Accent reduction and the Brazilian way of speaking English

3 08 2008

Almost 10 years ago, I took some courses on accent reduction at IBM. If you know me in person, you must be thinking – that didn’t work, I still can’t understand you 🙂

In fact, I don’t think my accent is any different now, but the course was good to raise awareness on the English words Brazilians have the most trouble with. I’ve lost count of how many times I heard fellow Brazilians saying something like “people from China/Korea/Japan/India/Russia have such a hard time learning how to speak English, I can’t understand what they say”. There’s a subtle prejudice in that line of thinking that most people don’t realize.

One of the instructors in the accent reduction course had a good explanation for that. Imagine 3 people: John, a native English Canadian speaker, Ana, and Wong. Both Ana and Wong have been living in Canada for 5 years, learned English as adults and speak their respective mother tongues at home. Ana is Brazilian and Wong is a Cantonese-speaking Chinese. John understands most of what Ana and Wong say, but occasionally misses things here and there during a conversation. The same can be said for Ana and Wong towards John. But Ana has a hard time understanding Wong and thinks that’s because his English is not very good, as she can perfectly understand Carmen and Adrian, her Colombian and Romanian colleagues, speaking English.

Of course, one possible explanation is that Wong’s proficiency in English is not that good. But often what happens is that they all speak English equally well – or equally poorly – from John’s perspective. But Wong’s flavour of English is very far from Ana, Carmen and Adrian. Clear as mud, eh? Here’s what I mean, in a picture:

One can make a credible case that Portuguese, Spanish and Romanian are all Latin or Romance languages, and English is heavily influenced by Latin – arguably 60% of the English vocabulary has its roots in Latin – so it’s ok to assume that Asians would have more difficulty with English than we do. I agree that’s probably easier for a Portuguese-speaking person to learn a workable English vocabulary, but accent is a different story altogether. Cantonese has much more phonemes than Portuguese, so in theory Wong could be better equipped to notice the many nuances of spoken English.

Here are some of the English language traps Brazilians – including me – have a particular hard time with. I added links to Dictionary.com in case you want to check the pronunciation (you have to click on the gray audio icon).

1. Vowels
bat (morcego), bet (apostar), beet (beterraba), bit (pedaço), but (mas) – they all sometimes sound the same, so you have to rely on the context to tell what’s being said. Particularly embarassing is when I try to say “sheet” or “beach” without blushing everybody in the room 🙂 . There are many other cases: sheep and ship, super and supper, man and men, etc.

2. T
The letter T in English sounds a bit different from Portuguese with a discreet sibilant sound, but it’s definitely not like “tch”. So, it’s common to have Brazilians pronouncing “tea” like “chee”, and “two” or “to” like “chew”. Think Herbert Vianna from Paralamas do Sucesso singing “Uma Brasileira”: One more time. That’s a good “t”.

3. Assuming similarly spelled words are pronounced alike
Nike does not rhyme with Mike. Nike is pronounced Nai-kee.
Other examples of tricky pairs are:

4. Voiceless Consonants
This is a very peculiar thing in Brazilian Portuguese. When we say “pneu” (tire) we kind of pronounce an “i” between the p and the n: “pineu”. The same happens with “cacto”, “subtrair”, “gnomo”: we say “cáquito”, “subitrair” and “guinomo”. For example, pay attention to Chico Buarque saying “subtraída” in “Vai Passar”. English is full of voiceless consonants, and we tend to do the same when we say things like cryptography, dogma, verdict and others.

Naturally, I’m completely overextending myself here, so please correct me if you noticed anything wrong on what I said above. I remember a roommate of mine from Peru telling me in Portuñol: “Yo no comprendo como tantos Latinos viven dos, tres anos en Brasil y no aprenden a falar português”. I may as well be doing the same in this post. Also, there are plenty of Brazilians who speak English very well, and English itself is spoken in different ways around the globe, so my observations can’t be generalized. When I say “we”, I actually mean “those Brazilians who, like me, are totally inept to speak English well”.

One problem in learning English in Canada is that most people are too polite to correct me, so I probably say things the wrong way all the time without realizing it. You would be doing me a big favour by correcting me, so please don’t be shy. I promise I won’t be offended 🙂

Updated: Added a reference to “beach” – thanks Alan!

Updated again: I forgot to include one important item to the list above:

5. Intonation.

Brazilian Portuguese has much less variation in the way we speak. For example, we typically say a very soft, flat “Congratulations”, the same way we would say “Parabéns”. In North America, when you say “congratulations”, you can almost see all the whistles & bells, a festive cake with 1000 candles and the clown parade that go along with it. If you say anything that way in Brazil, people will think that you are trying to sell them something expensive.

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33 responses

3 08 2008
Alan Braz

Hi Aaron, very nice post. You wrote many things that I wanted to write too.

I was one of example of I heard fellow Brazilians saying something like “people from China/Korea/Japan/India/Russia have such a hard time learning how to speak English, I can’t understand what they say”.. But after 2 months in US and speaking a lot with Indians, I got used to their accent and was really easier to understand them. So, I learned that we should put aside all prejudice or jealous and get together with all others non-native English speakers people and try harder to understand each other difficulties.

Other think that I hear a lot here in Brazil is when someone answer the phone and is an Indian person, because, specially in the phone is pretty harder to understand them, even more in a unexpected situation like this.

I would just add to number 1 the pair beach/bitch, this causes always awkward situations.

Other comments:
– Portuguese is not an easy language (I think) that’s why is so hard for foreigners to learn it.
– Spanish and Portuguese are similar, but it is also hard to Brazilians to learn Spanish.
– the vowels is Portuguese have always the same (or quite similar) sound in every word. But in English, they sound different in each world, and a good example is vowel world, if we talk “vowel”, nobody understand, “vauel” would be better 😀
One problem in learning English in Canada is that most people are too polite to correct me, so I probably say things the wrong way all the time without realizing it. You would be doing me a big favour by correcting me, so please don’t be shy. I promise I won’t be offended
I really felt this also, and would really appreciate if they corrected me, because that really would help me to improve, but US people are also polite enough to don’t do that 😦

3 08 2008
Aaron

Hey Alan, good to hear from you. Thanks for the comments, I forgot about beach vs. bitch. I’ll update the post to include that one.

4 08 2008
Juliano

Hi,

I’m Brazilian and I had some English classes last year in order to prepare myself for the TOEIC certification.

My teacher told me that this accent thing is so complex that teachers spend long time having classes which address only their accent.

I think the hardest sound for us is “-th” like in “path” or “think”. This sound does not exist in Portuguese unless for people with problems in their tongues (I’m not kidding, this is true :-). Most of Brazilian people tend to say something like “paff” instead of “path” and “fink” instead of “think”. This is quite funny sometimes.

Cheers,

Juliano

4 08 2008
Russo

Thanks for the link, Alan 😉 nice catch indeed. And thanks Aaron 🙂 very interesting post. I work with Alan and just like him, I have considered writing something similar many times before.

I do have some comments:
– we do speak some letters differently, depending on the context, although that’s not formally defined in the language, as it is in English. All the words ending with “e” ( /eh/ ) or “o” ( /oh/ ), for instance. A foreigner learning Portuguese will learn, according to our grammar rules, to say then like that, but *everyone* around them will be speaking those letters as “i” ( /ee/ ) and “u” ( /uh/ ).
– Aaron, not only the letter “T” sounds funny sometimes, but also “D”, mostly with an “e” by the end of the words. For instance, “saúde” (health), if you ask a Portuguese teacher, he/she will say it like “sah-uh’-de (e as in tennis). But, if you come here, you’ll hear people saying it like “sah-uh’-djih” ( /dj/ as Jay, and a short, almost voiceless, /ih/ ).

my $0.02

21 03 2012
Laura

I’ve really enjoyed reading all this. I’m Australian and am living in Curitiba and I’ve come to realise that accents in Brazil vary so greatly from region to region that you almost can’t go wrong. Lucky for me, I came straight to Curitiba where they say the words as they are written. This, however, has caused great confusion when trying to find a Portuguese for foreigners book. Good luck to all of us!

21 03 2012
Aaron

Hi Laura,

Thanks for the visit! My sister actually lives in Curitiba, so I go there often. Hope you enjoy your stay in Brazil 🙂

5 08 2008
Aaron

Juliano, good luck with your TOEIC certification. Agreed, TH is tough, and there are 2 flavours of it, like in THanks and THen, both of them difficult for us Brazilians. I have a particular hard time pronouncing the A in my own first name, and always have to spell it out for people to understand me.

Russo, that’s true, we definitely don’t speak the way we write, thanks for adding that to the discussion. A foreigner speaking Portuguese has one advantage though: no matter if you say sa-uh-deh or sa-uh-djih, we understand them, as there are no way to confuse that with some other word in Portuguese. In English, as one-syllable words are common, if you pronounce them wrong, they become something else, like the infamous sheet / beach examples. And man and men, bad and bed, bit and beet, two and chew, cat and cut, put and putt, sun and san, etc.

5 08 2008
Marcelo Martins

Hey Aaron,

Great post! I think the accent thing is also a function of how much you are able to “disengage” from your mother tongue. Whenever I go back to Brazil I speak Portuguese with an English accent for about a week. Coming back to Toronto, my English is also rusty for about a week.

I rarely speak Portuguese in Canada anymore – my spouse speaks English only, we have very few Portuguese speaking friends and when we get together, to level the playing field we default to English. I think my using of the pronunciation patterns of English more often account for a faster improvement when it comes to pronunciation. Also, we move our mouths and tongues differently when pronouncing one language or another. That is often an overlooked component (I remember my first French teacher showing us how to position our lips and tongue to make the “tu” sound in French).

Oh, and just to add to the list of hard-to-tell-the-difference in pronunciation: collar/colour. That one gets me all the time!

6 08 2008
Aaron

Marcelo, I can tell you without a shade of doubt that you speak English much better than me! I speak Portuguese at home and watch “Jornal Nacional” often – with the “occasional” peek at what’s going on in “Beleza Pura” 🙂

Your comment is spot on in terms of the mechanical aspects of the language. That’s probably where the difficult lies in trying to sound like a native speaker. My 2-year-old son is already speaking Portuguese with a Canadian accent!

6 08 2008
Jaso Nareshkumar

I notice that my Russian friends are careful about pronouncing “piece” since Russian does not have long vowels. I wonder if it is an issue with Portugese as well.
My kids speak Tamil with a Canadian accent too. 😦

6 08 2008
Sotaque de brasileiros falando inglês « abz weblog

[…] falando inglês Depois de ler e comentar o post de meu colega brasileiro/canadense Aaron, https://aaronkim.wordpress.com/2008/08/03/accent-reduction-and-the-brazilian-way-of-speaking-english, que se expressou muito bem em relação a esse assunto que é corriqueiro na vida de quem depende […]

10 08 2008
Paula Dantas

Hi Aaron, great post!
I’m Brazilian and I’ve been living in UK for 2 years now.. I must say, my accent has been changing overtime but I don’t think I will ever speak like a native english speaker.. well, who knows!
There is a GREAT video available on YouTube where animals are interviewed at the Zoo in UK and a Brazilian lion with a very thick accent gives an amazing interview about his lifestyle.. it’s soooooooo Brazilian.. I love it. Check it out

10 08 2008
Aaron

Jaso, that’s funny, I never thought about that one. It’s probably one to add to my list too, along with peace. “Give peace a chance” may sound like something else when I say it.

Paula, that video is really great, I laughed so hard watching it. Thanks for sharing it. Do you work for IBM?

15 08 2008
Benedicte

Hi Aaron,
such an interesting subject for all the people who have to speak an other language.
Proper pronunciation is certainly important and difficult. For French people the “th” and “r” are always challenging in English (more with w in the same word) and in Spanish impossible for me (specially with the “jota” sound in the same word).
For Spanish the “v and b” sound are challenging in French, and for English it is their turn to have difficulty with the french “r” and so on…

But I think that rhythm, or the “music of the language” is as important.
The way we modulate the language (don’t you find that you don’t speak on the same “scale” in different languages), were we leave breathing spaces and the speed we are talking are always the one of our native language.
I must add that we do love accents in our own language, we found them romantic, exotic and sometimes funny. So let’s keep talking with accent…like that funny lion in the video from Paula

27 08 2008
Deyvisson

Hey Aaron, nice post.

I agree with Marcelo M. but I’d say that this accent thing is not only a function of how able we are to “disengage” from our mother tongue, but mainly how well we can perceive and process information from the environment in an involuntary copycat mechanism. So it’s not only a phonological matter, you can take classes and exercise phonemes but perception cannot be taught in schools, it’s inherent of the individual. So, we may have (in a same level of proficiency) colleagues speaking close to native English and others speaking with different levels of accent.

19 09 2008
Russo

@Jaso Other quirks from Russia:
* Under no circumstance they will pronounch “what” as “uh-oh’t”, instead, “w” for them will always bear the sound “v”, thus they say it “voh’t”.
* The “the”. They also have problems with the TH sound, pronnouncing it as “DZ”. My father fled from Russia more than 50 years ago, but he still does that when he speaks English: “Dze problem here is…”

I call it “the evil accent” as it always remind me those 80’s cold war movies where the super evil villains always had that Russian-ish accent.

21 09 2008
Aaron

Hey Russo, I worked with a Russian guy some time ago who jokingly said that he often resorted to his Russian accent when people asked questions he did not want or know how to answer. Sometimes having an accent may come in handy 🙂

21 09 2008
Aaron

Really late replies to comments, sorry for being so lazy:

Bénédicte, interesting comment. We do seem to sing to different tunes or rhythms when speaking different languages. Portuguese, Italian and French all sound more romantic, while both English and German feel more like techno music to me. In the future maybe we’ll all be speaking several languages and pick the one that fits the best for each situation.

Deyvisson, yes, a lot of the accent reduction training focused on making sure other people would understand you, as just wiping out your accent may not be what most people want. In my case, it was more of an awareness training, as my accent never changed much, really.

19 10 2008
Mauro

Is anybody suggest a great course in accent reduction in U.S.A?

26 11 2008
Charles

Hi there! I really appreciated your text.

Your post reminded me of what a brazilian friend of mine once said: “brazilians are the only people I know that can learn languages properly. The others carry their strong accent into any language they learn”… Funny, isn’t it?

If I may, I’d like to add some remarks. I don’t think that TH is the worst problem brazilians have learning english. Lots of native speakers (such as African-Americans, some from northern England – Liverpool, Manchester, etc) as well as near-native speakers (such as Indians) don’t pronounce all THs in the standard way: they may realize it as D, T, F or V, just like many brazilians do. I’ve got a british friend who pronounces “brover” (brother), “somefing” (something) and “dis” (this).

The most difficult issues are, in my opinion, these:

1. spelling pronunciation, the tendendy to pronounce words similarly to how they are spelled. Spelling pronunciation makes ‘jumped’, ‘worked’ and ‘opened’ be pronounced literally as ‘jumpEEEDDD’, ‘workEEEDDD’ and ‘openEEEDDD’ instead of “jumpt”, “workt” and “opend”. It also maked the case for ‘use’ being pronounced “iuz” (instead of “ius”), ‘new’ pronounced “ni:w” (instead of “nu:”), bomb getting its B pronounced (it must not), and so on.

2. vowels mispronunciation. It makes some pairs get indistinguishable (bed vs bad, feet vs fit, pull vs pool). There are problems also with words such as on, hot, spot, not, would, push, etc…

3. inappropriate intonation. The tunes and rythms you’ve mentioned.

4. lack of aspiration. ‘Depends’, ‘pig’ and ‘talk’ may sound too soft if not aspirated.

27 03 2009
Giselle

Very interesting… I am 18, and I moved to the US when i was 15 years old with my family. Going to school here and living with English around me everyday has taught me a lot. Every point you made in your article is valid, and i see them in real life when i hear my parents trying to talk in English… haha. 🙂 It’s a cute accent.
However, although I dind’t know English before I came to the US, i now have none of the problems mentioned in your article. Most people say i speak just like a native!! 😀
The more you speak it, the better you get at it. You just have to give yourself up for the language; dream, think, and sleep with it in your head. Of course, my accent comes out at least once a day in a word or another, or maybe there’s a sentence or two I can’t say very fast. . . =]
Thanks for the article!

11 09 2011
gustavobravetti

Hey Aaron, great post,

I want to ask you, do you know some people form Argentina or Uruguay?
If yes, bassed on your own experience, wich accent makes more difficult a correct english pronunciation: brazilian portuguese? or argentinian/uruguayan spanish?

thanks

11 10 2011
Aaron

Gustavo, sorry, this blog was collecting dust for quite some time. Yes, I know people from both countries. Hard for me to tell: Brazilians tend to have difficulty with the few cases listed above, and I notice that some folks from Latin-America seem to pronounce “b”, “v” and “w” similarly, when speaking in English, or say “o” and “e” more discretely than a native English speaker. I don’t know Spanish enough to notice the subtle differences between Argentinians and Uruguayans in general, and compared to those from other Latin-American countries, so I may be better off declining from saying much more here 🙂

6 02 2012
Paul Jackson

I’ve taught English in Taiwan for 15 years, and one of the things I tell my students is that speaking like a Native speaker is absolutely not necessary! I’m originally Canadian, so I know that the reason most Canadians don’t correct other people’s accents is that it doesn’t occur to them to do so! The Canadian population is composed of peoples from all over the world. In my opinion, foreign accents are a valid component of Canadian culture. Although there are exceptions, generally we nurture difference, and we love accents. The language goal of immigrants should only be to communicate effectively (eg, not let language difficulties affect communication).

28 05 2012
Aaron

Hi Paul, I don’t have any hope anymore that I’ll sound like a native speaker, but I do want to keep improving my communication skills. Whenever I make a grammar mistake, the effectiveness of the communication is partially broken. It’s like listening to music with some background noise. On the other side, I agree accents are OK. I actually love listening to foreigners speaking Brazilian Portuguese, as I often find things about my own mother tongue that I never imagined were there.

28 05 2012
Julia

Hi, Aaron I enjoyed your article. I tutor Brazilians in English, so I found it very helpful. I didn’t have time to read all the comments, but I noticed a couple of things I would change:

(Under Vowels) Particularly embarassing is when I try to say “sheet” or “beach” without blushing everybody in the room 🙂 . To my knowledge, “blush” is not a transitive verb. I would say, “…without causing everybody in the room to blush”, or just “without blushing”.

The other thing is when you say, “When I say “we”, I actually mean “those Brazilians who, like me, are totally inept to speak English well”. It should be “inept at speaking English”. I don’t think “inept” can be followed by any other preposition. We say we are inept at doing something, so it’s almost always followed by “at + gerund”. I’d also lose the “well” at the end because with the word “totally”, there would obviously be no question of one speaking “well”.

How I would love to be able to speak Portuguese as well as you speak English! Obrigada pelas dicas. Você me ajudou muito.

28 05 2012
Aaron

Julia, thanks so much for bringing those to my attention! I wish I had a tutor all the time to help me improve my writing skills 🙂

17 06 2012
Jean flores

Hello guys, I really like the posts. Once that has been said, I would like to share some of my experiences.
I have been living in Australia over 4 years, and accents do change by time.
For example, words which I have learned here sound totally Australian, on the other hand, my partner is brisith and some words taught by him, sound really British when it comes put of my mouth. So practice as much as you can, and I must add the living overseas does improve your listening as well as your pronunciation.

17 06 2012
Jean flores

I just wanted to add, that in brazil every different region has its own unique accent, the same happens in the uk, which is a country much smaller than brazil.
Once I have read an article which mentioned that once you learn a second languages after your teens, you won’t lose your accent at all. However my experience has proven that it might not be true. Let’s see a few more years into the future.
I don’t usually get this thing about accent, what everyone should try to do is to have a great pronunciation.
Picture yourself with an English accent ( somewhere in the world) you might sometimes construct your sentence slightly different from a English speak person. Therefore someone will realize that you are not a native speaker.
By the way I think accent are hots, I have been told!
English speakers somehow tend to like Brazilian English accent very much.

2 05 2013
Wilton Capucci

Great post! I enjoyed so much, keep it up!
Well I did not learn from schools, my english was learnt from 15 americans from TX, I also want to mention here, you wrote that very good!
Well I lived together them for 1 year and half, so they taught me everything as well, all my doubts were clearly explained. Though I had difficult in every now and then, when they spoke faster, but as long as times went by I could understand everything they spoke. Accent, i must confess it is a lil’ bit different from those who learnt from school, TX’s got a diff’rent way to speak some words, they swallow up sometimes and simplify everything. Easier sometimes but tougher others..

31 03 2015
Jane Summerland

Hi,
It’s been great reading all the comments along with your blog, Aaron.
I wonder if you could help me with a pronunciation problem my student from São Paulo is having. She doesn’t pronounce the ends of two and/or three syllable words. She says “move” for movie, “document” for documentary, and “hap” for happy among others.
I think she thinks she is saying the last syllable and is startled when I tell her I don’t understand her.
Have you encountered this phenomenon before? What do you think would help a Brazilian Portuguese speaker. The most in learning to make these syllables audible?
Sincerely,
Jane Summerland

6 04 2015
Aaron

Hi Jane,

I confess I have the same issue with word endings. My son keeps correcting me when I say words like Milwaukee or, like in your example, movie. My guess is that it comes from the fact that the vast majority of words in Portuguese are paroxytones (i.e., with stress on the penultimate syllable). The same way my mother-in-law, who was born in Brazil, speaks Portuguese with a Japanese cadence, many Brazilians speak English with a Brazilian Portuguese intonation, and just make the last syllable almost inaudible. I don’t think there is any easy solution for that, other than:

1. Telling them that they are doing that all the time
2. Ask them to think of those words as oxytones (having stress on the last syllable)
3. Writing the words as the should be pronounced: movie = moo + vee, happy = hah + pea, suddenly = sudden + lee.

Believe me, you almost never hear about oxytones, paroxytones and proparoxytones when studying English, but that’s the essence of learning Portuguese, so they probably will know what you are talking about.

I hope this helps!

7 04 2015
Amanda Luiza Waydzik

Very good post. I’m an English teacher in Brazil and this problems are very hard to change, they are the “hard problems”, I would say.

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