I need my cassete player
I need my cassete player

Fala português?

It is good to learn a few words of the local language when going abroad, even if only to communicate on a simple level, such as for ordering a coffee. If you have moved to Portugal, it is even more important to learn, especially if you want to be able to deal with things yourself and integrate in the community.   

There are unlimited books, apps, computer programs and videos to teach a language, and it can be overwhelming trying to learn, so it is important to set oneself realistic goals.

I still have the old Linguaphone cassette tapes for French (for me) and Portuguese (not for me), as well as in Vietnamese as I wanted to talk with Vietnamese nursery children in London when I was training to be a teacher. My feeble attempts were met with blank three-year-old stares, and I felt embarrassed, so I never learnt anything!

Feeling self-conscious when trying out a new language is normal, but being able to converse with the locals in their language is very fulfilling.

Portuguese is the world’s ninth most spoken language. It is the native language in 10 countries with over 232 million speakers, yet, amazingly, only around 5% of these live in Portugal.

Learn the basics
Learn the basics

Portuguese is also the second most spoken of the Romance languages, which developed over 2000 years ago from ‘Vulgar Latin’. Vulgar comes from ‘vulgus’, meaning common people, and refers to the spoken Latin dialects which differ from the classical Latin now used only in a scientific or religious context.

Vulgar Latin was spoken across Europe until the Roman Empire’s collapse in the fifth century. Then, as independent kingdoms developed, local dialects emerged, although they retained the same fundamentals, which means that different Romance language speakers (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian) are able to understand the basics of each other’s language. I am fluent in Portuguese and so I found French in school easy to pick up (now mostly forgotten), but, strangely, I cannot understand Spanish at all!

Portuguese also has Germanic and Moorish influences as a result of their invasions, and it was King D. Dinis I in the 1290s who decreed that Vulgar Latin be used in the kingdom and named the language Portuguese.

During the Age of Discoveries, Portuguese became the common language spoken between local officials and other Europeans in Africa, Asia and the Americas.  Portuguese culture can also be found in areas of Sri Lanka, Malaysia, India and Indonesia due to the work of Roman Catholic missionaries.

Old resources found around the house
Old resources found around the house

Portuguese is the most spoken language in South America with over 210 million speakers in Brazil alone and many in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. There are also large communities in the US, Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Learning a new language requires dedication and motivation, but it can lead to a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Apart from the cognitive benefits, learning a new language actually physically alters the brain as MRI technology has shown that, in comparison to single-language people, those raised as bilingual have more grey and white matter in their brains.

Like any other part of the body, the brain needs to be stimulated and exercised to stay healthy. Learning a new language involves not only memorising the words but understanding sentence construction and grammar. It is also necessary to master the pronunciation, which can be difficult in Portuguese – compared to English, it has new nasal, consonant, and vowel sounds, and various ‘R’ sounds.

As a child, I used to laugh at my English mother saying ‘O rato rói a rocha’ (the rat chews the rock) as she could not get the correct ‘R’ sound despite already being a fluent Portuguese speaker.

Did you know that, since 2016, schools in Portugal have been teaching a new form of written Portuguese? This is because of the agreement formed in 1990 known as AO90, an international treaty whose objective was to create a unified written Portuguese, to be used by all countries where Portuguese is the native language, in order to raise the language’s international prestige.

Our childhood dictionaries now obsolete
Our childhood dictionaries now obsolete

Whilst many people think that Brazilian and Portuguese are the same language, many linguists consider them different languages due to the amount of differences in their sound and structure.

In 1911, after the implantation of the republic, a major orthographic reform took place which altered the written Portuguese in Portugal and meant that Brazil ended up with the ‘old’ Portuguese and Portugal with a new version. Therefore, over the years, there have been various agreements to try to unify the two.

The 1931 and 1945 agreements were unsuccessful. In 1971, there was suppression of the accents on letters that were responsible for 70% of the discrepancies between the two countries. Further agreements were made in 1975 and 1986. Eventually, the AO90 was signed by Portugal, Brazil, Cape Verde, Galiza, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe.

However, there was a lot of opposition to the agreement and, instead of unification, the result has been the formation of three orthographic Portuguese languages – Brazilian, European Portuguese and the rest of the colonies that have not enforced the agreement even though they signed it. The unity occurs now in 98% of the words as opposed to the previous 96%!

It is not easy learning how to spell words in a new way, especially for the older generations. Having to drop the unarticulated letter ‘c’ or ‘p’ from many words, adding or removing hyphens and accents, and incorporating the letters ‘k’, ‘w’ and ‘y’ to the alphabet, is confusing and the only reason I mostly manage is because I write in Portuguese daily and use spell check!

The more reasons you have to learn Portuguese the more likely you are motivated to study. Practise is essential, although living in the Algarve, it is hard to practise as everyone speaks English. Learning with a group of friends, rather than at home alone, or having Portuguese friends makes it so much easier. Practise at every opportunity and do not let people in restaurants or shops dissuade you by speaking English to you.

When I moved to the Algarve in 1999, there was a café owner who insisted on speaking to me in English and I always replied in fluent Portuguese. It became a battle of the wills, but neither of us gave in and we never spoke the same language together.

Maybe it is time to find a cassette player and refresh my French!

So now you know!

By Isobel Costa
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Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.