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Learning the Portuguese Alphabet for Independence

girl studying the Portuguese alphabet

Some people decide against learning the Portuguese alphabet. After all, they’re not living in the country and don’t see any use for more vocabulary.

This is a mistake.

Firstly, Brazilian Portuguese doesn’t have a predictable pronunciation. It’s not like Spanish. When you’re reading stuff, you’re likely to make some mistakes out of ignorance.

Secondly, no matter how hard people want to believe that Brazilians can speak English, they can’t. So, if you have a name that’s not as common as James, John, Mary… You’re likely to hear the question: how do you spell your name?

And thirdly: you want to become independent. Whether you’re watching some TED Talk in Portuguese or listening to a podcast, if you hear an interesting word or expression, you want to have an idea how it’s spelled — so you can put it down on paper.

If you have to tell your friend that you heard a word and you were sure it started with a B but don’t know exactly what it was… Forget about it.

Not only will you depend on people when you need to make notes. You’ll be frustrated most of the time.

So, why don’t you avoid that pain right now?

The Portuguese Alphabet

The Portuguese alphabet has twenty-six letters. We don’t have any “double letters” as in Spanish. But some consonants may be doubled and have a different sound value.

It’s pretty much the alphabet you grew up to learn.

The Portuguese Alphabet — table

You want to bear in mind two facts:

  • Letters are masculine in Portuguese. In Spanish they are feminine and in English they aren’t anything. So, say you are not sure whether “carro” is spelled with one or two Rs. You ask: “é um érre? Ou são dois érres?”
  • In isolation, letters form a syllable by themselves. In spelling a word aloud, you want to say the whole thing as in the picture above: bê-ó-éle-á (BOLA).

The Portuguese Vowels

Imagine you’re playing darts.

You have to throw one at a target and hit it. That’s like producing a vowel.

I mean, you are throwing darts trying to hit the target bull’s-eye. The thing is, not everybody has a good technique to hit the target. So, most people can get close to the thing but not perfectly so.

This is both true to native speakers and non-native speakers. The difference is that the earlier had more time to train. The latter came late for practice.

There are two vowels most likely to give you a headache if you are either a Spanish or an English speaker.

The vowel E may be a pain to learn. In Brazil, it has two basic pronunciations. An open E (closer to the English A as in “hat”, but you don’t lower your jaw as much).

The other pronunciation is a closed E (something you perceive like the sound of the letter “A” as in “cane”).

The open E is prevalent in most of Brazil whereas the closed E is common in the South.

Double Consonants in Portuguese

When you use double consonants, they’re two consonants put together. It’s not like the “double L” that you find in Spanish, which is a single “letter”. The double consonants in Portuguese are letters on their own when separate.

Depending on where you put it, the R may have two common sounds.

At the beginning of a word, preceded by a consonant, or when it’s doubled anywhere, it sounds like the H of the word house. Carro (“KAH.hoo”, car) is an example, rato (“HAH.too”, mouse, rat) is another.

Between vowels it’s pronounced as a flap. Like some of my American friend would pronounce the D in medal. An example is caro (“KAH.ddoo”, expensive).

The same logic goes for the S.

It may sound as an S (cassa, passo, sapo…) or as a Z (casa, asa, caso).

Quick disclaimer: this article isn’t a pronunciation course. I’m bringing this double-consonant thing up to help you spell words that you hear.

You have more tips for pronunciation and how to recognize sounds you hear so you can write them down in the video below.

Some Loose Notes

  • The letters K, W, and Y are uncommon in Portuguese. They are used in people’s names and words that come from other languages (like English). Also, you may encounter them in international symbols and abbreviations (km, kg, kW etc.)
  • Letter combinations that yield a different sound — NH, CH, LH, SS, SC, XC and RR, most commonly — are known as “dígrafos.”

How to Practice Using the Portuguese Alphabet

First of all, I don’t believe you should force things when you study Portuguese. You want to encounter the situations in which the vocabulary will be called for.

But I admit — finding situations where you can spell things means you have to get out and talk to people. And right now it’s not much possible — the pandemic and all.

So, here are some ideas for you to practice the Portuguese alphabet. If you do that for six days straight, you’ll probably be able to use everything you need to use when it comes to spelling and the Portuguese alphabet.

  • Sing the alphabet to the melody of “twinkle, twinkle, Little Star.” That has worked for countless children around the world… And for some adults too.
  • Memorize only the vowels first. Say them to yourself back and forth.
  • Spell your last name to a Brazilian friend and ask them to write it down. Then check.
  • Ask a friend to get a list of words and have them read the list for you. Write down everything you can, then check.
  • If you have a hard time finding a Portuguese speaking friend, check out this article. It’s not a friend, but it’s a good workaround.

So, now that you can practice the spelling, do it right now.

Check back soon for more on pronunciation.

And while you’re here, discover how you can greet people like a Brazilian.

And visit our vocabulary page regularly for more updates on practical vocabulary discussions in Portuguese.