By Paula Boyce

19 September 2014 - 11:47

'There are differences between Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese from Portugal.' Photo: Mat Wright
'There are differences between Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese from Portugal.' ©

Photo: Mat Wright

Portuguese is not just spoken in Portugal, but in Brazil and several African nations including Mozambique and Angola. It’s also one of ten languages identified as most important for the UK’s future by the British Council’s Languages for the Future report. In the seventh of our series, Paula Boyce, who’s lived in Rio de Janeiro for over two decades, examines Portuguese.

Portuguese is pronounced differently in Brazil and Portugal

Just as there are differences between American English and British English, there are differences between Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese from Portugal. Some words are different and could on some occasions cause confusion. For example, if you came to Brazil and asked to buy a camisola de futebol (a football shirt in Portugal) for your boyfriend, husband or brother, you might get some strange looks, as here in Brazil camisola de futebol means ‘football nightdress’. In Brazil, if you need to go to the toilet, you’ll ask to go to the banheiro. But if you request a banheiro in some parts of Portugal, you’ll be pointed in the direction of a life guard.

There are also some differences in grammar, such as different positions of pronouns and the Portuguese use of the vós pronoun, which doesn’t exist in Brazil. However, the main difference that leads to communication issues, as I discovered when I visited Portugal a few years ago, is pronunciation. I had already lived in Brazil for about 15 years, so I didn’t anticipate any problems with language — but how wrong I was.

The main difference is that the Portuguese ‘swallow’ their vowels, while the Brazilians ‘stretch’ them. In Portugal, a phrase as simple as Quer cafe? (meaning ‘Do you want coffee?’) sounded something like ‘kicaf’ to me. This led to a complete breakdown in communication, and a lot of frustration. On many occasions, people preferred to resort to English when talking to me. It was quite depressing, as until then I’d thought I could consider myself fluent in Portuguese. I was only comforted when I realised that the same thing was happening with my kids, whose first language is Portuguese!

Portuguese and Spanish are very similar languages

Portuguese and Spanish are closely related, as they are both Latin-based languages and share many grammatical structures and patterns. When I came to Brazil, I had already studied languages at university and spoke Spanish, and I found my knowledge of Spanish helped enormously. Very quickly, I was able to spot the similarities between the languages and create Portuguese words from my knowledge of Spanish, with, of course, a few embarrassing mistakes along the way.

Just one incident I can remember was when I was trying to write a cheque, and was unsure if the word quatro (‘four’) was spelled with a q or a c. I decided to check and asked in my best Portuguese, ‘Do you write the word quatro (four) with a q?’ At least, that is what I meant to say. Only when the shop assistant replied, smiling, ‘It’s better to use a pen’ did I realise that when you pronounce the letter q in Spanish, it means something very different in Portuguese. I had inadvertently ended up saying: ‘Do you write ‘four’ with your arse?’!

However, to say that if you speak Spanish, you’ll understand Portuguese, or the other way round, would be a misconception. The languages are not so similar as to make it easy for all Brazilians and their Spanish-speaking neighbours to understand each other easily.

Portuguese has some unique phrases

There are many phrases that can’t be translated from Portuguese to English. That´s probably why I find myself throwing in the occasional Portuguese word when talking with my children, or with English-speaking friends in Brazil. One word that comes to mind immediately is churrasco, the Brazilian equivalent of ‘barbecue’. However, when in Brazil I would never say Let’s have a barbecue; it would have to be Let’s have a churrasco. A barbecue for me is sausages and hamburgers cooked on a grill, often with a vegetarian option. A churrasco is very different: large cuts of meat cooked on the churrasqueira, perhaps accompanied by chicken hearts, rice and farofa (toasted manioc flour with egg and bacon). You’ll be lucky if you find anything for a vegetarian!

Another expression that I have never been able to find a translation for isenforcar um dia (‘hang the day’). This refers to the lovely idea that if a public holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, you should take the Monday or Friday off to make it a long weekend. The British have managed to avoid this by making sure all bank holidays fall on a Monday.

So a conversation with English-speaking friends might go something like this: ‘Let’s enforcar Monday and have a churrasco. Can you make your delicious farofa?’

Understanding Portuguese gives you a richer understanding of Brazilian music

Brazilian music is extremely diverse, and goes well beyond samba andlambada. My first contact with Brazilian Portuguese was through the songs of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Chico Buarque, three well-known artists who were exiled to Britain during the military dictatorship and who gave rise to the musical movement Tropicália, which combined African and Brazilian rhythms with rock and roll.

Back then, I simply enjoyed listening to the music and never really paid much attention to the lyrics, as my Portuguese was pretty well non-existent. It was only when I came to Brazil that I started to understand the lyrics, and the double meanings many of them have, such as the famous song Cálice. Cálice (chalice) is in fact a homophone of cale-se or ‘Shut up’, referring to the censorship of the time. A deeper knowledge of Portuguese will open doors to give you a better understanding of the culture and history of the country.

Few Brazilians speak English — so speaking Portuguese is important

In recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of foreigners coming to live and work in Brazil, as the country positions itself as one of the world’s emerging powers. This is clearly visible to me just from walking in the streets of my neighbourhood in Rio. My feeling is that the large majority of them only learn Portuguese when they get here. I think many people expect that English is widely spoken in the business world, but when they get here they soon realise this is not the case.

We tend to hear more about the importance for Brazilians of learning English, given that English is the lingua franca in the global economy. English is crucial for accessing information in many of the specialised sectors that are particularly significant in Brazil, such as finance, oil and gas, mining, and information technology. However, according to research done by the British Council in Brazil, only five per cent of Brazilians say they are fluent in English. Speaking Portuguese will undoubtedly give you a huge advantage when doing business in Brazil, allowing you to communicate with employees at all levels and to integrate more quickly.

Speaking a little Spanish is not enough to get by in Brazil as a tourist

Given that only a small percentage of Brazilians speak English, and that the service industry in Brazil is renowned for not being prepared for foreign visitors in terms of language, a basic knowledge of Portuguese is advisable for any tourist coming to Brazil. On many occasions, I have been approached by tourists asking for help. You can see their eyes light up when they finally find somebody who speaks English, as they have been struggling to communicate often trying to use broken Spanish. There is a widespread misconception that Spanish works fine for communication in Brazil, which means that the Portuguese language is largely overlooked. Visitors to Latin America will almost always give priority to Spanish, which is spoken in about 20 countries of the continent, rather than Portuguese, which is only spoken in one big country.

I am sure if more tourists learned Portuguese before coming to Brazil, it would help form deeper international connections. Brazilians are generally very friendly and welcoming to tourists, but speaking the language makes it easier to connect with the locals, have a richer experience and exchange ideas.

Brazil has also become a popular destination for volunteer workers on social programmes. Many of these programmes would really benefit from more Portuguese speakers, because at present, many volunteers struggle due to language barriers. To bring about change, you need to understand people’s backgrounds and the factors that contribute to their current socio-economic position – and that’s only really possible if you speak their language.

There are more options now for UK students to study Portuguese

There are about 20 universities in the UK where you can study Portuguese. This is certainly an increase from my university days when there were probably only one or two institutions that taught it. However, Spanish and other languages are still definitely more popular. A friend of mine who recently graduated from Manchester University told me that in her year, 200 students graduated in Spanish and only 20 in Portuguese. It will be a long time before Portuguese catches up, if ever. It will be interesting to see which way things go. Will more Brazilians start learning English or will the world start learning more Portuguese? Ideally, we want to see both.

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