The lopsided mutual intelligibility of Spanish and Portuguese

After the second World War, my grandmother’s family scattered all over the world. My grandmother had already immigrated from Poland to the United States. Her youngest brother ended up in Vienna. Her three sisters, who didn’t look Jewish, managed to survive the war hiding in plain sight in Poland, then married conscripted French laborers and moved to France. Her two brothers immigrated to Brazil.

As a result, our occasional and joyous get-togethers with the extended family were a linguistic smörgåsbord featuring Polish, Yiddish, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. In particular, our Brazilian cousins spoke Portuguese to me and my father, and we spoke Spanish to them. At the time, I had the impression that our Brazilian cousins could understand our Spanish much better than we understood their Portuguese. This impression has stuck with me in later encounters with Portuguese speakers.

This isn’t just my own observation; ask any Spanish speaker, and you’re likely to hear the same thing. It’s also echoed in linguistic literature, most notably by eminent Spanish scholar Ralph Penny: “speakers of Spanish understand at least some of what is said in Portuguese, and the Portuguese speakers will understand a good deal more of what is said in Spanish” (Variation and Change in Spanish, p. 14).

I’ve only found one study that addresses this question systematically. Florida International University professor John B. Jensen had Portuguese and Spanish speakers (all from Latin America, and none expert at the other language) listen to passages in the other language, then answer comprehension questions in their own language. Comprehension in each direction hovered at around 50%. The Portuguese speakers were more successful than the Spanish speakers at interpreting what they heard, a difference that was slim yet statistically significant.

To find out why, I checked in with my great friend (and Portuguese expert) Bonnie Wasserman. She suggested that the main factor was the greater complexity of the Portuguese vowel system. Compared to Spanish’s economical five-vowel system, Portuguese has more core vowels and also a set of nasalized vowels. For example, where Spanish has a single vowel /o/, Portuguese has three: /o/ as in avô “grandfather” (this is closest to Spanish /o/), /ɔ/ as in avó “grandmother” (similar to the au of caught), and nasal /õ/ as in onda “wave” (the n is not pronounced). Spanish speakers can become confused if they fail to pick up on these subtle differences.

A second factor is rhythmic. While Spanish is more stacatto, with each word pronounced individually, Portuguese words are more connected. This makes it harder for Spanish speakers to pick out familiar words when heard in context.

Related discussions are herehere, and here.

[Update from 4 Aug: Here‘s a post about mutual intelligibility in English that includes a list of references about mutual intelligibility in general (search on “Subtirelu”)].

10 thoughts on “The lopsided mutual intelligibility of Spanish and Portuguese

  1. Pingback: Differential Mutual Intelligibility between Portuguese and Spanish | Beyond Highbrow - Robert Lindsay

  2. cortes

    I am Venezuelan and Portuguese is quite the easiest latin language for me to understand. Venezuelans watch Brazilian telenovelas and news all the time and understand pretty much everything except the odd word here and there. Italian is another story altogether, because it is NOT comprehensible enough to Spanish speakers for us to have a fluid conversation because of too much different grammar and vocabulary and general misunderstandings. But Portuguese and Spanish speakers can have quite an in depth conversation and understand each other almost perfectly. Portuguese and Spanish grammar, syntax and vocabulary is around 89%.

    Reply
    1. jhochberg Post author

      Thank you for your comment, which gives a different perspective on this question. Personally I’ve always found Italian easier to understand than Portuguese. Perhaps my French is helping me with Italian more than with Portuguese for some reason. Or Italian may be more comfortable on my ears because we’re exposed to it in the United States much more than we are to Portuguese.

      Unfortunately, mutual intelligibility is the sort of topic that tends to be chewed over endlessly and anecdotally. The small study I referenced in the blog post is the only systematic look at mutual intelligibility that I’m aware of, which is why it comes up in almost any writing on the subject.

      Reply
  3. Jefferson

    As a first generation Portuguese-American I have grown up knowing both English and Portuguese, a useful tool in today’s society. I’ve often found that out of the Latin languages, Spanish was definitely the easiest to understand, but that many Spanish speakers couldn’t understand Portuguese as well as I could their Spanish. I also find that Italian is somewhat intelligible, especially written as apposed to spoken, but find French near impossible to interpret.

    Reply
    1. jhochberg Post author

      This doesn’t surprise me. French has, I think, diverged the most from Latin. For this reason, as a teacher I find that it’s easier to go from French to Spanish than from Portuguese to Spanish. The latter are just too similar — it makes the Portuguese harder to shake. ¡Gracias por leer y escribir!

      Reply
  4. Sam Rodiguez

    I’m Brazilian and speak fluent English and Spanish, along with Portuguese as a native. If you’re a native Portuguese speaker it is easy to understand Spanish, but it harder to learn Spanish without sounding “Portuñol”. I’ve been studying Spanish with a depth for almost 3 years and it has been harder for to pick it up than it was when I started learning learning English. Both languages are so close that it is small nuances that make them really different.

    Reply
    1. jhochberg Post author

      I’ve taught one Brazilian and was a fellow student of another. In both cases I could see how challenging it was for them to shake off the Portuguese and really speak Spanish. Part of the problem for my Brazilian student is that she could easily get a respectable grade without much effort! I think one would have to be highly motivated to eliminate the nuances you mentioned.

      Reply
  5. Shaun

    Thanks for the link. It’s very hard to find good studies of mutual intelligibility. The vast majority use some form of lexical and phonetic comparison that doesn’t mean a lot in practice.

    I’d doubt anecdotal claims of understanding, especially when it is about TV. Frequent exposure also corrupts mutual intelligibility tests, as you are now testing a degree of bilingualism and not cross-linguistic understanding.
    There’re some great online tests online for Germanic and other European languages, but it doesn’t seem to be so yet for Portuguese Spanish and Italian.

    Reply
  6. Yolanda

    I am a native Spanish speaker and for me it is Portuguese, Brazilian or European, which is the easiest romance language to Spanish. They are so, so close, except in accent, but even that isn’t a barrier at all to easy comprehension between these two west Iberian languages. Each speaker can speak in his own language with the other and have a conversation about pretty much anything. This is not very possible between Italian and Spanish speakers.

    Reply

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