Spanish to Portuguese: What Transfers Well and What Does Not 

 February 17, 2022

By  Wilson

From 2018 to 2020, I took private Spanish tutoring lessons twice a week for a span of 15 straight months and did all of my homework (nerd, I know). I was also in Mexico for a large portion of that time.

When I came to Brazil in 2020, I was very relaxed about learning my 4th language: Portuguese (English, Chinese, Spanish). Although I didn’t take a single class of Portuguese, I learned organically from talking with friends and leveraging my base knowledge from Spanish.

There is no question that there is a huge advantage in learning a latin language if you already know another. Here are my thoughts about going from Spanish to Portuguese: what are the major things that transfer well, and what are some things you need to let go right away. I’m also writing this from the perspective of somebody whose native language is not a latin language and is traveling leisurely to Brazil.

What Transfers Well

1. Verb Conjugations

By verb conjugations, I don’t mean just the present tense but all sixteen Spanish verb conjugation tenses. Being familiar with at least close to all verb tenses is already 40% of the battle. Having this “base” knowledge allows you to focus solely on new vocabulary.

Questions such as:

  • When do I apply the past perfect (yo estaba) versus the past imperfect (yo estuve)? (Because in English they’re the same verb tenses)
  • When do I apply the subjunctive (espero que seas feliz) versus the imperative (creo que eres feliz)?
  • How do I conjugate commands? For example: “you tell me” (me dices) versus “tell me!” (dime!) versus “Don’t tell me!” (No me digas!)
  • How do I conjugate the 2nd conditional imperfect tense (si yo fuera tú <> se eu fosse você)?

Answering those types of questions makes transferring verb conjugations from Spanish to Portuguese (which by the way also has -ar, -er, -ir verbs) very doable.

2. Placement of Direct/Indirect Objects Relative to Subject

What do I mean by this? Take “Te amo” for example (it happens to be “I love you” in both Spanish and Portuguese). I distinctly remembered that it took me forever to understand this concept in Spanish, and when I was learning Portuguese shortly after, it was like an automatic switch.

Te amo means “I love you”, but “te” refers to “you” and “amo” means “I love”. If you think about it, you would never say “You I love” in English.

  • (Yo) te llamo (I call you)
  • (Tú) me llamas (you call me)
  • Ellos te ayudaron (they helped you)
  • Se lo dije (“I told it to him”… notice “I told” in Spanish was placed last in that sentence and that “him” in Spanish was the first word)

3. Numbers

Numbers transfer very well and are nearly identical. If you say “Two-hundred and fifty six” or “Five-thousand, five-hundred and twelve” in Spanish, people in Brazil will understand.

I definitely didn’t realize it, but I use numbers everyday when I speak. Learning numbers was a quick google search when I was learning Portuguese.

4. Certain Random Words

There are a ton of cognates from Spanish to Portuguese. Numbers is an example. Some really random other examples:

  • To pay attention/prestar atención, to eat/comer, to deserve/merecer, to regret/arrepentirse, table/la mesa, water/el agua, to send/mandar, to sleep/dormir, expensive/caro, to turn off/apagar, to swim/nadar, dry/seco, to seem like/parece, to move (away from a city)/mudarse, fast/rapido, the place/el lugar, bachelor’s party/despedida de soltero

What Doesn’t Transfer Well

While knowing Spanish helps enormously, learning Portuguese isn’t a walk in the park and will still take some time. Here is why.

1. Certain Random Words

On the contrary, there are a lot of random words that you will just have to know from scratch. Some random of many examples (Eng/Esp/Pt):

  • Movie / la película / o filme, Cash / el efectivo / o dinheiro, Chair / la silla / a cadeira, Thanks / gracias / obrigado, I miss you / te extraño / estou com saudades de você, Friday / el viernes / o sexta-feira, Trash / la basura / o lixo, Gym / el gimnasio / a academia, To complain / quejarse / reclamar, Strawberry / la fresa / o morango, to realize / darse cuenta / perceber, To forget / olvidar / esquecer, Dog / el perro / o cachorro

While the languages are very similar, taking time to build a vocabulary in a new language is inevitable.

2. Pronunciation

On you first day in Brazil, if you already speak Spanish, try sitting in an Uber and speak to the driver. There is very little chance you’ll pick it up right away only because the pronunciation of Brazilian Portuguese is very unique. Two very specific examples:

  • R’s: if the word begins with an R, then it has an English “H” sound. If the word has a double r in the middle of a word (example: Barra), then it also has an English “H” sound. But if it’s a single R in the middle of a word, then it’s a regular English “R” sound. W.t.f. right?
  • -te, -ti, -de, -di: It usually depends on the region in Brazil, but there’s a sharp crashing sound that’s difficult to describe on a blog post. Imagine the “GI” in gin in English for “di”. Example: “Entendi” (I understood)

3. Contractions

What do I mean by contractions? In Spanish, we have de + el = del.

In Portuguese, there are about 50 of them, and not all of them are intuitive.

For example, “en” in Spanish is “em” in Portuguese. “El” in Spanish is “o” in Portuguese. In Spanish, you can’t combine “en” and “el”, but in Portuguese, you should combine them: em + o = no. To me, this contraction makes no sense, but that’s the way it works.

4. Plurals

I think plural rules in Spanish are very straightforward. In Portuguese, they are not.

For example, if you have a word like “animal” (which happens to be the same in all 3 languages), then it’s “animals” in English, “animales” in Spanish, but… wait for it… it’s animais in Portuguese. You drop the l and add -is. That why you will hear the currency of Brazilian Real in plural as “Reais” (and if you remember from 2. Pronuncation of this blog post, you’ll notice that the “R” in “Reais” will be pronounced with an English “H”).

To me, that was not intuitive, and there are few more other not-so-intuitive plural rules (if word ends in m, drop the “m” and add -ns, example: man – homem/homens; if word ends in -ão, then drop that and add -ões, example: heart – coração/corações)

Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed it!

Let me know if you have any comments or thoughts about this blog post. E: wilson@wfhnomad.com


ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Hi, my name is Wilson, founder of WFH Nomad. I was born and raised in the US, and I boast engineering and business degrees from top programs in the US. I work a normal, WFH job for a great company in America. I am extremely passionate about traveling and my job in the Tech industry, and the best part of the WFH Nomad concept is that I can do both at the same time.

I have traveled to over 47 different countries in my lifetime and I look forward to continue this lifestyle for the foreseeable future. Thanks for visiting the website!

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