Learning a new language is many things at once. It’s fun, exciting, challenging, frustrating, and rewarding.
There are good days. And there are bad days. Some days you feel like you are ready to write research papers in your foreign language, while other days you question if you are capable of ordering a coffee.
As part of my current language endeavor I’ve traveled to Brazil to absorb as much Portuguese as I can while my six-month tourist visa is still valid.
As my third thoroughly-studied foreign language, I know a lot of what to expect this time around as far as the learning process, milestones, and obstacles. I am getting to the point where I can say most things that are on my mind, and I can say it fast enough to keep a conversation going with native speakers.
There is, however, one hurdle that has been a nagging thorn in my side: My first foreign language is Spanish.
My Spanish is still leagues beyond my Portuguese, and given that I’ve studied it since I was 14 and did a year of university in the language, I don’t think I’ll ever know another foreign language better. Yet, Spanish and Portuguese are so similar that I am finding it annoyingly tricky to switch between the two languages without mixing them up. Oftentimes I end up speaking a mix of the two, which both Spanish and Portuguese speakers call ‘portuñol.’
The similarities of Spanish and Portuguese are great when getting started. Knowing the base of grammar, verbs, syntax, and latin roots of a romance language is a big step that you can largely skip when you already have learned one. Yes, there are key differences, but the structure and concepts are essentially the same with caveats.
Once my Portuguese reached a level that was nearing the all-too-relative realm of fluency, knowing the two languages so well has been a bit confusing.
I feel like my brain is constantly trying to outsmart itself. Grammar rules that I have known for years in Spanish like the back of my hand are suddenly a little foggy. Wait, is that the rule for Spanish or Portuguese?
By already speaking Spanish, I started off with a Portuguese vocabulary that spanned over hundreds, maybe thousands, of words. The tricky part is identifying which words the languages share, which are different, and which are false cognates.
For example, the word for ‘police’: Spanish is policía, while Portuguese is polícia. A subtle shift in pronunciation that makes a difference.
In Spanish, the word for a plastic bag, like those you will see at a grocery store, is bolsa. In Portuguese, it’s sacola. A bolsa refers to a hand bag, or even a scholarship depending on context, in Portuguese.
In Spanish, the common word for but is pero. In Portuguese the equivalent is mas, which can also be used the same way in Spanish. Yet, when an accent is added in Spanish, as in más, it changes the meaning to more. In Portuguese you have to add a vowel, as in mais, to get more, and for the cherry on top, Brazilians often colloquially pronounce mas and mais identically.
See how this can get confusing quick?
Finally, both Spanish and Portuguese use direct and indirect object pronouns (me, you, him, her, it, us, them). While Brazilian Portuguese uses informal structures at times, the rules are essentially the same for formally speaking, however, the placement is just different enough to allow your tongue to slip up in rapid conversation.
Take the sentence, ‘Can you give me the keys?’
In Spanish, the object pronoun ‘me’ is placed before the verbs:
¿Me puedes dar las llaves?
In Portuguese it gets placed between the two verbs.
Pode me dar as chaves?
(It’s worth noting that both languages also have the option to tack that object pronoun onto the end of the second verb.)
The list goes on and on. These are just a few simple examples, but I think you get the idea. The two languages’ similarities can cause a headache when trying to engage in rapid conversations. (I won’t even get started with differences and similarities between different dialects of each language.)
A good problem to have
At the end of the day, whoever I am speaking with in each of these languages probably isn’t as aware of the firestorm going on in my brain as I am. While I do mix up some words sometimes, I am usually very aware of it and typically can make the correct choice within a second of thought. However, in a fluid conversation, it’s not very natural to pause and think, even for a second. Sometimes you just have to embrace the portuñol and continue speaking.
I think the challenges of learning Spanish and Portuguese are definitely not unique to me, and the value of speaking an entirely new language outweighs the complementary confusion that will undoubtedly come with it. You could say it’s a good problem to have.
As my Portuguese continues to improve, I’ll keep a close eye on whether it becomes easier to separate the two languages, or if the confusion only gets worse. We’ll see!