Can you learn Spanish and Portuguese at the same time?

I was recently asked whether it is possible to learn Spanish and Portuguese at the same time. Here’s my answer.

Chilaquiles para ir comiendo

Chilaquiles para ir comiendo

Learning Spanish and Portuguese at the same time is a terrible idea. Here’s why.

For historical reasons, Spanish and Portuguese are closely related — but not identical. If you’re starting out in both, there’s zero chance that you won’t get confused. The Spanish word escritorio means ‘desk’. The Portuguese word escritório can mean ‘office’. You see the problem.

Pronunciation also differs significantly between the two languages. Portuguese has nasal vowel phonemes as well as the consonant phonemes /v/ and /z/. Spanish does not. So you would need to pronounce differently many, many words that look similar and mean the same thing in each languages.

Another problem is that language learning takes a lot of time. Success depends on repeated exposure and practice. Two languages means less time for each. The similarities, numerous though they are, don’t make up for that.

To a lesser degree, this same issue arises when simultaneously learning two dialects of Spanish at once. It’s better to get really good at one first and then dabble in the other as a secondary skill.

Despite this advice, some of you will attempt this anyway, citing upcoming travel plans in Latin America. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Exceptions

  1. Learning two unrelated languages, say Spanish and Chinese, is a different matter. You’d still suffer from divided attention, but there’s much less possibility of confusing the two languages, due to their linguistic distance.
  2. If you are only interested in reading ability, then even a little time with Portuguese will help you come up to speed, assuming that Spanish is your main focus. Or vice versa.
  3. If your Spanish or Portuguese is already advanced, then taking on the other language would be less harmful. There’s an analogy here with musical instruments. Learning the violin and the flute at the same time is doable, because they’re not closely related. But learning the violin and viola at the same time is a bad idea, precisely because they are closely related. Success with each depends on your hands learning the exact finger spacing particular to that instrument — and they’re slightly different. An experienced violinist could pick up the viola fairly quickly without ruining their violin technique, but that’s only possible after a solid base has been established over many years.