Understanding spoken Portuguese. Big problem

I have been learning Portuguese for a number of years now, but still find it almost impossible to understand it when spoken by native Portuguese. The problem is that the actual words bear almost no resemblance to the sounds as spoken.
To illustrate this I have chosen a few extracts from a recent Shortie (Jantar Na Nova Casa) which i have transcribed phonetically. I have used only ordinary letters, not the official phonetic signs.

  1. ‘Peco-te que deixas os teus sapatos’
    This is how it sounds:
  2. ‘Claro que sim. Se soubesse tinha trazido as minhas melhores meias’.
    Sounds like:
  3. ‘Ele nao traz aquela colega dele’
    Sounds like
  4. ‘Sabes que eu preciso de espaco’
    Sounds like

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.
This not only creates big problems for anyone trying to learn this language and being able to communicate with others, but I also wonder how Portuguese primary school children learning how to write their language manage to cope, having previously only experienced listening to it.


I just listened to this shortie and thought it was spoken at a more rapid rate, therefore more difficult to understand. I too have been studying European Pt for many years and feel hopeless listening to some shorties. But I have continued to repeat the units and to repeat the A1 and A2 shorties, plus listen to Portuguese radio online. And constantly do the review exercises. The sounds become increasingly familiar. I think the shorties are very useful because these rapid fire responses are what we experience in daily encounters when in Pt. I still shudder remembering stalling when asking for ‘ duas/ dois’ bolos at Continente. The assistant looked like she would throw them at me as I tortured her language and held up the line because I couldn’t remember what version of two to use. But overall, it’s a case of keep exposing yourself to the language across any mediums you find.
Personally I dislike practicing with non Pt native speakers because the accent is just not accurate, it’s as bad as I sound and I don’t need to emulate it more.

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I love your transcript of sounds heard…it is hilarious and excellent I call it swallowed up portuguese…

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Good description! It seems the more syllables they can swallow, the better they like it :joy:

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All true about getting as much listening as possible. I’ve recently started to watch Portuguese News on RTP1 every morning for about half an hour. Still can’t understand more than just the odd word here and there :woman_shrugging:


I also think this is one of the biggest difficulties in understanding Portuguese. TV listening is great but also remember they are still speaking very clearly on shows like the news. I can often get the gist of what they are talking about but not actually the detail. However I can read and understand a subtitled transcript in real time.

I have a Spanish friend in our co-work space in Portugal and imagine his frustration when reading Portuguese the words look almost the same as Spanish but he can’t understand a word anyone says.

We do have the same problem in English sometimes travelling to somewhere with a very unfamiliar accent. It’s all about “tuning in” in the end. I know I will be shot down here but I find spoken Brazillian Portuguese a little easier to understand!


Hi Lanny
I sympathise with your difficulties, but it may surprise you to know that people learning English as a second language say exactly the same thing about English! (I teach English as a second language, so I know this is a common problem).
Unfortunately it’s not enough to study the words and grammar of a language using books, apps or even great websites like Practice Portuguese. As a second language learner you are unlikely to have been exposed to the sounds and rhythm from birth, as native children are, but this - the sounds and rhythm - is actually what you need to study alongside the vocabulary and grammar.
Listen even when you don’t understand, you will still be absorbing the patterns.
Fortunately Euro Portuguese like English is a stress timed language - so we both swallow our unstressed vowels - which is why something like claro que sim sounds like clar’k’sihm (you’ve got the nasal m on the end as well to add to the difference!). But if you are unaware of that style of pronunciation, then yes, what you hear wont make sense because your brain is trying to fit the sounds into a different code.
(Brazilian Portuguese on the other hand is syllable timed, like Spanish, French, Italian, which is one of the reasons it sounds so different to european portuguese).
Of course every language has it’s own way of pronouncing the written code, so personally I started learning Portuguese by just studying the individual pronunciation of each letter. Rui and Joel have done a couple of great videos on both the vowel and consonant sounds, and there are others online. There are also lots of videos with tips on how to understand native speakers.
However, I believe one of the most useful steps forward would be to study the rules, patterns and structure of the spoken language and then apply those rules as you listen, rather than trying to fit what you hear into your native language interpretation of what is written.
(I actually had the opposite problem learning Spanish completely by listening and then not being able to read and pronounce certain words correctly because I hadn’t learnt that the sound I heard was written a certain way!)
Above all, keep going!
bowa sort (boa sorte)


I am a newbie too - trying to learn seriously for one year, but casually well before that! We moved to Portugal a year ago this weekend and I had hoped to be further along. I am finding that with much effort I am starting to understand things, sometimes accidentally. I have a friend for whom English is a second language - she tells me you will know you are getting there when you dream in the language you are trying to learn. This still has not happened and I think it will be some time coming! However I have been noticing that I am understanding the gist of tv shows that are in italian and french without extra effort - there must be enough similar words and my brain is really trying! But in real life, maybe 50% of the time I understand when I am asked simple things like if I need a bag in the grocery store! And I always feel a little sad when I ask for something in a shop - only to have the assistant say ‘Would it be easier in English?’ Although last time the person did tell me she understood perfectly and repeated back what I asked for. So I think I just need a buddy to practice with. Fortunately the government provided Portuguese classes for immigrants will start in my area soon. In the meantime I think the shorties are very helpful. I like trying to listen and write what I hear - then compare back to the transcript. I also have noticed that I have to actively stop my brain from trying to translate and just listen. The extra train of thought is really a problem! Sometimes I wonder if I will ever get it! But all we can do is keep trying!


Yup, having learned (at least partially) several other languages, (Thai being one of them which I really struggled with and never did really master,) I’m also finding EU Portugese difficult to understand. To keep myself from getting discouraged I’ve made some friends in local cafes (I’m lucky enough to live in Portugal) and they help a lot, also, I do as much “eves dropping” as I can and don’t worry about understanding the conversation as much as just picking up sounds and phrases. Another few years and I just might get it :slight_smile: One of my favorite examples of how it’s similar for people learning English comes from when we were teaching to some Myanmar refugees who liked to learn English from songs. They really liked Bob Dylan and wanted to know why he said “The ants are my friends.” Of course what he really was saying was “The answer my friends, (is blowing in the wind).” Another student brought up our blending of “I am going to” into “I’mena go.”
Reading the replys here it’s pretty clear you’re not alone in your struggles, but hey, celebrate the little wins and keep going :wink:


I totally relate to what you are saying. After many months of study, to be able to pick out only a word or 2 from a shortie is disheartening. I’ve been watching Gloria on Netflix in PT with PT subtitles and the spoken dialogue often sounds nothing like what the subtitles say.

But as previously stated, English is probably just as bad. Imagine an English learner learning how to ask someone “what are you are going to do” and they hear something like " whatcha gonna do". I’d be frustrated lol.

Interesting about English posing the same problem. I also many years ago taught English as a second language, but my students never complained about the difficulty of understanding people because of ‘vowel swallowing’. They just had the usual complaint of people speaking ‘too fast’.
Am interested in what you say about ‘studying the rules, patterns and structure of the spoken language’. Where can I find details of these?

Yes. My problem is partly that I learned the language in its written form, so whenever I listen to people speaking I automatically try to see in my mind’s eye the words and phrases as written. This really slows up understanding. I can understand written Portuguese pretty well now. I can also write it. But that’s no help with day to day communication.

Probably a bit easier for them because ‘watcha gonna do’ is a typical American style pronunciation and many people including the younger generation Portuguese have learnt to understand and speak good English through watching American films.

Here’s a few for starters

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I’m just starting Portuguese, but this is my biggest fear, as it sounds like word salad to me a lot of the time. However, with French and Russian, I just listened to podcasts constantly, so when I’m a bit further along, I’ll do that with Portuguese too. Because I know that Portuguese is harder for me to understand, I don’t let myself ever just read something. I have to listen to it being spoken at the same time. Hopefully, it will help.

I too am struggling with understanding spoken European Portuguese (I’m in Madeira right now), which was baffling at first because I lived in Brazil and my Portuguese is fluent and accurate. I’ve been watching TV and I have discovered that if I just let go and listen intuitively, I understand more. Sometimes one or two words are enough for me to understand a whole sentence, as long as I’m In that intuitive mindset. Probably just the way dogs and babies understand us, come to think of it.

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Yes, I have the problem of understanding European Portuguese speakers too. I was a visiting professor at the Univ. of São Paulo many years ago (1973). I remember that another visiting professor came from Lisbon. The Brazilians, native speakers, in the department had a great deal of trouble understanding him. I have visited Portugal and Galicia twice in recent years for a couple of weeks each. It may be some peculiarity of mine, but I seem to understand speakers from the north (Braga, Guimarães, Viana do Castelo) and even galegos speaking Portuguese, better than I can understand those from the south, Lisbon especially. After about three years of study now I am beginning to understand some of the news and interviews on RTP (on-line in the USA).

Yes it’s like you describe. Exactly!
:laughing:…i hope that brain and ears will transform after some time. The exercises here with “Practise Portuguese” are the best what I know to exercise the ability of listening and understanding.

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Thanks very much for all these suggestions! Really helpful :+1:

I have a personal hierarchy of listening in order of difficulty. In the car, I’ll listen to the Shorties on the Podcast and just let the Shorties scroll through, which I find the easiest listening challenge. It doesn’t matter, and probably helps, if you end up listening to the same ones over and over. If I want more of a challenge, I’ll listen to podcasts on RTP, such as 90 Segundos de Ciência, or Antena 2 Ciência; RTP has all sorts of podcasts, and the important thing is to find something that interests you.

When I get home, I’ll watch an RTP soap opera with Portuguese subtitles, either Os Nossos Dias, or O Sábio. I am now hooked on these soap operas, and look forward every evening to watching the next episode, (I suppose it’s my version of watching “The Office,” these have now become my comfort watch). There is also Por Do Sol, with subtitles in Portuguese, a comic parody of telenovelas, which borrows actors from the other two I mentioned.

Most challenging is to watch something without subtitles (sometimes I will turn it of on the telenovelas). Pronunciation seems clearest when it involves a professional speaker, such as Visita Guiada (many of which are subtitled as well) or the news. Then you can take it from there. I watched Barman because it was 6 short episodes

I’ve found this to be a relaxing and enjoyable way to work on comprehension, and I believe it is helping.