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Should You Learn Portuguese in Brazil or Portugal?

Should you learn Portuguese in Brazil or Portugal?

Deciding you want to learn Portuguese is an important first step, but now the most important question is: where to do it? Should you learn Portuguese in Brazil, or in Portugal?

Choosing the country where you learn Portuguese is incredibly important, as it will affect your speaking style and comprehension of the language itself.

Residents of either country are quick to say that the Portuguese spoken in Portugal and Brazil are vastly different -- so different, in fact, that people from one country often have difficulty understanding those from the other country (think of it like someone from the Deep South of the U.S. trying to talk to someone with the world’s thickest Scottish accent).

More than most other languages, choosing the country where you learn and become fluent in Portuguese is incredibly important, as it will affect your speaking style and comprehension of the language itself. So let's get to it, should you learn Portuguese in Brazil or Portugal?

What are The Biggest Differences Between Portugal and Brazil?

A Quick Snapshot

Overall, Portugal is fairly small, mild-weathered, Mediterranean, and very European, while Brazil is massive, tropical, and oh-so-Latin.

Despite the fact that they speak (mostly) the same language, Portugal and Brazil have wildly different cultures. True to its Iberian identity, Portugal is a more traditional European country, with plenty of wine, cheese, and lots of fresh seafood on the menu, while tropical Brazil is all about the fresh fruits, vegetables, feijoada (a black bean and pork dish) and, of course, meat.

The Portuguese are generally more reserved, especially next to gregarious, outgoing Brazilians, so if you’re an introvert, you may find it easier to make friends in Latin Brazil. Still not sure which culture is a better fit for your Portuguese learning experience? Read on for more details on each:

Portugal

Portugal

Portugal, with a population of a little over 10 million, is smaller than Brazil’s two largest cities (less than half of São Paulo), but it makes up for its relatively tiny size with its outsized cultural influence.

Nestled against the western flank of Spain, Portugal shared much of its early history with its Iberian neighbor, until the modern-day borders were drawn in the mid-1200s and the two countries began to compete to take over the world.

Both Portugal and Spain were major players in the Age of Exploration, racing each other to “discover” (and subsequently plunder and colonize) vast swaths of Africa, Asia, and the Americas – hence, the Portuguese-speaking countries in those regions.

These days, the country has set aside its conquering history, content with its world-class infrastructure, high quality of life and groundbreaking drug laws. The capital of Lisbon, home to about 2.7 million people (a quarter of Portugal’s total population), is one of the oldest cities in the world, far older than other major capitals like London, Paris, and Rome.

Portugal is a more traditional European country, with plenty of wine, cheese, and lots of fresh seafood on the menu, while tropical Brazil is all about the fresh fruits, vegetables, feijoada (a black bean and pork dish) and, of course, meat.

The city’s ancient history has given it an unparalleled architectural and cultural value, with buildings dating back centuries. Though Portugal is fairly small, it still boasts an amazing range of climates and terrains, including volcanic peaks and lagoons, Mediterranean beaches, snowy mountains, and rolling vineyards. The country is renowned for its wine production, including port wines from the Douro Valley – a UNESCO World Heritage site – and Madeira wines from the eponymous islands.

Brazil

Learn Portuguese in Brazil

Latin America’s biggest country (and the fifth-largest nation in the world) is a unique place, surrounded by the other Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. Home to more than 200 million people and dozens of different ethnic groups, including many of the world’s most isolated indigenous populations, Brazil is a study in diversity.

It's a heavily urban country, with the majority of the population living in one of the many large cities along the coast – though the ultra-modern capital of Brasília is in the interior – like São Paulo (21 million people), Rio de Janeiro (12 million), and Belo Horizonte (5.7 million).

Because Brazil was the recipient of the most African slaves in Latin America (and, sadly, the last country in the region to abolish slavery), it has the most significant Afro-descendant population in the Americas, with more than half of the total population identifying as black or biracial.

Home to more than 200 million people and dozens of different ethnic groups, including many of the world’s most isolated indigenous populations, Brazil is a study in diversity.

The country itself is massive -- the fifth-largest on earth. Though most Brazilians live on the coast, the interior encompasses much of the vast Amazon rainforest, and the country is also home to broad plains, jungle, beaches, mountain ranges, and coral reefs. With all these diverse ecosystems, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most biodiverse countries in the world!

What are the Differences Between European and Brazilian Portuguese?

A Quick Snapshot

The two versions of the language are extremely different, with major vocabulary, and accent variations. Many Portuguese learners find the Brazilian version easier to pick up, and the European version more traditional or formal.

Okay, so why exactly can’t Brazilians and the Portuguese understand each other?

This is a little bit of an exaggeration -- most people can understand someone from the other country, as long as they don’t speak too quickly and don’t have a ridiculously difficult accent -- but there are far more differences between these two iterations of Portuguese than between U.S. and British English, for example.

Is it Easier to Understand European or Brazilian Portuguese?

Many people learning Portuguese find the Brazilian version to be easier to pick up than the European one, primarily because Brazilians tend to enunciate much more than Portuguese, who often speak with their mouths partially closed -- which makes it pretty hard to understand anything!

Also worth noting that European Portuguese is seen as the more formal of the two, closer to the “traditional” form of the language -- which could be easier / harder depending on what you're already used to.

What are the Differences in Pronunciation?

There are major differences in Portuguese pronunciation between the two countries – and within the countries as well, but basically:

Rio

European Portuguese has much more of the signature “sh” sound for the letter “s,” so the questions “Como estás?” (How are you?) sounds like “Como eshtash.”

Brazilian Portuguese doesn’t have as much of this, except with the accent from Rio de Janeiro. In Brazil, the letters “t” and “d” are often pronounced like “tch” and “j” before vowels – so “Bom dia” (Good morning) becomes “Bom jia” and the city of Curitiba sounds like “Curichiba.”

How About Vocabulary?

Here’s where the real differences become obvious -- Portugal and Brazil use different words for many things. While some are similar enough that you can guess if you know the word in the other country, others have nothing in common. This has a lot to do with the fact that Brazil is such a diverse country, with words incorporated from a number of other European languages as well as African and indigenous dialects. One key is the letter “x,” which hardly exists in Portugal but appears in quite a few Brazilian words.

To get a sense of how different Portuguese vocabulary can be, Sonia-Portuguese has a great list of words that vary between Portugal and Brazil or watch this video by Babbel below (the puppet thing is a bit weird, but the explanation is spot on):

Whew, alright! I bet you weren't expecting a crash course in Portuguese, now were you? Lets move on.

Is it More Affordable to Learn Portuguese in Brazil or Portugal?

A Quick Snapshot

Neither is cheap, but it's easier to get by in Lisbon than in Brazil's costly cities. Be sure to consider airfare, which could potentially even things out, depending on where you're coming from.

Neither Portugal nor Brazil are exactly cheap -- but they're not outrageous (looking at you Paris) either.

Housing is cheaper in Portugal than in many other EU countries – a one-bedroom apartment in Lisbon can be found for about $600 -- and transportation is fairly affordable if you plan on using public transit often, with a monthly pass running about $40.

Portugal is affordable

Lisbon looks positively cheap compared to Rio de Janeiro, though. Brazil is by far the most expensive South American country, with prices that rival New York’s in the major cities. Be prepared for some serious sticker shock upon arriving -- a Big Mac costs more than $6 and dinner at a relatively cheap bar can easily set you back the equivalent of $20.

Forget about your own apartment – a two-bedroom place in a good neighborhood runs over $1,800, and a month of metro fares will be at least $60. Of course, Rio is an extreme example, but the point is: Brazilian prices are much higher than what most people expect from Latin America.

If you’re fine with being outside of the big cities, you’ll find the cost of living to be somewhat lower, but Brazil is still far from a budget-friendly destination. When it comes to watching your wallet, Portugal might be your best bet, especially if the dollar stays strong.

How Do You Plan on Using Your Portuguese?

A Quick Snapshot

The Portugal version is probably more useful for those living in Europe, while North Americans and people looking to get a leg up in the business world are better off learning Brazilian Portuguese. Also, Brazilians are hot.

The Portuguese that will be most useful for you depends a lot on where you live and work -- or plan on doing so in the future. If you live in London or hope to land a dream job at the UN, you’re better off learning European Portuguese, since those are the speakers you’re most likely to interact with.

If you live in a city with a significant Brazilian population or want to study abroad in Rio, definitely focus on Brazilian Portuguese to make sure you’ll be able to understand people.

Sao Paulo

As Brazil’s population and economy has grown, the country has become a major international economic player and one of the biggest business hubs in Latin America. Brazil is a member of the BRICS bloc -- a group of five major emerging economies that includes powerhouses Russia, India, China and South Africa -- making it a crucial nation for international trade and commerce.

Despite the recent contraction of the economy, Brazil is still a force to be reckoned with on the global stage, making Brazilian Portuguese a sought-after skill in many parts of the business world.

Many global companies and organizations have opened offices in São Paulo, and everyone from fashion magazines to the Fast and the Furious movies seems to be trying to expand into Brazil. If you’re hoping to get a leg up in your company or compete for a job that might send you overseas, Brazilian Portuguese just might be your ticket there.

On a less professional note: no offense to the Portuguese, but Brazilians are internationally famous for their unfairly good looks (see supermodels Gisele Bündchen, Adriana Lima and Alessandra Ambrosio; actors Morena Baccarin and Rodrigo Santoro; soccer player Benny Feilhaber and surfing superstar Gabriel Medina for reference). Do what you will with that information.

Where Should You Learn Portuguese?

Choose Brazil if you want...

  • A vibrant Latin lifestyle
  • To explore rain forests and natural biodiversity
  • Crowds. Parties. Samba.
  • Cultural melting pot come to life
  • To learn more about indigenous populations
  • To use Portuguese for a job in North America or for business
  • To learn an easier to pick up version of Portuguese
  • Look for language schools in Brazil now.

Choose Portugal if you want...

  • A more budget-friendly destination
  • A classic European experience
  • Ancient history come to life
  • A laid-back Mediterranean lifestyle
  • To explore vineyards and wineries
  • To use Portuguese for a job in the EU
  • To learn more traditional / formal Portuguese.
  • Look for language schools in Portugal now.

Though they share the greater part of a language, Portugal and Brazil offer vastly different experiences, learning opportunities and even variations of Portuguese. Brazil is enjoying a moment in the spotlight, coming between the World Cup and the Olympics, while the annual Carnival celebration is pretty much synonymous with “world’s best party.”

Portugal may be a bit quieter, but it’s hardly lacking when it comes to rich history, unique culture and great food -- and did we mention its world-famous wine? Where you choose to study will depend on where and how you hope to use your language skills, but no matter where you go, you’ll be in a friendly, beautiful country.

Photo Credits: Jessie Beck, Brazilian woman, Amazon monkey, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Sao Paulo.
Photo of Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.