So, what should you know about the Portuguese Language? – or shall we write Português?
First things first: Portuguese is a Romance, or Latin, language that evolved from Classical Latin. Over time and especially after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, increased isolation and influence by non-Roman languages resulted in the explosion of Vulgar Latin dialects, gradually more distant from Classical Latin. Portuguese fits into the main Iberian Romance group of languages, alongside with Castilian (Spanish), Catalan and Galician as the most widespread nowadays. Thanks to the overseas expansion started in the 15th century, the two most spoken languages from the Iberian Romance group – Spanish and Portuguese – are also currently the two most spoken Latin languages globally. Portuguese is spoken in Brazil, Angola, Mozambique and Portugal, but is the official language of other nations, such as East Timor, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Macau. The Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) includes as members nine countries, plus a number of associated observers which have historical or economic ties with Portuguese.
The global footprint of Portuguese spans four continents, notably South America – where it is the most spoken language – and Africa. With over 260 million total speakers, Portuguese ranks as the 6th most spoken language by native speakers. It is the third largest European language globally, after Spanish and English. In the Southern Hemisphere, Portuguese is the most spoken language. It remains growing fast still, mostly with the contributions of Brazil, Angola and Mozambique’s demographic advances. Unesco classifies Portuguese as the second fastest growing European language, after English. Curiously, this giant global language is relatively small in its home continent. With 10.5 million speakers in Portugal, even after adding significant Portuguese-speaking communities around Europe, Portuguese makes it only to the bottom of the top 20 most spoken languages in the continent. This means the weight of the overseas speakers on the global total is the most impressive of any language. Consider that when, 600 years ago, the then-Kingdom of Portugal set off to establish the first modern European empire, it had a mere one million inhabitants, and the present footprint of Portuguese becomes an even more staggering fact. This curiosity arguably has an important cultural impact.
Despite using a globally enormous language, the mindset of Portugal’s natives is still moulded by a neighbouring context in which the Portuguese Language has a relatively modest weight. In general, being open-minded to other cultures and willing to try to speak foreign languages thus comes more naturally to a Portuguese person than to a native of a large European country, whose language’s individual weight is bigger. It often surprises visitors that Portuguese people are generally open to try using foreign languages at home if needed. Take as an example that Portuguese people belong in the minority of Western Europe viewers (alongside those in Iceland, Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries) of films that are, as a rule, not dubbed. Instead, subtitles are used. Besides showing a higher receptiveness to foreign languages, this can also mean Portuguese people easily grow with an ear that is open to foreign phonetics. You are more likely to have a welcoming multi-language experience in Portugal than in most other places.
Beyond history, culture and mindset, there are technical reasons why Portuguese may have an edge in adapting to other languages, particularly from the Latin family. Latin languages obviously have a common root that provides friendly transitions in vocabulary, grammar, and phonetics. Knowing any of them well will be helpful to learning any of the other. But which one provides the best entry point? No definite universal answer exists. Much falls in the realm of subjective preferences and individual experiences. But Portuguese nevertheless has some important, objective, points in its favour. Portuguese is unquestionably a complex language. Having preserved certain verb forms from Latin that most of its peers have abandoned, its grammar is relatively intricate. Many grammatical structures and verbs conjugations of the other languages will thus appear familiar and accessible to a Portuguese speaker. Similarly, when it comes to phonetics, Portuguese provides an ample and diverse inventory. With 37 phonemes (vowels and consonants) plus 14 diphthongs (combinations of vowels, including 10 oral and 4 nasal), Portuguese sounds are demanding to master but provide a strong base to learn other languages.
Compared with main Latin peers: Spanish (25 phonemes), French (also 37, but with only 4 diphthongs), Italian (30), Romanian (29). Portuguese phonetics provide a good ability of making out sound units. Whether that results more from culture and mindset or from technical aptitude, it is clear that in cases of interactions between e.g. a Portuguese native speaker and a Spanish native speaker, the Portuguese will typically be able to understand, distinguish and largely reproduce Spanish sounds – whereas Portuguese will be only moderately intelligible to the Spanish speaker. For ears not familiarized with Portuguese, it is not uncommon to equate it with Eastern European languages, given similarly generous phonetic inventory and flat accent, which contrasts with Spanish or Italian, typically described as more lively, open-vowel languages, but also with a narrower phonetic range (in this sense, French nasal sounds will seem more attuned to Portuguese). Besides unlocking realms such as those of fado, kizomba, samba and bossa nova, Portuguese can provide a favourable entry point to learning other languages. It is a language that can serve as a stepping-stone to a universe of over 1 billion speakers of Latin languages all over the globe. Whether you’re shooting for proficiency or just getting the restaurant menu, when it comes to learning a new language you are not likely to find a worthier investment than Portuguese.
“You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.” -Geoffrey Williams