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What is Portuguese?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Portuguese is a Romance language spoken widely throughout the world, with the majority of speakers in South America. It is spoken by more than 210 million people worldwide, making it the sixth-ranking language in terms of total speakers.

Portuguese is an official language in Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea Bissau, Macau, Mozambique, Portugal, and Sao Tome and Principe. It is also a working language of the European Union. Its speaker population in Africa is currently on the rise, and numbers of speakers worldwide are expected to grow dramatically in the next two decades. Surprisingly to many people, who expect Spanish to hold the distinction, Portuguese is the most spoken language in South America. More than 185 million people speak Portuguese, and this number is rising as Brazil increases its ties with its Spanish-speaking neighbors.

The flag of Macau, a Special Administrative Region of China. Portuguese is an official language of Macau.
The flag of Macau, a Special Administrative Region of China. Portuguese is an official language of Macau.

Portuguese is somewhat mutually intelligible with Spanish, and in general, Portuguese speakers have an easier time understanding Spanish speakers than vise versa. There has been renewed interest in Portuguese-speaking countries to learn Spanish, and the similarities between the two languages have made this a fairly easy transition. The Brazilian government recently declared Spanish a mandatory foreign language, in recognition of the growing closeness between Brazil and its neighboring Spanish-speaking nations.

Portuguese is a working language of the European Union.
Portuguese is a working language of the European Union.

More so than most other Romance languages, Portuguese retains much of the sound of the original Latin. While languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish all make liberal use of diphthongs in their words, Portuguese often keeps the same strong vowels of the original Latin words. This often sounds crisper and more succinct to non-speakers, and is one of the easiest ways for non-speakers to differentiate between Spanish and Portuguese when spoken. While most Portuguese words are Latin-derived, the language was also strongly influenced by Arabic during the Moorish occupation of the Iberian peninsula. In the modern age, Portuguese has adopted a great deal of English words, particularly those related to electronics.

Portuguese is the official language of Brazil.
Portuguese is the official language of Brazil.

Portuguese began forming in the 3rd century B.C., and was being used in a fairly mature and distinct form by the 10th century. By the 15th century, it had reached a point at which it would be recognizable by most people today as a direct relation to modern Portuguese, and was being used as a lingua franca throughout the new empire Portugal was building in the New World.

Portuguese is a relatively easy language for English-speakers to acquire. Its large number of English cognates — coming from the shared pool of Latin — and fairly simply grammar leave few unexpected hurdles in studying it. There are a handful of strange tenses — such as the present perfect and future subjunctive — but these do not take too much getting used to.

Discussion Comments


I'm Brazilian and I think Spanish is really naturally easy for us to understand.


I am a Portuguese speaker, but I can't understand the Spanish language. Both languages are very close, but not enough to be mutually intelligible without any previous study.


Fluency in Portuguese is a great asset. For starters, you practically get Spanish for free when you are fluent in Portuguese; that's how close the two languages are to each other. This means that you can communicate with about 800 million people around the globe with Portuguese and Spanish. With a little extra effort, knowing Portuguese also greatly helps with learning French and Italian too.

Portuguese is spoken on five continents by 240 million people. There has been a great increase in the number of people learning it as a second language. And yes, 51 percent speak Portuguese in South America, meaning that there are more Portuguese speakers there than Spanish. The Portuguese language is very strong in Africa (spoken officially in six countries there. Angola, a Portuguese speaking country in Africa, is abundantly rich in oil, diamonds, gold, silver, coffee, etc. Angola is becoming the economic power in Africa.

Brazil is becoming an economic superpower in the world - it is currently the seventh largest economy (soon to be at least fifth) leaders in aerospace, manufacturing, exports and technology.

Spanish speaking countries in South America have made Portuguese either mandatory of top priority in their school curricula, e.g., Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela. The Chinese are doing a huge amount of trade with Brazil and Angola and are learning Portuguese. Portuguese is still spoken officially in Macau, China and East Timor. This language is growing by leaps and bounds all over the world. And the 2014 World Cup will be staged in Brazil, as well as the 2016 Olympics. These two huge sporting venues will make the whole world pay attention to Brazil and the great importance of the Portuguese language.


Portuguese and Spanish speakers are practically gifted with each other's language because of the great linguistic proximity between the two, even if they differ a bit in pronunciation.

In terms of vocabulary, grammar and syntax, these two languages are 89 percent the same. Educated speakers of both can converse effortlessly with one another. Italian is a little more distant from Portuguese and Spanish, but still close enough. French differs the most.


91777 + 1141: Are we talking about European or Brazilian Portuguese? If we are talking about the former I suspect your comments may not be verifiable in practice. Mere opinion.


The crisp sounding and diphthongs are wrong, but it does sound more like the original Latin than Spanish, that is for sure. Just grab a Latin dictionary words like Melhor, Mulher, and trabalho sound the exact same as Latin Melior and mulier and closer to tripaliu than the Spanish trabajo.


It is quite inaccurate to say that Portuguese is crisper sounding and uses fewer diphthongs than Spanish, in fact the reverse is true. The abundance of nasalised vowels and diphthongs give Portuguese a rather indistinct sound as compared to its sister languages Spanish and Italian. While it is grammatically more conservative than Spanish it certainly is not close in sound to Latin.

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    • The flag of Macau, a Special Administrative Region of China. Portuguese is an official language of Macau.
      By: Jürgen Priewe
      The flag of Macau, a Special Administrative Region of China. Portuguese is an official language of Macau.
    • Portuguese is a working language of the European Union.
      By: Peter Hermes Furian
      Portuguese is a working language of the European Union.
    • Portuguese is the official language of Brazil.
      By: Bastos
      Portuguese is the official language of Brazil.