Myths Debunked: Can Spanish Speakers Understand Portuguese?

One of the most popular beliefs is that Spanish speakers understand Portuguese (and vice-versa). There’s even a Wikipedia page comparing the two sister languages. But although Spanish and Portuguese are indeed closely related, things are not as simple as they might seem.

 spanish vs portuguese

“You speak Spanish, you must understand Portuguese.”

I recently received this message in a work-related request. Apparently, if I can write in Spanish, it automatically qualifies me to write in Portuguese.

Only if everything was that simple.

Spanish and Portuguese both have their origins in Latin and both originated in the Iberian Peninsula. It’s not entirely clear when each language became independent from the other, but it must’ve been somewhere between the 14th century and the 16th. D.Dinis, the king of Portugal in the early 14th century, is famous for his poetic verses in Galaico-Portuguese. Camões, the great Portuguese poet, still understood a similar language, but wrote his epic “The Lusiads” (1556) in fully-fledged Portuguese.

However the main difference between the two languages was not in their vocabulary, but rather in their sound. After all, they still share 89% of their vocabulary. But Spanish only has 24 phonemes, whereas European Portuguese has an whooping 37. And what this mean for modern-day speakers? Spanish speakers who have never been exposed to Portuguese will have a hard time understanding the spoken language. Portuguese speakers, on the other hand, have a much easier time dealing with spoken Spanish.

False Friends in Spanish and Portuguese

Apart from the difficulties of the spoken language, Spanish and Portuguese also have distinct grammars. If you don’t study each of them individually, I doubt you will be able to write in both. A Spanish speaker and a Portuguese speaker that have never been exposed to each other’s languages will understand around 45% of what the other says. In real life, of course, this is not that common. The mutual intelligibility of spoken Portuguese for most Spaniards is around 50%; the Portuguese, from the high of their 37 phonemes, can understand about 58% of what we say.

But rewinding back to the question of vocabulary, we must not forget that what we don’t share includes dozens of idioms and cursing words. And this is also why we might have a higher mutual intelligibility in the written form of our languages, which is far more polished. Everyday language gets harder simply because an European Portuguese speaker will hardly understand the interjections or cussing of Chilean Spanish.

Finally, let’s not forget the dozens of false friends. Here is a list of my favorite ones, have fun with it!

Salsa: in Spanish, salsa means sauce. In Portuguese, “salsa” means parsley. So imagine my surprise when a Portuguese speaker asked me for “salsa”… and really meant perejil.

Oficina: in Spanish, oficina means office. In Portuguese, an “oficina” is a workshop (taller in Spanish). By the way, taller sounds like the Portuguese word “talher”, which means silverware. The Portuguese word for office is actually “escritório”, which means “desk” in Spanish. Confusing, right?

Largo: in Spanish, largo means long. In Portuguese, it means wide.

Acordar: in Spanish, acordar means to remember. In Portuguese, it means “to wake up”.

Cola: in means queue in Spanish, but in Portuguese it means glue. Related.

Embarazada: the Spanish word for pregnant is tricky for almost everyone. You probably thought it meant “embarrassed”. But relax! It’s confusing even for the Portuguese speaking neighbors, who will think the exact same thing.

The bottom line is that although Spanish and Portuguese have fundamental differences, knowing one will help you learn the other. If you already know Portuguese and want to try your hand at Spanish, troubleshoot with one of our online courses.