Portuguese & English differences

10/10/2010 23:30


Portuguese & English differences




Learning to speak a foreign language is not only to assimilate its elements, but it is also to avoid the negative interference of the native background. Although this type of interference is more evident in pronunciation, grammar also occurs in the plan, leading the students to produce often unstructured and incomprehensible sentences. 

Students themselves usually feel that something is wrong, but the idea that they are trying to show is so closely associated with the structure used in Portuguese, which seems to be no other way.

The comparative study of two languages leads to the identification of clear differences between them and predicts the errors as well as seeking to avoid them before they become habits. Many of these errors can be observed even in students who have achieved advanced levels of fluency, and result from lack of contact with the target language.



Formulation of interrogative and negative ideas

The first major problem the Brazilian native speakers of Portuguese face when they start their learning in English is usually the structure of interrogative and negative sentences. Interrogative sentences in Portuguese are differentiated only by the intonation.  They do not require changing the structure of the sentence. In English, besides the intonation, we have, in the case of “Be Phrases” (sentences with the verb to be or any other auxiliary verb or modal), the reversal of position between

subject and verb. Let’s see:

He's a student. – Ele é um aluno.
Is he a student? – Ele é um aluno?



Different languages can be two totally different communication codes, or in some cases even different understandings of human interaction as a result of deep cultural differences. This is, for example, the case of Japanese language, compared to any of the languages of Europe. You must have a Japanese mind, they say, to be able to speak Japanese properly - which is undoubtedly true.

Fortunately, the differences between Portuguese and English are not as deep. Due to common origins - Greek culture, Roman Empire and its language, Christian religion, etc. - all European cultures and their languages can be considered very close in the broad context of world languages. We could, for example, say that the Spanish language is almost twin sister of the Portuguese, the Italian language, its half-sister, the French, its cousin, and the English, perhaps a second cousin.

Besides the common origins that reduce cultural differences, linguistic similarities between English and Portuguese predominantly occur only in the vocabulary, when in written form. Structuring sentences and especially pronunciation have profound contrasts. In a superficial analysis of the differences in terms of pronunciation, we can relate the following differences:

·        In Portuguese, there is no th (/Ø/ and /ð/) which leads students to pronounce /f/ and /d/. Observe:

That / ðat / is mispronounced as debt / det / which leads to a wrong comprehension by the listener.


·        Tonic accent of words is another aspect that represents an important contrast between English and Portuguese. The predominant form of tonic accent of a language has a major influence in their sound characteristics. Most Brazilians tend to accentuate the English words based on Brazilian Phonetics, mainly in words similar in spelling, which leads to incorrect pronunciation. Take a look at these examples:


diciorio         dictionary                    excelente         excellent


Subjectless sentences and Subject positioning

In Portuguese, phrases often have no subject. Hidden subject, indeterminate absent are figures in Portuguese grammar that explains the absence of the subject. This however does not exist in English. Unless by the imperative mood, every English sentence has usually the subject. In the absence of a specific subject, often the pronoun IT should be used.

Besides the issue of mandatory presence of the subject, we have a problem with respect to its positioning. In Portuguese, the subject often appears in the middle or end of sentence. In English, it should be preferably at the beginning of the sentence. Note the following examples:

Tive um problema. - I had a problem.

Está chovendo. - It's raining.

Quebraram uma janela. - Somebody broke a window.

Ontem caiu um avião. - An airplane crashed yesterday.


Verb conjugation

Another topic may impair the development of student learning: the question of the conjugation of verbs in English - or no conjugation. Something that should be easily assimilated is considered a big deal. English verbs are less bent than in Portuguese. One example is the past of the verbs. They modify only once and are used in all persons of the subject.

Modal Verbs are never bent. Simple Present is the Verbal Tense in which the verbs are modified twice, always in the third person of the singular.

The Be is the verb that accounts the major verb conjugation: five possibilities – am, is, are, was and were.


Gender of Nouns

Most nouns in English are neutral. They serve both the male and the female pair: doctor, lawyer, teacher, cook, student, driver, etc.

However, there are some nouns which are specific to the genre: boy, man, waiter, brother, girl, woman, waitress, sister, etc.



Unlike the Portuguese, the adjectives in English do not have gender and number. They maintain the same form when they use for male, female, singular and plural.

Another problem English students face when they use adjectives is related to their positioning in the sentence.
The adjectives are used before the nouns they qualify. This rule is also valid when they are present two or more adjectives.

We say in Portuguese “Ela tem lindos olhos verdes”, but in English speakers must say “She has beautiful green eyes”.


Countable & Uncountable contrasts with Portuguese 

In most cases there is a correlation between the nouns in Portuguese and English. That is: if the noun is uncountable in Portuguese, so must be in English. In some cases however, this correlation is betrayed, prompting the student to error.

We say in Portuguese: “Eu quero uma água”, but in English speakers must say “I’d like a glass of water”.

All the uncountable nouns need a countable noun: glass, cup, piece, some, etc.

We say in Portuguese: “Me dá uma informação?”, but in English speakers must say “Could you give me a piece of information?”



Surely, this is a topic that brings more headaches for English students. English syllabic splitting does not happen the same way that the Portuguese language. Even the Americans have problems and they usually consult the dictionary to split some words.

To divide English words correctly, one must know how to point out prefixes, suffixes and roots of a word. See some examples: por – tu - guese, how – ev – er,         jealo – ous – y.

Another point related to spelling is the existence of some words which are always written in Capital Letters regardless of position in the sentence. Months, days of the week, nationalities and the personal pronoun "I" are some examples.



The problem of studying a new language is that we always try to translate everything literally to let the language closest to ours. In English we have a topic called collocations. It works like this: there are word combinations that are better than others. The collocations are everywhere, in formal and informal speech. See some examples:

We say in Portuguese “Vamos dar uma festa”, but in English speakers must say “Let’s have a party”.

We say in Portuguese “Eu vou fazer a barba”, but in English speakers must say “I’m going to shave the beard”.



False cognates are words that have a strong resemblance to the foreign word, but contrary to what everyone thinks, no matter if the root word is the same, these words have nothing to do with the meaning of the word in question. False cognates make us to believe in a semblance of meaning that

does not exist.

People less aware of this tend to make some mistakes that completely undermine the message.

See some False Cognates:


original term




na verdade















Idiom is a group of words whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words. So, it’s impossible to translate an idiom. A student of English language must comprehend its meaning by consider the context when an idiom is used.

Take a look of these idioms:

The build was laid in ashes.

(O prédio foi destruído).

I banged into a stone.

(Eu tropecei em uma pedra).

Your friends beat up on mine.

(Seus amigos bateram no meu).

I bought a brand new car.

(Eu comprei um carro novinho em folha).

Izabelle is in a cleft stick.

(Izabelle está em apuros)

The blouse is on the clothes horse.

(A blusa está no viral).

I have cold feet.

(Eu estou com medo)

Any study of differences between English and Portuguese, even if superficial, serves as evidence that there is English learning if there is intensive contact with the language in its oral form.
This small study shows only a few points of differences between these two cultures.
 There is much to investigate. There is much to learn.



Evandro Carlos Braggio.

October, 2010.