Sunday, July 13, 2008

Lisbon 5 / Brazil 1 - Portuguese

I'm currently on placement in Brazil, and I think it's worth writing a few comments on Portuguese as a language. Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese Portuguese are slightly different as languages, but they've obviously got a lot in common.

Both are descended largely from Latin (as are French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, some of English, etc.) Both are written using the Latin alphabet, and my French and Latin are still passable, so I find Portuguese fairly easy to read - I can understand a decent proportion of sentences, especially when they don't use more difficult grammatical constructions. It is of course much harder to speak them, and though French helps in understanding written Portuguese, speaking it doesn't help people understand.

The real problem in learning the language is the accent. I fully accept of course that Portugal and Brazil are as entitled to the Latin alphabet as England and the US, but they use it quite differently. It's quite unusual to find a word I can pronounce correctly the first time. Pretty much all of the vowels are different, and consonants such as l and r are used very differently. As far as I can tell, they mix up the English sounds r, l, h and w, together with some gutterals, and then two of the resulting sounds are r and l, but which you hear depends on its place in the word. There also seems to be a phantom pronounced "e" on the end of some words, which comes or goes depending on position in the sentence and emphasis.

Sometimes when I try to speak a foreign language, the person I am speaking to switches to English - this especially happens in countries where English is generally spoken well, like Holland, and is a bit annoying. But what I found in Portugal was that I would say something pretty much correctly according to the phrase book, and people sometimes just wouldn't understand. On the plane from Lisbon to Brazil, I found myself sitting next to a lady who only spoke Spanish and Portuguese. When she read aloud some of the English instructions for what to do in case of emergency, I couldn't even tell she was speaking English!

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