Is Portuguese a difficult language to learn?
Portuguese is a Romance language originating in the Iberian Peninsula of Europe. It is the sole official language of Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Brazil, while having co-official language status in East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, and Macau. A Portuguese-speaking person or nation is referred to as “Lusophone” (lusófono). As the result of expansion during colonial times, a cultural presence of Portuguese and Portuguese creole speakers are also found around the world. Portuguese is part of the Ibero-Romance group that evolved from several dialects of Vulgar Latin in the medieval Kingdom of Galicia and the County of Portugal and has kept some Celtic phonology and its lexicon.
With approximately 215 to 220 million native speakers and 50 million second-language speakers, Portuguese has approximately 270 million total speakers. It is usually listed as the sixth-most spoken language and the third-most spoken European language in the world in terms of native speakers. Being the most widely spoken language in South America and all of the Southern Hemisphere, it is also the second-most spoken language, after Spanish, in Latin America, one of the 10 most spoken languages in Africa, and is an official language of the European Union, Mercosur, the Organization of American States, the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union, and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries, an international organization made up of all of the world’s officially Lusophone nations. In 1997, a comprehensive academic study ranked Portuguese as one of the 10 most influential languages in the world.
Let's now look at the difficulty level of Portuguese!
The Portuguese themselves often say that their language is difficult because of the phonetics, pronunciation skills, nasal tones, tongue clicking the “nhã and “lhe/lha” along with the rough, guttural R sounds vs. the smooth ones, the endless complex grammatical rules & exceptions, the richness of vocabulary and the challenges of double & triple meaning of certain words, depending on sentence construction, are all a challenge for many! Especially, when you take into consideration the speed in which European Portuguese is often pronounced, spoken & shrank into sentences. All this makes Portuguese a challenge!
Some people even claim that it’s almost impossible to be truly fluent in Portuguese, which, in its global variations (South American, Asian, African) makes it a further challenge. In South America, for the uninformed, many Continental Portuguese words and sentence construction are considered ‘wrong’ or ‘’incorrect’ and vice-versa. The reality is, these “wrongs” are no more ‘wrong’ than the ones between Aussie and European English. There are many different accents within Portuguese, for example, the Azorean accents can be challenging even for the Continental speakers, so imagine someone trying to learn Portuguese and getting an Azorean as a buddy or a Madeiran for a teacher!
According to the FSI list, mastering Portuguese to a fluent level takes 600 hours of study for six months. However, we classify learning Portuguese as more difficult than stated, for a few reasons. The first is because it is very different from English in both grammar and spelling. Also, most English speakers find it tough to get the hang of Portuguese symbols, like the tilde and multiple different accent marks.
Vocabulary: Portuguese is street Latin with a good mix of Greek & Arabic, but it also has word influences from other languages like French, German and African languages like Bantu & Yoruba. African words are a recent contribution to Portuguese, but Africans have been living and coming to Portugal since the XV century, so there is some verbal influence, although admittedly, minimal in Portugal, more so in Brazil.
So how many words does Portuguese have? It depends on where you look, but according to Grande Dicionário da Língua Portuguesa, there are 120,000. The Vocabulário Ortográfico da Língua Portuguesa says there are 381,000 (which includes all the morphological variations of verbs, many of which are regular). This compares to 280,000 English words in the complete Oxford Dictionary, and 470,000 in Merriam Webster. But it doesn’t matter. A competent native speaker may know 20,000–35,000 words. You can speak most languages fluently with far less than this, perhaps 10,000. So Portuguese is no more difficult than other languages in this respect.
Pronunciation: European Portuguese sounds closed and shooshy to foreigners at first. It has a lot in common with other romance languages and Portuguese speakers are blessed to understand Castilian (Spanish), Italian, Galician, Catelan and perhaps French relatively easily, but, the inverse is not true! Spanish speakers, Portugal’s closest neighbour, do not easily understand Portuguese. English speakers find Brazilian Portuguese more open and easy to understand. There are sounds in Portuguese that don’t exist in English (such as ão, lh, trilled and guttural R), but then again, there are sounds in English that don’t exist in Portuguese either! European Portuguese is closer to English in its word and sentence stress, both being stress-timed languages, whereas Brazilian, Italian and Spanish are syllable-timed, and can be more complicated for English speakers.
Grammar: Portuguese can be tricky to start with, like all romance languages, because of the conjugation of verbs. It takes time to get it right, but after a while, regular verbs form similar patterns, and it becomes easier. There are a lot of irregular verbs to complicate your life, but actually fewer than in English. There are other tricky aspects of the language; gender, prepositions, articles, complex tenses, to name just a few.
Like all languages, when you acquire and learn them with adequate methodology, after a while this ceases to be a problem.
So, what makes Portuguese truly difficult to learn?
In my opinion poor methods, poor motivation and lack of persistence make any language difficult, why only Portuguese!
Terrible translations from Portuguese into English even by official translators that shakea learner’s confidence!
A teacher who thinks you have to memorise lists of conjugated verbs, or who is determined to show just how complicated the grammar is, and doesn’t really understand how we learn languages!
Yes, it’s important to understand some grammar, undoubtedly, but it is even more important to attach a meaning to the language and use it in a communicative context rather than mugging up grammar rules and getting discouraged!
And what makes Portuguese learning easy?
Identify your need to learn the language: Remember, your need/ motivation has a strong correlation with your achievement. So, you should identify the strong reason that propels you to stay motivated to learn the language.
Previous knowledge of Portuguese: Native speakers go to school already speaking and pronouncing it in the correct manner. So if you are someone who has learnt Portuguese in school but didn’t pursue it any further, this background is adequate to give you a foundation to start from!
Knowledge of another Romance language: If you already speak/know another romance language! This will make learning Portuguese a piece of cake! Understand the family tree of the languages which will help you to relate the level of difficulty in learning any new foreign language.
Environment: Your surroundings play an essential role in your learning. If you’re living (even or three months on temporal basis) in a Portuguese speaking country, you will be able to learn the language faster. Alternatively, if you’re with a group of friends who speak Portuguese and can assist you to learn the language, you can accomplish learning at a much higher speed.
Add the fun part to accelerate your learning: Watch English movies with Portuguese subtitles, Portuguese movies with English subtitles, listen to Portuguese Podcasts, reliable online audio clips, YouTube videos pronunciation and audio lessons, Audiobooks, Portuguese news channels Portuguese music, Talk shows, Television shows such as RTP TV channels which are the good source to strengthen your knowledge about the language, besides grabbing a few basic books to read!
Remember, all languages are difficult to speak with native-speaker proficiency, but with the right resources, determination, diligent practice one can certainly succeed at learning any language.
The above methods will only make Portuguese easier to learn, however, true learning will only happen when you make a serious effort, dedicate adequate time, be consistent and determined. In short, you need to set realistic goals, study hard, practice, practice, practice and not give up! Give yourself some time to absorb the new language and you will become a good Portuguese speaker. Know that even Spanish speakers tend to have issues with Portuguese, in terms of proficiency and fluency.