Portuguese and French: are they similar or very different languages?

Portuguese and French are (after Spanish) the two most spoken Romance languages in the world. At first glance, you might think that they have nothing in common. For Portuguese speakers, it’s easier to understand Spanish than French, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t common ground between Portuguese and French.

The origins of Portuguese and French are the same. Both languages derive from Latin, so when you’re studying one of the two, you will naturally assimilate some basic knowledge of the other.

It’s easier to learn a language if you know another language with common ground with it. That’s what happens with Portuguese and French. There are, of course, several aspects that distinguish them. In this article, you’ll learn all about the similarities and differences between the two.

Portuguese and French both come from Latin

Just like some other European languages such as Spanish or Italian, Portuguese and French originated in Latin.

After the fall of the Roman empire, the common language at the time started to break into different variants and spreading across Europe. That originated several different languages such as Portuguese and French, which, themselves, expanded across the planet via colonization.

What are the similarities between Portuguese and French?

Languages that derived from Latin have evolved into distinct languages, but all of them preserved the same base. These are some of the main commonalities between French and Portuguese.

Portuguese and French both use the same alphabet as English

Unlike some other European languages, French and Portuguese use the exact same alphabet as English: the 26 letters from A to Z. French and Portuguese don’t have additional letters like the German Eszett (ß) or the Danish ø. This is convenient for English speakers who are learning Portuguese or French.

Portuguese and French both do however use accents. Some are unique to each of the languages while others are used in both.

Portuguese and French have similar syntax

Another similarity is the sentence structure. Both languages use the form subject-verb-object. Unlike some other languages, the fact that the sentence structure remained the same between the two, makes it all that much easier to make the jump between French and Portuguese.

Verbal conjugation is another common ground. The verb tenses match gender and number, which means they vary according to the person (first, second, or third, both singular and plural). The phrasal structure is easy to get when you’re familiar with one of the languages and want to learn the other.

Portuguese and French have many similar vocabulary words

When comparing how similar 2 languages are in terms of vocabulary, linguists use the concept of lexical similarity. It measures to what degree the vocabularies of the 2 languages are alike.

The lexical similarity coefficient between Portuguese and French is 0.75
(Lexical similarity coefficients range from 0 to 1, with 0 meaning no similarity and 1 meaning total similarity)

Compare this with the lexical similarity:

reference

Here is a list of vocabulary words that are similar in Portuguese and French (and quite different from their English counterpart):

English
Portuguese
French
To write
Escrever
Écrire
To do
Fazer
Faire
To see
Ver
Voir
Lesson
Lição
Leçon
Tree
Árvore
Arbre
Easy
Fácil
Facile
Lake
Lago
Lac

French-Portuguese False friends

One thing to be mindful of is the existence of false friends between Portuguese and French. In the context of language learning, the term "false friend" refers to two words from different languages that look or sound similar, yet have significantly different meanings.

Here is a list of Portuguese-French false friends (PT/FR):

What are the main differences between Portuguese and French?

Lexicon / vocabulary

Even though lexicon was one of the highlights in the similarities section, there are still some words that are nothing alike between Portuguese and French which may cause confusion. Because some words are similar, while others are nothing alike, a person who is fluent in one of the languages might use a word that feels correct but isn’t.

A few examples of words that are significantly different are:

English
Portuguese
French
Computer
Computador
Ordinateur
Grape
Uva
Raisin
To be
Ser
Être
To kill
Matar
Tuer
Room
Quarto
Chambre
Water
Água
L’eau
Glasses
Óculos
Lunettes
Shoes
Sapatos
Chaussures
Home
Casa
Maison

These words and verbs are occurrences where a Portuguese or French speaker might make the mistake of transforming the word they know and adapting it to the other language. It’s a common mistake someone who is fluent in a language and vaguely familiar with another makes.

Phonetics

This is a huge one. Portuguese and French sound very little alike. Even someone with no knowledge of either language can tell the difference between them.

Even though the alphabet, sentence structure, and even the consonants and vowels are the same, phonetics is the focal breaking point between these two Latin languages. It’s without a doubt the most difficult barrier to overcome when learning one of them when you’re familiar with the other.

But how did such differences arise? Well, when Latin started disseminating and changing in Europe, Portuguese and French took a different route. Portuguese originated from the Galician Latin spoken in the Iberian peninsula, making it similar to Spanish, while French evolved from the Latin spoken in northern Gaul.

The best way to discover the phonetical differences between the two languages is by listening, so we won’t bore you with all the technicalities. But what separates French and Portuguese is mainly the vocalization of the letter “e”, “o”, and of course “r”.

There are many other differences in pronunciations, the best thing is to go out there and immerse yourself in both languages and start picking up phonetic cues.

Is Portuguese or French easier to learn?

The degree of difficulty of any language is always subjective. You can find one language easier than another, while someone else will disagree entirely.

But according to the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI), both Portuguese and French are category I languages. Some other examples of category I languages are Spanish, Italian, Swedish, and a few others. These languages are considered to be closely related to English, so if you’re fluent in English you should expect 24 weeks, or around 600 hours before you’re comfortable with the language.

This means that French and Portuguese both take about the same amount of time to learn.

Are Portuguese and French mutually intelligible?

In spoken form, Portuguese and French are not mutually intelligible, because the pronunciations are so different. But in written form Portuguese and French are partially mutually intelligible because of their underlying shared Latin roots.

Which language should you pursue?

You may want to learn a language for the sake of self-actualization, or you’re looking to be more comfortable around a friend who speaks a foreign language. Either way, when you commit to the new adventure that is learning a whole new language you should start with the most important thing: interest.

There’s no point in trying to learn a new language if you’re not going to invest the time and attention in it. Instead of choosing a language just because someone told you to, opt for a language that will come in handy in your everyday life. Whether that’s Portuguese or French.

If you’re going to invest the time, make sure you will fully dedicate yourself in order to succeed. But don’t let the difficulty of the language hold you back. If you feel that either of them will be tougher to learn, but it still is a language you’ll use daily, don’t opt for the other just for the sake of it being easier.

If you want to learn a new language and you’re deciding between the two, you can’t go wrong with either of them. French and Portuguese are two of the most spoken languages in the world, with around 250 million speakers worldwide each. That means you have a good chance of one of them coming in handy in your professional or personal future.

The bottom line

French and Portuguese have the same origin. Latin evolved in many different ways throughout the world, but Latin languages still have a lot in common. Both languages use the same sentence structure and even share common words and similar verbs and terms. That alone makes them closer than they appear at first sight.

Even if you’re not familiar with either Portuguese or French, you can tell the differences easily both by reading or listening to a native of either language speak.

Both languages are rich in history and whether you choose one or the other, you’re about to embark on a beautiful journey. And remember, when you’re learning one of the Latin languages, you’re inching closer to every other language with common ancestry.

PS: you can use our free web app, VocabChat to record your own Portuguese or French vocabulary and phrase lists.