Portuguese is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world after Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, and Arabic.
There are two types of Portuguese: Brazilian (spoken in Brazil) and European (spoken in Portugal and other European, African, and Asian countries).
While they have many similarities, there are some differences in intonation, pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.
Generally, those who speak either language can understand the other.
How many people speak Portuguese and where is it spoken?
The number of native Portuguese speakers is estimated to be around 220 million people. Portuguese is spoken as the official language in the following:
- Guinea Bissau
- East Timor
- Equatorial Guinea
- Cape Verde
- Sao Tome and Principe
To learn Portuguese online, you will find that most websites and information pages relate to Brazilian Portuguese rather than European. (Click here for a European option!) Although Portuguese has its origins in Europe, there are many more Portuguese speakers in Brazil than anywhere else.
Rio de Janeiro alone has 12 million citizens whilst the whole of Portugal has only 10 million! So obviously, most of the 220 million native Portuguese speakers are actually Brazilian.
Just as the European Spanish is different from Latin American Spanish, the Portuguese spoken in Europe is different to that in Brazil. Why?
Portugal gained its independence in 1143, but it was only in 1290 that Portuguese was recognised as its official language.
From then on, similarities to Spanish faded as the languages evolved differently even though there remain many similarities.
Portuguese conquistadors in the 15th and 16th centuries brought their language to many parts of the world and that is the reason why the language is spoken in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia.
The Portuguese discovered Brazil in 1500 but it took two and a half centuries before Portuguese was recognised as the official language! By that time, it was mixed with that of the indigenous people already living there before the Portuguese arrived.
Strangely, the African countries that belong to the CPLP (“Comunidade de Países de Língua Portuguesa” or “Community of Countries with Portuguese Language” in English) speak Portuguese more like the European type. This happened mainly because Brazil gained its independence from Portugal many years before the African countries.
Brazil was an independent country by 1822, and Angola, for example, only became independent from Portugal in 1975, similar to most African countries. All those additional years of direct contact with the Portuguese makes the African accent more similar to the Portuguese accent.
Differences in pronunciation
Pronunciation is one of the main differences. Brazilians speak vowels longer and wider, while European Portuguese is more clipped, spoken with a more closed mouth, and sometimes they swallow their vowels completely.
The pronunciation of some consonants is also different, particularly the ‘s’ at the end of a word. In Brazilian Portuguese, an ‘s’ at the end of a word is pronounced as ‘ss’; in European Portuguese it is pronounced as ‘sh’.
Differences in grammar and spelling
Some words are spelled differently. For example, ‘reception’ in European Portuguese is ‘receção”’ but in Brazilian Portuguese there is an audible p to the spelling of ‘recepção’. In other words, the letter ‘p’ is audible in Brazilian Portuguese and silent in European Portuguese.
Brazilians are free and easy with their use of Portuguese, converting some nouns into verbs. ‘To congratulate’ uses the Portuguese phrase ‘dar os parabéns’, but Brazilians like to condense the expression into one verb – ‘parabenizar’.
Brazilian Portuguese sometimes takes words from American English, ignoring its Latin roots. European Portuguese often adopts words from Latin roots, keeping the original spelling. Overall, European Portuguese is far more resistant to change and assimilation of foreign words.
Formal and informal speech
As you would imagine, European Portuguese is the more formal of the two versions. In Brazilian Portuguese, the word ‘você’ is used for ‘you’ in informal settings; in European Portuguese, ‘tu’ is utilised in the same context. ‘Tu’ takes a verb in the second person singular, whereas ‘você’ takes a verb in the third person singular – confusing for the grammar student!
When describing actions, Brazilians use ‘estou fazendo’ to mean ‘I am doing’, and the European Portuguese use the infinitive form, ‘estou a fazer’. You will find, however, that each understands the other in these small differences.
Should you learn Brazilian or European Portuguese?
Well there is the question. It depends on your own focus, be it travel, business, family or friends. The magic that sparked your interest in the language will impact your choice. For example, if you love classic literature, European Portuguese might be the best way to go. If you love carnivals and samba, Brazilian Portuguese is for you.
Also, what are your long-term plans? If you would like to work for the United Nations someday, you should learn European Portuguese because its operations are based in Europe. If you want a job in a North or South American enterprise, Brazilian Portuguese will be best because that country has a bigger economic and trading base.
You may want to study European Portuguese if you:
- Want to travel, live in or work in Portugal
- Want to access a wider spectrum of Portuguese-speaking countries (most of them are more aligned with the European accent)
- Want to learn a more formal and traditional version of the language
- Are drawn to the European experience, from its ancient history to its Mediterranean lifestyle
Consider learning Brazilian Portuguese if you:
- Wish to travel, live in or work in Brazil
- Want a more informal version of the language to learn
- Want to apply your linguistic skills to break into a bigger economic market
- Love South American cultures and traditions
My advice is this – concentrate on whichever you like but choose a textbook or tutor that can explain the major differences as you go. That way you could be the master of both.