Formal Conjugation Confusion!

"A senhora fala inglês?"

I encountered the above phrase in one of the ‘common phrases’ units. To me, based on what little knowledge and experience I have with Portuguese so far this would mean “Miss, does he/she speak English?” It was evident from the provided answers (based on deduction) that the true answer was “Do you speak English (formal)”.

I’m frustrated at how this contradicts everything I know so far about Portuguese verb conjugation. Where is “you” even derived from in this sentence and why is falar conjugated to the third person here?

I played around with others phrases such as “Corre rapido?” and “Está bem?” with online translators and these too also mean “Do you run fast?” and “Are you good?”.

Can someone please explain how this is possible? Before today these meant “Does he/she run fast” and “Is he/she good”?

Thanks for the help!


Hi there, I can understand your problem very well if your mother tongue is English. If it was Italian or Spanish you would not have any problem with this formal way of addressing someone.
Since my mother tongue is German I add a German explanation from Wikipedia first and will try to find an English one afterwards:

Das Portugiesische hat wie die spanische Sprache eine von einer Possessivkonstruktion abgeleitete Anredeform entwickelt você, das eine Kontraktion von vossa mercê „Euer Gnaden“ darstellt – *você gilt in Portugal und den afrikanischen Ländern portugiesischer Sprache als semi-formell. Informell wird sich mit tu angesprochen, formell mit o senhor/a senhora und dem Verb in der 3. Person Singular

Maybe you understand German and all is clear you you now.

Ok, I found something in English which seems clear enough to me:

Generally speaking, tu is the familiar form of address used with family, friends, and minors. Você indicates distance without deference, and tends to be used between people who are, roughly, social equals. O senhor / a senhora (literally “sir”/“madam”) are the most ceremonious forms of address. English speakers may find the latter construction akin to the parliamentary convention of referring to fellow legislators in the third person (as “my colleague”, “the gentleman”, “the member”, etc.), although the level of formality conveyed by o senhor is not as great. In fact, variants of o senhor and a senhora with more nuanced meanings such as titles as o professor (“professor”), o doutor (“doctor”), o colega (“colleague”) and o pai (“father”) are also employed as personal pronouns. In the plural, there are two main levels of politeness, the informal vocês or vós and the formal os senhores / as senhoras .*
Is this of any help to you.

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Most questions in portugues are like phrases. Say what you want to say in the same way as you would say a statement. The internation tell that it is a questions as long as you do not have a question word, like: que, onde,quanto,quem etc.

The way I think of the formal conjugation is that you are showing respect by not being overly direct. So much so, that you refer to the person you are speaking to in the 3rd person rather than the informal 2nd person (“tu”). It’s basically like you’re saying “Does the sir speak English?” or “Does the madam speak English?”

In English, you may have heard clips from a Senate proceeding where someone might say “Will the Senator yield for a question?” meaning “Will you yield for a question?” Because it’s such a formal setting, it sounds more polite to use their title and to ask the question in an indirect way like this.

The difference is that, unlike Portuguese, in English we only reserve this for SUPER formal occasions.

“Fala inglês?” is the same conjugation, but less specific, so it could mean “Do you speak English?” (formal), “Does he speak English?”, or “Does she speak English?” You would only know which one from the context of the interaction.

Same with the other phrases.

Corre rápido? = Do you run fast? (formal) or Does he run fast? or Does she run fast?
Corres rápido? = Do you run fast? (informal)
O senhor corre rápido? = Do you run fast? (formal) (Basically: Does the sir run fast?)

Está bem? = Are you good? (formal) or Is he good? or Is she good?
Estás bem? = Are you good? (informal)
O senhor está bem? = Are you good? (formal) (Basically: Is the sir good?)

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Really good contributions from everyone! I really have nothing to add, other than linking to a Learning Note which expands a bit more on what you guys have already explained so well to @adamwure: How to Address People Formally vs. Informally

Thank you to everyone who gave their input on my question. @Molly your formal setting example really helped me understand the way in which a third person perspective is respectful.

I don’t expect to intuitively understand the nature of a foreign language but I am much closer today to coming to terms with it with the help of everyone, so thanks!

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@Joseph With regards to the link you sent, what part of the website are these notes found?

On the menu at the top, if you click on Learn, the dropdown list will show you an option called “Learning Notes”. That’s the section where you can find these articles :slight_smile:

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And these Learning Notes also show up within the Learning Studio Units when they are relevant to the content being learned :slight_smile:

Thanks for your great question and for your support, @adamwure! :weight_lifting_man:‍♂

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