July 3, 2012 | Portuguese

Portuguese: Some Initial Impressions

Most of which have to do with pronunciation.

So, I am a few days into Portuguese, and I am still struggling to get my mouth around the pronunciation. It is like Spanish, and like Italian.

The Books I Ordered for Portuguese

The Books I Ordered for Portuguese

It is also unlike Spanish, and unlike Italian.

One of the biggest pronunciation challenges at present involves the l’s. Or rather, the absence of l’s. I am so used to saying molto in Italian (for “much” or “very”), and it is muito in Portuguese, which sounds like moy-to. I keep wanting to stick the l in there. My tongue is getting quite unhappy with me.

Another pronunciation challenge involves words ending in m, such as bem (meaning “well”). In my Pimsleur lessons, I am hearing a concluding sound not like my notion of an m. Also not like my notion of an n. Maybe it is something like an ng sound, but it remains too hazy for me to pin down.

Finally, there is the fact that the letter combination de in Portuguese apparently (or often?) sounds like the English exclamation “gee” as in “golly shucks gee,” at least according to my Pimsleur lessons, which are based—I am told—on the dialect of São Paulo. The actual word de, which means “of,” is in fact pronounced like the word “gee.” I am used to de (French), di (Italian), and de (Spanish)—all of which begin with solidly d sounds. 

The first syllable of the Portuguese word dia (day) is also pronounced like “gee.” Bom dia means “hello”* (literally “good day”) and clearly corresponds to bonjour in French (also meaning literally “good day”), Guten Tag in German (also “good day”), buenos días in Spanish (oddly plural, but same concept), and buon giorno in Italian. We don’t greet people with “good day” around these here parts too often, but we could try it if we really wanted to, I suppose!

Back at Apple Store, Shopping for More Language-Learning Tools

Back at Apple Store, Shopping for More Language-Learning Tools

Anyway, looking at the word dia while saying jee-uh is a tricky one for me. It is hard enough for my brain that I fear I may be undoing some of my Spanish skills while practicing. In my experience if you study a language that is very similar to another language with which you are familiar, yet different from it in subtle ways that are initially hard for your brain to process and your tongue to pronounce, it tends to put dents in your existing skills.

That happened with Dutch; it dented my German.

I suppose Italian did not very seriously damage my Spanish, though. I think the pronunciation was similar enough that it just wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t have to struggle so much to learn Italian pronunciation; I found Italian natural to my sense of how words should be pronounced. Dutch was a bit of a battle (the g’s in particular), and similarly, Portuguese is creating some mental conflicts in my brain.

However, I am going to wrestle this thing to the ground.

To assist me, I just found myself back at the Apple store, buying a new Nano so that I could take Pimsleur lessons on my runs again if I wanted. I had one a year ago, but these things are so small I lost it. 

Nanos are very multilingual, I learned, when I was setting it up!

The Multilingual Nano

The Multilingual Nano

Some More Tongues

Some More Tongues

Comments (4)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, August 20, 2012 - 8:05 am EST

* A reader has pointed out that this actually means “good morning.”

Samuel Mendonça • Posted on Wed, September 25, 2013 - 2:35 pm EST

I very much apreciate your appetite for learning languages like that. I’d be scared to, as you say, put dents on language skills I’ve already learned. Since I’m a native portuguese speaker, I guess I’m safe as far as learning spanish.

Nigel • Posted on Sat, June 06, 2015 - 10:54 am EST

I’ve always wondered whether Spanish is closer to Portuguese or Italian. I agree with you on learning very similar languages. I picked up Spanish quickly and easily with Paul Noble’s audio books and other resources, then I moved on to German, which, with the exception of definite articles, was not too difficult or confusing. However, when I moved on to Italian, I found myself confusing it a lot with Spanish since, like you said, it’s a language that’s quite similar to another but with subtle enough differences, which surprisingly make it difficult for the brain to process. You’d think it would make things easier, hehe. I can’t imagine what it would be like to learn the Scandinavian languages around the same time.

Pola • Posted on Mon, January 02, 2017 - 6:44 pm EST

Just found your blog! Love it :)

Here’s a thought - don’t worry about pronouncing the ‘d’ with a ‘gee’ sound. In Portugal it remains a ‘d’ sound - like the one you hope for! Unless you specifically want to learn Brazillian Portuguese of course, but people will understand you anyway! :)

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