The Main Rules of Portuguese Pronunciation
People say that Portuguese pronunciation is very difficult, but I’ve seen harder (wink wink). Learning Portuguese is a little bit easier than learning French but not the same as learning Spanish. And, if you’re an English speaker, you might have some advantage. Portuguese structure is simpler than English structure and the nasal sounds aren’t that difficult to pick up. However, there are some tricky words and combinations.
Thanks to our level of difficulty in pronunciation, Portuguese people are usually good at pronouncing other languages. We can make the two sounds of the letter “R” for example. Of course, we struggle with languages like German, Hungarian and the Nordic languages.
Although the Portuguese language adopted some spelling reforms in the past years that facilitate writing and reading, that didn’t affect pronunciation. But don’t worry. Actually, I see friends having fun while learning Portuguese and it’s incredible to see how fast people can learn and speak the language! But it is challenging…I’m sorry!
Let’s go through those challenges, shall we?
Portuguese Pronunciation: Vowels
Portuguese vowels aren’t a nightmare but they need some work. Just like in French, there are different sounds depending on the stress of the word and accents. There are three statuses for Portuguese vowels: open, closed and muted (for the letter “E”).
A – open has an emphasis in the A: “parte” (AH sound), like “part” and closed is a soft A: “américa” (towards to UH sound), like America.
E – open has an emphasis in the E: “américa” (EH sound), like “america” and closed is a soft E (Errr sound): “mesa” like pen.
I – has a EE sound: “bife”.
O – open has an emphasis in the O: “modo” (AW sound), like “law” and closed is a bit softer O (OH sound): “porto” like cold.
U – has a U sound: futebol.
Portuguese Pronunciation: Consonants
Overall, the Portuguese alphabet is like the English one. We have the “Ç” but we don’t make a big deal about it and it’s treated as a normal “C” in the dictionary. Also, although we now have the “K”, “W” and “Y”, we only use them for foreign words and they have the same sound as the original language. In general, Portuguese consonants aren’t different from the English, but in some cases you should follow the rules to know which sound to use for the same consonant.
Pronouncing CH, LH, NH
Yes, they seem scary but, in fact, after you learn the sound they become quite easy. Plus, they are very easy to identify. Portuguese language learners are always afraid of pronouncing these!
“CH” is /ʃ/ (SH): charada – like charade in English.
“LH” is /ʎ/. Unfortunately, there is no English equivalent but it’s like the “ll” in Spanish or the sound of “gl” (Ex: Caglari), in Italian.
“NH” is /ɲ/. Like the French word “champagne” or Spanish “niño” or “canyon” in English. Once you hear the sound and imitate it, you’ll see it isn’t as hard as you thought.
Four Ways of pronouncing S and Z
Basically, there are four rules to pronounce S and Z. You’ll have to memorize which one is used in the word.
Rule 1) between vowels it sounds like z: “rosa” and “casado” like “rose” and “married” in English.
Rule 2) in the beginning of a vowel the sound is a /s/: “sabão” and “sábado” – like “soap” and “Saturday” in English.
Rule 3) followed by a voiced consonant (b, d, g, j, l, lh, m, n, nh, r, rr, v and z) the sound is /ʒ/ (like ZH or J sound): “Islândia” and “felizmente” – like casual and seizure in English.
Rule 4) followed by an unvoiced consonant (c, ç, ch, f, p, q, s, t) the sound is /ʃ/ (SH sound): “Inglês” and “faz” – like English.
What is voiced and unvoiced? It’s whether the vocal chords vibrate or not when making that sound.
C or Ç?
This is an important one. We can consider that the letter “C” is the rule and “Ç” the exception. Use “C” when followed by A, O or U and read the sound /k/: “cultura” – like “culture” in English. However, when “C” is followed by E or I, you must pronounce as /s/: “centro” – like “centre” in English.
So, when to use “Ç”? Well, only when the letter is between two vowels: “serviço” – like “service” in English. The sound is the same as /s/. By the way, the symbol under “Ç” is called cedilla – in Portuguese, cedilha.
The Two Sounds of R
Ok, this might be easier for French or German people since they have the same sounds, but with a little practice you’ll get there! If “R” is at the beginning of the word, you must pronounce it hard like the French “r”. Imagine the sound of a dog when it’s angry: “rrrr”, it’s something like that! Otherwise, it’s a soft /r/, like cronológico – like chronological in English.
The nasal sound ÃO
Maybe not that easy, but the famous nasal sound in Portuguese pronunciation can definitely be improved with practice. Although I can’t translate it into a specific word in English, try to say the word “now” or “oun” by squeezing your nose with two fingers in order to obtain a nasal sound. Now say them without squeezing. Do you hear the difference? I’m sure you do! To make it perfect you just need to accentuate the sound. The symbol on top of “A” is called tilde – in Portuguese, til -, and indicates that the sound is nasal. Other nasal words: amanhã, manhã, irmão.
My advice? Read the rules, memorize them and practice – a lot. Record yourself pronouncing the words and learn from your mistakes. When it comes to pronouncing, you’ll need a lot of persistence. Be strong!
Rute Martins has learned English, Spanish and French over the years. She is a native Portuguese speaker and has years of experience teaching the language.
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