely used in Spanish (the Portuguese de facto equivalent to cambio is mudança or alteração).
Another example is the synonymous Portuguese verbs necessitar and precisar and their respective Spanish cognates necesitar and precisar. They all mean need. But while in Portuguese precisar, not necessitar, is commonplace, In Spanish it is the other way around:
(pt) Preciso de ajuda
(sp) Necesito de ayuda
(I need help)
There are, to be sure, dozens of other semi-cognate examples between Portuguese and Spanish, but you get the idea.
Portuguese-Spanish false friends
False friends – or false cognates if you will – are words that look the same in either language but mean different things, potentially leading to misunderstandings. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
|Portuguese–Spanish false friends||Portuguese equivalents of the Spanish words||Spanish equivalents of the Portuguese words|
a little while (time)
* barato/a in Portuguese means also cheap.
** propina means bribery in Brazilian Portuguese, whereas in Portugal bribery is suborno. Read the following article to learn more about how these two standards of Portuguese compare: European vs. Brazilian Portuguese – How Different Are They, Really?
Portuguese-Spanish dissimilar words
Portuguese-Spanish dissimilar words mean the same thing but look and sound differently on either side. Here’re a few examples of high-frequency, dissimilar words:
|. . .||. . .|
Another instance of commonly used dissimilar words is the weekdays. Unlike other Romance languages, Portuguese weekdays don’t allude to celestial bodies or old mythologies. Instead, they are ranked from the second (segunda) through sixth day (sexta), with sábado and domingo standing for the seventh and first days respectively:
|Monday||segunda-feira (2)||lunes (moon)|
|Tuesday||terça-feira (3)||martes (Mars)|
|Wednesday||quarta-feira (4)||miercoles (Mercury)|
|Thursday||quinta-feira (5)||jueves (Jupiter)|
|Friday||sexta-feira (6)||viernes (Venus)|
Portuguese vs. Spanish pronunciation
Portuguese and Spanish languages are least similar in their spoken form. This is mainly because Portuguese has more complex phonology* compared to Spanish – there are more language sounds in Portuguese than in Spanish.
This is also the reason why Portuguese native speakers have an easier time speaking and understanding Spanish than the other way around.
Below, we will look in greater detail at how Portuguese and Spanish differ in pronunciation.
* Note that the Portuguese language sounds mentioned in this section refer to the European standard. Dive deeper into European Portuguese phonology: Portuguese Pronunciation: A Helpful Guide to Portuguese Basic Sounds and Spelling Patterns.
Consonants are, in opposition to vowel sounds, speech sounds articulated with partial or total obstruction caused by the tongue, lips, teeth, or any other speech articulator.
Let’s look at some instances of how Portuguese consonant sounds differ from Spanish.
A softer Spanish
In Spanish, the b, d and g sounds are pronounced more softly than in Portuguese.
For instance, in Spanish, you’d pronounce the b without completely closing your lips. The differences are subtle but still noticeable. Here are a few cognate words where you can observe these nuances:
In Spanish, as in Portuguese, there are two r-sounds.
One of them, the so-called voiced alveolar tap, is present in both languages, namely when the r occurs in between two vowels, as in the Portuguese-Spanish cognate caro (expensive). This sound is similar to the sound produced in the words lettuce or subtle (American pronunciation).
Now, the r-sound rendered in words initialized by an r will differ between the languages.
Accordingly, the Portuguese word rio (river) is pronounced with a throaty, guttural r-sound, whereas the Spanish cognate río is produced at the front of the mouth and renders a fluttering r-sound, so-called voiced alveolar trill:
Portuguese is more fricative
Fricatives consist of hushing and hissing sounds. In Portuguese, fricative sounds are more frequent and more varied compared to Spanish.
For instance, both the voiced and voiceless postalveolar fricatives – as in share and measure respectively – are non-existent in Spanish.
Thus, whenever a Portuguese word renders any of these sounds, the corresponding Spanish cognate replaces it with other sound, usually a palatal approximant spelled with ll or a velar fricative (spelled with g or j):
Reading tips! Hushing sounds are one of the reasons why people say that Portuguese sounds like Russian. Learn more about it: Here’s Why Portuguese Sounds Like Russian (or Polish).
What’s more, the z-sound, as in zebra, is common in Portuguese and rare in Spanish.
For instance, in Portuguese, whenever s occurs in between two vowels, it produces the z-sound. In Spanish, in a similar situation, that letter s will render the s-sound instead, as in soup:
In Portuguese, both b– and v-sounds are frequent and match the corresponding letters. In Spanish, however, only the b-sound exists regardless of if the word is spelled with b or v.
Same sound, alternative spelling
The Portuguese nh-sound, the so-called voiced palatal nasal, exists also in Spanish though denoted by a different spelling, namely ñ:
Portuguese “lh” vs. Spanish “ll” and “j”
What’s more, Portuguese words spelled with the digraph lh, for instance, telhado, produce a sound called palatal lateral approximant.
This same sound is found in a few dialects of Spanish, although it is coded with a different spelling, the double l as in llamo.
In most Spanish dialects of today, however, the ll–spelling produces a more y-like sound (as in yes):
|telha (roof tile)|
Also, you will often encounter Portuguese words spelled with lh whose Spanish cognates take a j instead, thus producing a distinct sound:
Tips! Subscribe to Portuguese Dips on YouTube.
Vowels are – in opposition to consonants – speech sounds articulated without the obstruction of any speech articulator. In other words, vowel sounds are produced when the air freely flows out of the mouth or nose.
There are a few more vowel sounds in Portuguese than there are in Spanish. That alone makes Portuguese pronunciation somehow more challenging than Spanish for those learning the language.
So, Portuguese has 14 vowel sounds, 9 oral and 5 nasalized. Spanish has only 5, none of which are nasal.
Accordingly, Spanish has a one-to-one matching between the 5 vowel letters – a, e, i, o, u – and the sounds they stand for. In Portuguese, however, one vowel letter can render several vowel sounds:
|Vowel letters||Portuguese vowel sounds||Spanish vowel sounds|
|i||/i/ rir||/i/ sí|
|u||/u/ mudo||/u/ mucho|
Stress-timed languages and vowel reduction
Portuguese, like English, is a stress-timed language, while Spanish is a syllable-timed language. This explains, at least partly, why there are more vowel sounds in the former than in the latter.
See, stress-timed languages clearly stress one syllable per word. This stressed syllable is likely to render an open vowel sound.
On the other hand, the vowel sounds of the remaining unstressed syllables are reduced, producing, therefore, closed sounds.
This is why the word casa (see table above) has two as in it each rendering a distinct vowel sound – the first a is stressed and thus open, whereas the second a is unstressed and therefore reduced (producing a closed sound).
Conversely, being Spanish a syllable-timed language, it doesn’t have this stress-vs-unstressed-syllable clear dichotomy. That means that the vowels in Spanish are more consistent insofar as the sounds they stand for.
Thus, the Spanish word casa, contrarily to its Portuguese cognate, produces approximately the same a-sound on both syllables.
Let’s take another example. The last o in the Portuguese word livro is unstressed and produces a reduced /u/-sound.
Conversely, its Spanish cognate – libro – produces a more open /o/-sound by simply not having its last syllable reduced. You get the idea…
In conclusion, all vowels are, in Spanish, clearly pronounced. That’s not the case in Portuguese where unstressed vowels are reduced, thus producing closed sounds.
Reading tips! The fact that Portuguese is a stress-timed language makes its word-stress patterns all the more relevant for accurate pronunciation. Learn more about it in this article: Portuguese Word Stress and Accent Marks.
Portuguese nasal vowels
Contrarily to Spanish, Portuguese also has nasal vowels, 5 of them. These nasalized sounds occur when the air flows, at least partially, out of your nose.
Portuguese words render nasal vowel sounds whenever a vowel is followed by an n or an m, and when these, in turn, are followed by other consonants:
|Portuguese (nasal)||Spanish (non-nasal)|
Also, all Portuguese words with a tilde over an a or an o, for instance, irmã (sister) or limões (lemons), produce a nasalized vowel sound.
Diphthongs are gliding vowel sounds – a vowel sound gliding into another one. As it is, Portuguese has a wider assemblage of them than Spanish.
For instance, diphthongs such as ei, ai, oi or ou are common in Portuguese and rare in Spanish. Conversely, the diphthongs ue and ie abound in Spanish and are unusual in Portuguese:
|feira (market)||vuelo (flight)|
|ouro (gold)||puede (can)|
|oito (eight)||mientras (while)|
|ainda (still)||piedra (stone)|
There are a few spelling-pronunciation patterns between Portuguese and Spanish worth to take notice.
Often, when there is an open e in a Portuguese word, its Spanish cognate will be written with the diphthong ie:
Conversely, Portuguese cognates with the diphthong ei are spelled, in Spanish, with an e:
Usually, Portuguese words containing an o on their stressed syllable (open o-sound) have Spanish cognates with a ue-diphthong instead:
Nasal diphthongs are in Portuguese but not in Spanish. Accordingly, all nouns that end with –ão – and their plural forms (-ãos, –ães, and –ões) – will produce nasal diphthongs.
The Spanish cognates of those Portuguese words tend to take the –ión ending:
Portuguese vs. Spanish grammar
Overall, Portuguese and Spanish grammars are similar. There are, nonetheless, a few differences. Let’s take a look at it.
Reading tips! If you’re just getting started learning Portuguese, I recommend this brief introduction to Portuguese grammar: Dabbling in Portuguese Grammar – First Impressions for Beginners.
Both Portuguese and Spanish have four definite articles agreeing with number and genus. Additionally, Spanish has a distinct form for its neuter article:
The Spanish neuter lo is used in conjunction with adjectives. In Portuguese, it is the masculine singular o that is used:
(Spa) Lo importante es dormir bien
(Por) O importante é dormir bem
(The important thing is to sleep well)
In general, Spanish prepositions won’t contract with other words. The exception is prepositions de and a contracting with the masculine singular article el:
- de + el= del
- a + el = al
Portuguese prepositions, on the other hand, are more prone to contracting. For instance, see how Portuguese prepositions will contract with articles:
|prepositions||Contractions with the definite articles |
(o, a, os , as)
|Contractions with the indefinite articles|
(um, uma, uns, umas)
|em||em + o = no|
em + a = na
em + os = nos
em + as = nas
|em + um = num|
em + uma = numa
em + uns = nuns
em + umas = numas
|de||de + o = do|
de + a = da
de + os = dos
de + as =das
|de + um = dum|
de + uma = duma
de + uns = duns
de + umas = dumas
|a||a + o = ao|
a + a =à
a + os = aos
a + as = às
|por||por + o = pelo|
por + a = pela
por + os = pelos
por + as = pelas
Reading tips! Learn the ABC of Portuguese prepositions: Basic Portuguese Prepositions and Contractions: An Inclusive Usage Rundown
In general, Portuguese and Spanish’s verb systems are analogous.
Simple tenses are conjugated similarly in either language. Let’s take the regular verb beber (drink) as an example:
|Present tense||bebo (eu)|
*Notice that, in modern Portuguese, the 2-person plural (vós) is outdated and thus rarely used. Instead, our de-facto-you-plural is vocês + 3-person plural. For instance, vós bebeis becomes vocês bebem.
Also, the be-going-to-future is identical in both languages and uses the same auxiliary verb:
(Por) Eu vou beber vinho
(Spa) Eu voy a beber vino
I am going to drink wine
Portuguese and Spanish use different auxiliary verbs to form perfect tenses: ter and haber respectively. Both verbs are the equivalent of the verb have that also plays the same auxiliary role in English.
Look at these two sentences:
(Por) Eu tenho bebido muita água
(Spa) Yo he bebido mucha agua
As you see above, the auxiliary verb of either language is conjugated in the present tense and precedes the past participle of the main verb (beber).
Now, although these sentences are similar in structure, they convey different time-flow qualities. Let’s translate each sentence into English:
(Por) Eu tenho bebido muita água
I have been drinking a lot of water
(Spa) Yo he bebido mucha agua
I have drunk a lot of water
As you can see, you’d use the English present perfect continuous tense to translate the Portuguese sentence – the action is still ongoing.
The translation of the Spanish sentence, on the other hand, uses the present perfect tense – the action is concluded.
There are other instances of perfect tenses usage among the two languages when structure and meaning coincide:
(Por) Eu tinha bebido muita água
I had drunk a lot of water
(Spa) Yo había bebido mucha agua
I had drunk a lot of water
Now both sentences have the auxiliary verbs inflected in the same tense (past tense imperfect), and express the same time aspect (equivalent to the English past perfect).
Further reading! Confused with all the tenses and verb structures in Portuguese? Here’s something for you: Portuguese Verb Tenses and Moods Explained: A Usage Rundown Anchored to English
Portuguese, as opposed to Spanish and other Romance languages, has a conjugatable infinitive, so-called personal infinitive. Let’s look at the verb ir (go):
|Impersonal infinitive |
|Personal infinitive |
Here is an example:
(Por) Não comas antes de ires para a cama
(Spa) No comas antes de ir a la cama
Don’t eat before you go to bed
Further reading! We use the personal infinitive a lot in Portuguese. For language learners, however, it can be tricky to get a hang of it. Learn more about it: Portuguese Personal Infinitive: What Is It and When to Use It.
Portuguese and Spanish are both SVO languages by default – Subject ► Verb ► Object.
Accordingly, the word order is generally similar in either language. Let’s then look at what is different.
Contrarily to English, neither language uses an auxiliary verb in yes/no questions. In Portuguese, however, you wouldn’t place the verb before the subject as you would in Spanish:
(Por) Ela fala Inglês?
(Spa) Habla ella inglés?
Does she speak English?
Placement of object pronouns
In Spanish, you’d place the object pronoun before the verb. Often, that’s also the case in Brazilian Portuguese. In European Portuguese, however, the object pronoun follows the verb by default:
(Por) Ele deu-me um livro
(Spa) Él me dio un libro
He gave me a book
However, in the presence of certain adverbs, prepositions, or conjunctions, the object pronoun in Portuguese will also precede the verb:
(Por) Ela também me deu um livro
(Spa) Ella también me dio un libro
She also gave me a book
Further reading! Learn more about object pronouns and their placement patterns: Portuguese Object Pronouns: What Are They for and Where to Place Them.
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