How similar are Spanish and Portuguese (and vice versa)?
“Hi, Eli. I’m ABC and I like to learn Portuguese. I already speak some Spanish so I think it helps.”
“I’m already fluent in Spanish and I like to use that to my advantage when learning Portuguese.”
” I’ve learned Portuguese for about one year and I like to start Spanish now.”
These are common phrases I hear from students and prospective students. The underlying point here is that those languages are somewhat alike. But how similar are Spanish and Portuguese?
That’s what we’re going to find out now.
I’m going from the perspective of Portuguese. It is my native language, and I stick to family in these matters.
And the second thing you have to know is, although I know you might be interested in the history of the Portuguese language per se, I cannot give you the whole picture. It’s more than a thousand years of documented history. If you want to look into the history of our language, check out this book.
Where does Portuguese come from?
About 2200 years ago, a bunch of soldiers went from Rome to the territory that we know today as the Iberian Peninsula.
There, they settled. They brought with them Latin, the mother of Portuguese and all other Romance languages.
But when they arrived at the Peninsula, Portuguese wasn’t born yet. Latin got around and mixed with other languages, giving birth to Galician-Portuguese (and Spanish… Plus others). Only in the 13th century had Galician-Portuguese become a language of its own.
All along, the people who spoke what’s today Spanish and Portuguese lived together in the same area. Bilingualism was a common thing. So much so that Camões, my god and author of the epic Portuguese poem, Os Lusíadas, could speak a mixture of both languages, but chose to write his masterpiece in Portuguese (with many Spanish and Latin words that came through Spanish) And because of that coexistence, Portuguese and Spanish came to share many similarities.
How Similar Are Portuguese and Spanish?
Short answer — a lot.
About 89% of their vocabulary is similar.
That’s why if you speak Portuguese and try and read a text in Spanish, you can understand almost everything.
And here we are talking about more technical vocabulary. The language people speak in the streets will always differ more.
If you want to see how similar they are, take a look at the table below. It shows some of the common words that with a little bit of imagination and goodwill can give your Spanish/Portuguese vocabulary a boost.
Other similarities include:
- The “y” in Spanish meaning “and” is pronounced the same in Portuguese, but it’s spelt “e”.
- Adverbs ending in -mente are close enough to be recognized.
- Verb endings tend to follow a similar logic in both languages.
- Lots of words tend to be similar in spelling, but the meaning might change. They’re what we call “false friends”. Good name for them. Luckily, Brazilian websites have comprehensive lists for us, learners. This is a list you’ll want to refer back to from time to time.
In our next article, I’ll list the most common differences between Portuguese and Spanish, and what you should keep an eye out for.
Can Portuguese Speakers Understand Spanish?
If they study, they can.
And also, if a Spanish speaker says things more slowly and clearly, we tend to understand almost everything they say.
Here’s a bad joke — if you are born Brazilian and speak Brazilian Portuguese as a native language you already know Portuñol and have about 90% of what you need to speak Spanish.
That’s not true, of course.
But it feels like.
However, if a Spanish speaker tries to understand what a Brazilian speaker says, he or she will have a hard time doing so.
That happens because Brazilian Portuguese has more phonemes than Latin American Spanish — and, I suppose, European Spanish as well.
Especially the vowels.
In general, the vowel you see on a page is what you’d pronounce in Spanish. That way, a is always a, i is always i, o is always o, and so on. Even if you have an N after any vowel, the letter keeps being pronounced the same.
Not so with Portuguese.
In addition to having stressed and unstressed vowels, we also have nasal vowels.
Thus, while in Spanish you have five basic vowels, in Portuguese you can virtually have 14 vowels (5 nasal, 9 oral)… PLUS the diphthongs (13) and nasal diphthongs (6). If you’re more of a linguistics person, this page will make you happy.
You can see what so many vowels can cause in this excellent video by The Flama.
So, Brazilians have an edge when they want to learn Spanish. I have friends who have picked up enough Spanish to be considered highly fluent in about three months (results may vary!).
And I have Spanish-speaking students who in a matter of two months were speaking very good Portuguese — still, future subjunctive troubled them.
Are Portuguese and Spanish similar?
To a great extent, they are.
If you ignore that pronunciation tends to cause a lot of headaches and everyday vocabulary will always be different, you’ll find enough similarities to feel at home.
So, if you are learning one from another you’ll find it easier.
If you’re learning both at the same time, you may end up confusing yourself more often than not.
So, tell me, what has been your experience with Spanish so far? Or with Portuguese for that matter?
Leave it in the comments section below.