July 5, 2012 | Portuguese

Portuguese: A Big Language Globally

Portuguese is spoken by more people than I realized.

I have been looking forward to Portuguese for a long time. I love Romance languages. This is the fourth I have studied, the others being Spanish, French, and Italian.

I am still drinking only one shot of espresso a day, which makes me go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier. I show up at coffee shops when they are just opening and do Pimsleur while sleepy people walk in.

This makes me feel virtuous.

I am generally taking Pimsleur everywhere. Today I took it to Chelsea Piers, a massive sports complex along the Hudson River, for a gymnastics class. What a beautiful day!

View from Chelsea Piers

View from Chelsea Piers

Where the Gymnastics Classes Take Place

Where the Gymnastics Classes Take Place

In New York City, Portuguese is not spoken by a huge number of people on a percentage basis, but the absolute numbers are still significant. According to the Modern Language Association’s Language Map Data Center, there were 18,510 speakers of the language here in 2000. 

According to the “Romance Languages” entry in Wikipedia, there are almost 25 Romance languages in the world. I had no idea! I read there:

Because of the extreme difficulty and varying methodology of distinguishing among language, variety, and dialect, it is impossible to count the number of Romance languages now in existence, but the standard count places the number of living Romance languages at almost 25. In fact, the number may be slightly larger, and many more existed previously (SIL Ethnologue lists 47 Romance languages).

Spanish is by far the most widespread Romance language, but Portuguese has way more speakers than Italian or French. (Number five and six after these four are Romanian and Catalan.)

So where are all these Portuguese speakers globally?

In Essential Portuguese Grammar, author Sue Tyson-Ward writes, “Portuguese is the official language of Portugal (including Madeira and the Azores), Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Sāo Tomé and Príncipe, Cabo Verde, and is still an official language in some sections of society in Macau and in East Timor.” Click here for a map.

Brazil is the fifth most populous country in the world, so right there you already have a lot of Portuguese speakers. I am having trouble finding a consistent number for global totals, but it is more than 200 million in any case.

New Jersey has many more Portuguese speakers than New York State. According to 2005 census data (this information came through MLA’s Language Map Data Center as well), there were seven years ago 82,362 of them in New Jersey versus 36,987 in the state of New York. 

Moon Over 73rd Street Tonight

Moon Over 73rd Street Tonight

I am doing a little work in my grammar books, but a lot more Pimsleur to try to get a handle on the pronuncation. The São Paulo dialect I am learning through my Pimsleur lessons pronounces many o’s like u’s. I don’t know if that’s just the dialect or if it is broadly common in Portuguese, but in o senhor (which is used as a formal masculine “you”) or o livro (the book), the o’s sound like oo’s. It is very hard for me to say u livru and write o livro. That’s just undoing a hell of a lot of education in my native language and others as well about the nature of an o. Letters take on personalities in your brain over the years!

I am generally going to sleep with Portuguese Pimsleur in my ears. Well, really only one ear, because I usually lie on one side, and it is uncomfortable to sleep on these earpieces, so only the upward-facing ear learns Portuguese.

When I wake up in the middle of the night, I find myself being addressed by Portuguese-speaking strangers. Then I go back to sleep. Then in the morning I wake up and do Pimsleur lessons.

I like the philosophy of Sue Tyson-Ward, above-mentioned grammar book author. In her introduction to Essential Portuguese Grammar, she writes:

During my teaching over the last 18 years, I have encountered many learners who wish to go beyond the basics of learning a few holiday phrases. However, many people were put off grammar at school, and often say to me ‘Do we have to learn any grammar in this class?’ My straight answer is always ‘Yes, you do!’ Without the basic building-blocks of how a language works, you can never go beyond learning phrases parrot-fashion.

I think this is slightly overstated, and an obvious exception would be an immersion experience, where you have no choice but to sink or swim, with or without grammar lessons to buoy you. (Hey, shouldn’t that expression really be “swim or sink”? Euphony may have trumped meaning there.)

But no matter: mine is not an immersion experience, and besides, no one has to talk me into studying grammar.

Comments (10)

Luciana • Posted on Fri, September 14, 2012 - 9:55 am EST

Well, I can tell you that in some towns in the state of São Paulo people may pronounce “o livro” instead of “u livru” or they say a solid “d” or “t” instead of “gee” or “tchi”.  Regarding the pronunciation of “m” in “também” or “bem”, we can say it is something like this: “tanbein” or “bein”.
Ok, I’ll try to stop making comments in every post about Portuguese… :)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, September 14, 2012 - 10:32 am EST

That solid d/t thing would have been so much easier for me…but now I have spent more than two months trying to do the other, and I think there is no going back! I just have to keep making sure I don’t do the same thing in Italian, too. I have already sometimes been turning my o’s into u’s in both Spanish and Italian, I’m afraid. It’s a problem that requires constant vigilance on my part. ;)

I am very glad to have your comments on any and all entries. FYI, I am about to post something about the personal infinitive! (I bet that’s not so easy to explain to students.)

Luciana • Posted on Fri, September 14, 2012 - 11:36 am EST

I know what you’re talking about!! when I studied Italian/Spanish I had to think before speaking d/t! And regarding personal infinitive, once a student asked: but how can you conjugate the infinitive?? Then I stopped and laughed… How could I answer that question!? ;)

Sally • Posted on Sun, January 20, 2013 - 5:44 pm EST

Portuguese and Spanish are practically the same language with different accents. Once you become fluent in one of these two you are basically 70% home free with the other.
These are the 2 closest romance languages in the world today. Portuguese and Spanish speakers communicate with each in their own languages with relative ease.You cannot say this about any other 2 major romance languages.

Lidia • Posted on Fri, June 07, 2013 - 9:36 am EST

You see, with Portuguese and Spanish one doesn’t have to worry about the syntax because both grammars and vocabularies are 90 similar to each other. On the other hand, Italian/Spanish mutual intelligibility is a complete myth. This is a known fact backed up with empirical evidence by scholars and researchers of linguistics.

Chris • Posted on Sat, February 22, 2014 - 2:39 am EST

Ellen, have you kept up your Portuguese? It’s my favorite. I’m horrible at it because I haven’t worked enough on it. I started with the Pimsleur European Portuguese because I preferred the sound over the Brazilian. I dislike the gee sound for de, it messes me up so much when I listen to my Brazilian Portuguese materials. I should take a few months off of the other languages that I work on and go solely with Portuguese for a while, both European and Brazilian. I like the duolingo site and use it for Portuguese and that tool alone might make me go Brazlian(or at least predominantly.)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, February 22, 2014 - 2:51 am EST

Chris, I am working on Portuguese again right now. I just did Pimsleur’s European Portuguese, in fact, to compare it to the Brazilian. Yeah, the de isn’t a gee sound, but what about what happens to the s’s? ;) I definitely prefer the Brazilian so far…but you never know what could happen. I am enjoying Portuguese more this time around and finding it more natural sounding and feeling than before.

Chris • Posted on Sat, February 22, 2014 - 3:04 am EST

I LOVE those Essshhhhes! For the first few months, listening and repeating the Pimsleur discs, I just did it with my Sean Connery voice. A guy I knew who spoke European style said my accent was really good. I even told him what I was doing and he said that was a good idea. Ha! He listened to a bit of my Pimsleur stuff and was fascinated by one of the speakers. I believe the male. He wasn’t familiar with the regional accent. But, he’s from the US and only goes to Portugal to visit family, so…

He told me when he met Brazilians he could thought it was Portugese, only after hearing them for a while but couldn’t understand anything they said!

Chris • Posted on Sat, February 22, 2014 - 3:12 am EST

Eu realmente gosto de seu site e sua escrita.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, March 02, 2014 - 11:30 pm EST

Muito obrigada, Chris. :) That is very kind of you.

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