Spanish and Portuguese are very closely related. Being fluent in or familiar with one of these languages can make learning the other considerably easier. However, Spanish and Portuguese have some important differences as well. Here are some things to watch out for if you are a Spanish speaker planning to learn Portuguese or vice-versa.
While Spanish and Portuguese have very similar written forms, the spoken forms of the languages are very different. Spanish is a more phonetic language than Portuguese is. It’s much easier to predict how a Spanish word should be pronounced based on how it is spelled. Spoken Portuguese has a broader range of sounds compared to Spanish’s more limited set. All the principle Spanish sounds already exist within Portuguese. As a result, native Portuguese speakers typically have an easier time understanding Spanish than native Spanish speakers do Portuguese. Going from speaking Portuguese to speaking Spanish means drawing on sounds that you already know. Taking the opposite journey, spoken Spanish to spoken Portuguese, requires learning many new and unfamiliar sounds.
Spanish and Portuguese are both gendered languages. Every noun is either masculine or feminine. The catch is that some words take a different gender in Spanish than they do in Portuguese. For example, words ending in –aje are masculine in Spanish. However, their corresponding translations into Portuguese ending in –agem are feminine. The Spanish word for “a trip,” un viaje is masculine, while it’s Portuguese counterpart, uma viagem, is feminine. Other examples of gender swaps between the languages include the words for milk (la leche/o leite) and tree (el árbol/a árvore), which change from feminine to masculine and masculine to feminine when translated from Spanish to Portuguese.
In addition, some words have different meanings in one language depending on the gender used, but always use the same gender (and thus have the same meaning) in the other. Orden, the Spanish word for “order,” can be either el orden or la orden depending on how it is used. Its Portuguese equivalent is always the feminine a ordem.
Spanish and Portuguese’s shared linguistic history means that there are many full or partial cognates between the languages. Because of this it would be easy to let your guard down and assume that false friends would be essentially a non-issue. On the contrary, it is important to be vigilant when encountering a familiar-looking word precisely because of similarity of the two languages. Differences in Spanish and Portuguese alphabets, pronunciation, and word origin (among other factors) have resulted in words with nearly identical or identical spellings but completely different meanings.
Sometimes these false friends merely create the potential for mild confusion. For example, aceite means “olive oil” in Spanish but “admitted or accepted” in Portuguese. Barata means “cheap” in Spanish but “cockroach.” in Portuguese. Other false friends have the potential to cause more serious misunderstandings. While, ligar means “flirt” in Spanish, the same word means to “join, bind, or make a telephone call” in Portuguese. For an even more extreme example, consider the Spanish word embarazada (pregnant) and the deceptively similar Portuguese word embaraçada (confused). Also consider that neither word has the same meaning or connotation as the English word embarrassed. In short, the same rule that applies to false friends between English and other languages holds true here: never assume that words share meanings just because they share spellings.
Finally, Spanish and Portuguese have some differences in verb conjugation and usage. The chief danger here is similar to that of false friends: assuming that similar-looking words represent the same verb form in both languages. The use of pluperfect in the indicative tense in both languages is one such example. The Portuguese verb cantara (had sung) is easy to confuse with the Spanish imperfect past subjunctive cantara/cantase. However, the correct Spanish translation of cantara is había cantado.