Portuguese is a Romance language and part of the Indo-European language family. It is closely related to Spanish. It is spoken by about 180 million people world-wide, principally in Brazil and Portugal. The Portuguese spoken in Europe (EP) and the Portuguese spoken in Brazil (BP) are further apart in terms of pronunciation, spelling and vocabulary than the English spoken in England and the English spoken in the USA.
The Portuguese alphabet consists of 23 letters (lacking the K, W and Y of the English alphabet), plus 11 letters with diacritics such as the Ç. Punctuation corresponds largely to that in English. The English writing system, therefore, presents little difficulty to Portuguese learners. (But see below for problems with spelling.)
Brazilian Portuguese is a syllable-timed language, in contrast to English. This can result in learners having serious difficulty reproducing the appropriate intonation patterns of spoken English. This is less of a problem for EP speakers, whose Portuguese variety is stress-timed like English. Portuguese contains about 9 vowel sounds (plus 6 dipthongs) and 19 consonant sounds. This is fewer than English, and there are fewer consonant clusters. These differences can result in the following pronunciation issues:
Failure to distinguish minimal pairs such as rich/reach, pack/puck or head/had
Inaudibility of unstressed vowels at the end of a word, e.g., part (for party) problems with dipthongs such as in hear/hair
The inclusion of vowel sounds before, between or following consonants, e.g., estrap (for strap) or monthes (for months)
Nasalization of the final /m/ or /n/, so ran, for example, becomes rang the expected problems with words such as then, think or breathe
Failure to discriminate between words such as pig/big or gale/kale substitution of ear for hear or high for I.
These are only some of the pronunciation issues, but they give a good idea of the serious difficulties facing ESL students who want to sound like English native speakers. And they explain why even some very proficient Portuguese speakers of English never lose their accent.
Much of the English verb system will be familiar to Portuguese learners since the same features exist in their own language. However, some significant differences exist, which may lead to mistakes of negative transfer. For example, interrogatives in Portuguese are conveyed by intonation. This results in questionable English such as You like me? or He came to school yesterday? The use of the double negative in Portuguese leads to such errors as I don't know nothing.
Tense choice is a significant problem for most learners of English. It is clear that advanced students will struggle, for example, to choose the correct tense to talk about the future or to choose between the present perfect simple and the present perfect continuous. At a less advanced level the main area of difficulty lies in the choice of the appropriate present tense. Mistakes in this area include:
He has a bath .. (= he's having a bath ..) / She is knowing .. (she knows ..) / It is ages since I don't play tennis .. (=It's ages since I have played tennis. Beginners also make errors in using modal verbs. Sentences such as I must to go now are common.
Portuguese word order is a little more flexible than that of English; and there are variations between the two languages in the placement of adjectives, adverbials or pronouns and in the syntax of sentences containing indirect speech. However, basic Portuguese sentence structure is similar to that of English so learners have no especial difficulty expressing their ideas comprehensibly.
Following are some further grammar differences that may result in interference mistakes. Firstly, English prepositions are difficult for Portuguese learners since their own language has far fewer, and there is no simple correspondence between those that do exist and their English equivalents. Secondly, there is a single possessive pronoun for his/her which agrees in gender with the item 'possessed'. This can lead to ambiguity in sentences such as: She's having lunch with his brother (= her brother). Personal pronouns, especially direct object pronouns, are often omitted in Portuguese, which gives rise to mistakes such as I told (=I told him). Thirdly, there is only only question tag in Portuguese, in contrast to English which has several different ones depending on the tense and form of the opening words. Errors such as She's coming tomorrow, isn't it? are the result.
Because of shared Latin roots there are many English/Portuguese cognates, which can facilitate the acquisition of a strong academic vocabulary. (There is less overlap in everyday vocabulary of the two languages.) A corollary of cognates, of course, is the presence of false friends. Here are just a few of the many that wait to trap the Portuguese learner of English: parents <> parentes (=relatives) / familiar <> familiar (=respectable) / local <> local (= place).
A spelling reform in Portugal in 1911 made Portuguese spelling much more phonetic in order to help raise standards of literacy in the country. As with all learners whose native language is phonetic, Portuguese ESL students have significant problems spelling English words that they encounter first in spoken language and pronouncing words that they encounter first in written language.