How To Learn European Portuguese

December 13, 2022
Blog | Culture | History | Language

European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese

To be clear, there are a lot of differences between Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese, or, as it is sometimes called, Continental Portuguese. Simply put, the difference is very similar to that of British English and American English.

The population of Portugal is approximately 10.5 million, plus other countries from colonial times who speak European Portuguese.  The population of Brazil is about 192 million, so there are vastly more Portuguese lessons available for Braziian. This seems to be changing, however. My guess is that, since Portugal has become a popular vacation spot recently, people have discovered what a wonderful country it is. More and more people are choosing to retire there or move there for the quality of life and lower cost of living.


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So, be sure to ask for European Portuguese when you are looking at online courses, Skype lessons, ebooks, podcasts, audio books, language programs or classes of any sort. A few times I have been told that the program was European, but it was actually Brazilian. It isn’t hard to tell. One easy way is to listen to any word ending in “de”, such as cidade. A person from mainland Portugal will pronounce both d’s like a d and barely pronounce the final e. A Brazilian will turn the final d into a j sound and make the e long, as in eat.

Why do you want to learn European Portuguese?

How you learn the language depends on your needs and your desire. If, for example, you want to take a vacation to O Porto or The Azores and be able to ask for a menu and a beer, you can find a lot of resources to get you started. 

Our local library has a copy of Pimsleur Portuguese level 1. It is quite good for basic phrases. My wife listens to the cd’s while driving and has picked up some good phrases without any pain.

Another interesting approach is the one used by EarWorms. They use music to accompany the dialogue, which I personally like. With headphones you can really hear the pronunciation. The music is subtle and can help with retention. 

Even if you only learn a dozen simple phrases you can be sure that people appreciate it. Few people make more than a token effort. When you do, it helps them know that you care about them and their culture. You will probably even get better service! 

There have been times when we’ve gotten all kinds of extra benefits from knowing the language. Sometimes the owner of a restaurant will bring us special dishes or samples, tell us about his restaurant, or just make sure we are well cared for. We have gained so many wonderful friends, it’s been worth the work!

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Beyond the basics of language learning

Obviously a tourist doesn’t need to know much of the local language to get around, especially if you speak English. Most Portuguese young people speak pretty good English, but not the older generation. Many young people have had up to 10 years of English in school, which is required throughout the Portuguese education system, not to mention the abundance of English language movies and music.

Don’t rely on your lover to learn a language

Maybe you have met someone in Portugal and you want to learn the language to share more with him or her. That’s a great motivator! It’s been said that the best way to learn a language is “in the arms of a beautiful lover”. 




That sounds better than it really is. My own daughter lives in Spain and is married to a wonderful man from Venezuela, whose mother tongue is Spanish. She works hard at learning the language, but not so much from him. 

It just doesn’t work out as the above quote for a few reasons. Her husband is fluent in English and it is vastly easier for them to communicate in English. Like a lot of people she has learned that it simply doesn’t work to rely on him to teach her a foreign language.

Should you move to Portugal to learn the language? 

Another common misconception about language learning is that people often think that you need to live in the country of your language. Sometimes this actually backfires and the progress slows to a crawl. Think about it, you are in a new country with few friends and you can’t understand much of anything anyone says. Your casual person on the street won’t be very helpful (and sometimes can misguide you). 

I remember waiting at a bus stop in Lisbon and asking a young woman a question about how to pronounce the letter R at the beginning of a word. Well, the first two examples that came to mind were rapaz and rapariga, or boy and girl. She glared at me and stomped away. She must have thought the obvious, though I only wanted to know about the letter R!

Set goals for learning European Portuguese

Take some time to figure out why you want to learn the language, how strong your desire is, how much time you can devote and how much money you have available. 

How strong is your desire?

This is probably the main factor to your success. Humans have amazing potential when they are highly motivated, and when they’re not motivated, well, not much happens. 

“Nothing happens until something moves”: Albert Einstein. Once you get some momentum and success you can learn quickly and efficiently. 

How much time can you devote to language learning?

We’ve all heard the ads for online apps that promise you can learn a language in 15 minutes a day. I’m here to tell you that you cannot. Sure, you can learn some words and a few phrases. Maybe if you had 20 years of 15 minutes a day you could become fluent! 

Language acquisition is very similar to learning to play an instrument. True, you can learn “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” by practising 15 minutes a day, and thus you can “play guitar”. You quickly discover that, if you want to actually be able to play an instrument you have to work at it.

Scheduled sessions are an effective way to really learn. Even if the session is just you and the course or program you are using, it is a good idea to have a dedicated time and place to study. I call mine the “language lab”, though it is the same place as my music studio, office, man-cave and entertainment center.

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Can you learn a language for free? 

This question is a lot like teaching yourself to play guitar. It seems to be a badge of honor to be self taught. I think everyone is self taught and everyone has teachers.   

Even if you have no official teacher you are still mimicking someone else’s playing. Say you hear Eric Clapton playing a cool solo and you set out to learn it. You try over and over to get it right and eventually you come up with a decent version, all on your own. You learned it on your own, but, ummm, I think somebody taught it to you.   

Yes, you can learn a language for free and there are lots of free resources available. However, you soon discover that you reach a plateau and to make progress you need to pay for lessons or a course or something.     

As mentioned, the library is a great resource for obtaining quality tools for freed! The librarian can find a lot through inter-library exchanges. I have used this service many times.    

I think that the teacher appears when you need it. The stronger your desire the more this happens.

What is the best course to learn European Portuguese?    

There is obviously no “best course” because it all depends on your skill level, interest, desire, cost, etc. I have used quite a few resources and am always on the lookout for new and improved methods.   

For intermediate learners there are two online programs that stand out:   

Practice Portuguese and Portuguese With Carla. I have used both of them and am currently still enjoying my lessons with Carla.   

Italki is another favorite of mine. I took 20 Skype lessons from a wonderful teacher in O Porto. She was great; we mostly conversed and she could identify my needs and give me homework.    

Learn Portuguese Online is another program I like. It is sort of like having a native speaker go through a language book by reading it and explaining it. The teacher will answer questions by email and is quite eager to help.     

Is Portuguese almost the same as Spanish?  

Portuguese is a lot like Spanish and very much unlike Spanish. Most people have at least a basic grasp of Spanish and almost everyone approaches Portuguese from that perspective. This is not helpful when it comes to speaking. It is helpful when reading though.  

I’ve watched many Spanish tourists in the Azores ignore the fact that they are in a Portuguese speaking country. They rattle out in their machine-gun staccato and the lady at the desk actually understands. Then the table is turned and the nice lady at the desk answers in Portuguese. Silence: the tourist didn’t understand a thing!  

I find this comical to watch, for a lot of reasons, but the point is that Portuguese is maddeningly difficult to understand. When you think it is like a little brother to Spanish you are setting yourself up for frustration. Why, I used to think that the Portuguese were mispronouncing their own language! I didn’t really think that, but it sure seemed like it.  

With all the disappearing vowels and sheesh sounds it sounded a bit like Russian or something.     

Once you let go of the idea that Portuguese is “a lot like Spanish”, you can approach it for what it is. All those disappearing vowels are actually there, and there is a reason for all the sheesh sounds.  

Listen, listen listen    

Babies learn to talk by listening, so we also need to listen before speaking. There are not many audio books available in European Portuguese, but you can find podcasts, radio programs, TV and some online programs offer stories with transcriptions. 

Read, read, read

Reading is an effective way to learn to speak any language. Try to find books that are not translations from other languages. Personally, I enjoy story books written for adolescents. I also like school workbooks for children, they are really basic and sometimes very informative. EVERYONE on Terceira compliments me on how “bom” my Portuguese is, but I’m only as far as a 4th grade grammar exercise book!

Speak, speak, speak

When you have the opportunity, use it! Find people to speak with. Maybe there are local groups of Portuguese speakers where you live that you can connect with.

When we are in the Azores I use every opportunity to practise speaking. I’ve gotten to know our neighbors, played with neighborhood kids, chatted with old men on park benches, asked desk clerks all kinds of questions, and so on.


Oh my! One of our favorite neighbors grew up on the island of Flores. Our conversations involve more smiles and laughs than understanding. One time, another local fellow joined us while we watched him plow up a small section of his garden with his burro and homemade plow. I said, “I can’t understand anything he says”. And the fellow responded, in Portuguese I could understand, “Neither can I!”. 

We tried having another neighbor, who doesn’t speak English, stop in to check whether our mainland Portuguese AirBnB guests had any concerns she could help with. Our guest told us, in his excellent English, that someone had stopped by, but they couldn’t understand what she said!


Get your feet wet and try various approaches. You will find what fits your needs. Nobody can learn for you and there is no magic pill. Basically, you get out of it what you put into it.

Work smart, not hard. Ask native speakers not to speak English with you. This is a way to experience success and get motivated to learn more. The sweet women who run the small grocery in our village are an example. They enjoy testing me, and encouraging me with kind compliments on how well I’m doing! It is quite a feeling to actually communicate with another person in their language.

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