Foreign Service Institute: From Spanish to Portuguese

by Jack L. Ulsh (1971)


If you are like most Americans who already speak Spanish and who are now about to learn Portuguese, you want to know whether your Spanish will help you or hinder you. You want to know whether it will be an advantage or a disadvantage, an asset or a liability. Since Spanish and Portuguese are so close, your first inclination is to assume that the transition from one to the other will be quite easy. But you cannot wholly accept this idea, because friends who have already made the transition have told you that your Spanish will interfere with your Portuguese. They have warned you to expect considerable difficulty in keeping your Spanish out of your Portuguese. You contrast these remarks with the more favorable comments of other friends who have also gone from Spanish to Portuguese. They tell you how easy it was. It is quite understandable, then, that you are not sure what to believe.

We who supervise Portuguese instruction at the Foreign Service Institute have observed that the majority of students who already speak Spanish make better progress in Portuguese than those who do not. Although the Spanish they know so well makes frequent and unwanted intrusions on their Portuguese, it also gives them considerable insight into the new language. So much of what was learned in Spanish is now applicable to Portuguese. Our conclusion is that the advantages of this transfer factor far outweigh the disadvantages of interference. We feel that Spanish is a distinct asset. If you have wondered about the utility of your Spanish in this new venture, and particularly if you have already started Portuguese instruction and have found yourself blocked by Spanish at every step, take heart! You will soon see that you have much more going for you than against you.

Spanish and Portuguese long age separated from a common ancestor and became identifiable as two distinct languages, but they are still close enough to each other to enable us to use the word 'conversion' when describing what the speaker of one language does in order to achieve command of the other. An American speaker of Spanish cannot help but go through a kind of conversion process in his approach to Portuguese. His mind will not let him do otherwise, for he is constantly reminded of the many correspondences between the two languages, of the many areas where they are parallel or nearly parallel. Inevitably and logically he sees the primary task before him to be that of altering his Spanish patterns so as to fit the Portuguese mold. He is going to get at Portuguese via Spanish. He is going to convert.

This manual has grown out of a need to supply students with a guide to making the Spanish to Portuguese conversion. It is written in a casual, informal style, not unlike the conversational style of the classroom, where much of its content had its origin and initial expression. It is written for you, the student. It provides an extensive, non-technical examination of those Spanish/ Portuguese correspondences that have proven most troublesome to students, correspondences which you must be particularly aware of if you wish to keep your Portuguese separate from your Spanish. This manual is not exhaustive in its approach; it does not attempt to cover all the differences between the two languages. It concentrates on the known trouble spots.

The terminology used in this manual takes the conversion process into account. It recognizes the fact that in going from Spanish to Portuguese you will see the latter in terms of the former. You will compare nearly everything you learn in Portuguese with its counterpart in Spanish.. The word 'conversion' is itself a reflection of this frame of mind. When we talk about 'changing' or 'modifying' Spanish patterns, when we say that a Spanish sound'drops out' of its Portuguese counterpart, or when we speak of a 'new' Portuguese sound, we are echoing the thoughts of students before you. We are using terminology which reflects the point of view of the American who is using Spanish as a springboard to Portuguese.

An attempt to examine the distinctions between European and Brazilian Portuguese is beyond the scope of this manual. In any case, such treatment would not be particularly useful to us, since the special problems of the Spanish speaker are much the sarne regardless of which kind of Portuguese ne is learning. On the assumption that the majority of users will be studying standard Brazilian Portuguese, I have elected to write about this variety. However, students of European Portuguese will find that this manual has nearly as much to offer them as it does to those who are studying Brazilian Portuguese.

The manual is divided into four parts: 'The Sounds ' , 'The Grammar', 'Vocabulary Transferi, and 'Supplementary Pronunciation Exercises'. We recommend that you read about the sounds and do the pronunciation exercises at the very beginning of your Portuguese course, for it is then that you will experience most of your interference from Spanish pronunciation. You may want to read the other two parts in their entirety at any time, but we especially recommend that you select for careful study the various subsections of these two parts at such time as they fit in with the course of study you are following. The Portuguese portions of all four parts are available on tape.

Many of my colleagues have contributed in various ways to the preparation of this manual. While I cannot name them all, I do want to give special credit to Dr. Earl Stevick and Miss Madeline E. Ehrman, both of whom read the original manuscript and offered many useful suggestions.

Special Note on Cognates

Spanish and Portuguese share a huge quantity of words. We will refer to these shared words as cognates, words that are easily recognizable from one language to another.

Probably upwards of 85 per cent of Portuguese vocabulary consists of words which have a cognate in Spanish. Sometimes the difference in cognates is not great, as, for example, the slight change in vowel qualities that you will notice between Spanish bonito and Portuguese bonito. At other times the difference may be quite pronounced, but the word will still be readily recognizable. Consider, for example, Portuguese agora, vs. Spanish ahora, and Portuguese chover vs. Spanish llover. Rather drastic sound changes have been introduced in the Portuguese words, but you should still recognize them as words which have a first cousin in Spanish.

Cognates will be used frequently on the following pages to illustrate certain correspondences between Spanish and Portuguese. You are likely to get the impression from time to time that every Spanish word has a Portuguese cognate. You should not let yourself think this. Some of the most common words of portuguese do not have a cognate in Spanish. As a rule it is difficult to predict their occurrence. You can appreciate this by studying the following examples.

a. Portuguese amanhã and hoje are cognates for Spanish mañana and hoy. Knowing this, you might expect the Portuguese word for 'yesterday' to be a cognate too. It is not. It is ontem, which does not resemble Spanish ayer in the slightest.

b. You will readily recognize Portuguese camisa, blusa, and sapato, since you already know these words in Spanish. You are not likely, however, to know what saia is until somebody or something tells you. It is the word for 'skirt', and it obviously is far removed from the familiar Spanish falda.

Cognates do often fall into recognizable patterns (as shown later in Vocabulary Transfer), but it is very difficult to be sure that you will find a cognate in a given case. You must learn which words from your Spanish inventory have cognates and which do not.


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