Native English speakers aren’t exactly best known for speaking other languages well… And I can say that because I am a native English speaker and when I speak Portuguese people are often shocked.
“Inglesa? E falas Português assim tão bem?”
So I have made it my mission to help those of you who have zero experience with languages and are convinced you are terrible at them because of your awful memories of doing French O levels decades ago.
I’m here today to tell you it is not hopeless, you CAN learn to speak Portuguese and the place I urge you to start is pronunciation (this is one of my best tips and you can read more about how to learn Portuguese from scratch in this article).
And if you’re wondering who I am, my name is Liz and I’m a Brit living a life I LOVE in Lisbon. I’ve been studying Portuguese academically for over 15 years and I help people who are moving to Portugal build their confidence and conversation in European Portuguese so they can live Portugal at its best.
I teach hundreds of students and the majority do have English as a first language, so I have noticed several common mistakes that native English speakers make when speaking Portuguese. In today’s article, I am going to tell you what those are and how to correct them!
I cover this and a whole lot more in my free one-hour lesson for beginners – so if you’re ready to get the ultimate quick-start guide to Portuguese conversation go ahead and register for the session!
Let’s get into it…
1. Vowel pronunciation
First up we need to recognise what is going to give you away most as an English speaker is your pronunciation of vowels. This is where you should be focusing most attention in the beginning.
So let’s take a super simple word, say it for me:
(Watch the video linked above to hear me pronounce it).
It’s that last O that we need to change. When a word ends in O in Portuguese, we don’t want to hear a British O or American O, we want a U sound! Just making this small change is going to make you sound so much more Portuguese! Say these with me…
You are already sounding better.
What about the letter A?
Most English speakers will see this and assume is the A we use for “cat, hat, bat”. It’s an open A.
But to sound Portuguese – we need to know when to close down this sound to sound more like the A in “away”. Say these words with me:
This is called a near-open central vowel, but don’t worry about that. Let’s just call it a closed A, and look out for it in Portuguese!
2. Pronunciation of H
Next up I want to talk about the letter H. In English, we make a “hh” sound at the beginning of words like “hotel”.
But have you noticed that if a Portuguese person has a Portuguese accent when speaking English, they might say “(h)otel”, without the H?
This is because in Portuguese we do not pronounce an h, so you can literally just imagine it’s not there. Practice with these words:
It’s so much easier when you know how!
Are these tips helping? If you want a more in-depth look at pronunciation you need to check out my free pronunciation guide where I cover even more sounds!
3. Pronunciation of NH
The H is also important to get right when we see it next to an N. I’m sure you’ve seen this word on a Portuguese menu:
Hopefully, now you can pronounce that final O correctly, but what about the nh? This is what is known as a digraph – when two consonants work together to form one new sound. We don’t have this sound in English but we do have it in Spanish (check the video linked in this article to listen to the pronunciation).
So I don’t want to hear veen-ho. I want to hear vinho!
Try these other words with me:
4. The single R
Finally, I want to tackle the single R. The double R is very hard too, but I’ve noticed when teaching my students that the single R comes up just as much. Whether you are American or English, when you say R you’ll notice your tongue doesn’t touch the roof of your mouth – it’s suspended.
But if you have a Scottish or Welsh accent, this is where you are going to shine. The single R in Portuguese is what we refer to as a tapped r. This means we make one tap on the roof of our mouth with our tongue. Just like the Scottish would do pronouncing: “great!” or the Welsh pronouncing “brilliant!”
This is the sound we want in words like:
But also when the R comes at the end of words like:
These final Rs are what I often see students missing off and saying just calo- which isn’t quite right, you haven’t finished the word off in full there.
If you are struggling to make this final “r”, it might help to think it is very similar to how “t” sounds in the middle of a word, if we use an American accent:
So imagine that American T in what you are trying to say:
Cato = caro
If this was helpful, make sure to check out my other pronunciation videos available on my YouTube channel (Talk the Streets). I also have a free lesson for beginners which starts off with even more tips on this topic so if you are wondering how to get started with Portuguese it really is the best place to go, it’s totally free and I would love to see you there!
Tchau for now,