English Pronunciation Guide for Portuguese Speakers

Due to the rules of the Portuguese language and their differences with American English pronunciation rules, there exist some common English pronunciation problems for Portuguese Speakers. From vowels and consonants to stress placement and more, we outline the most common pronunciation errors made by Portuguese speakers as well as key techniques to overcome them.
October 30, 2023
Eliza Simpson
Eliza Simpson
Speech & Accent Coach at BoldVoice
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Embarking on the journey to master the American English accent is a rewarding endeavor, and for Portuguese speakers, it brings a unique set of challenges and opportunities. Whether you're a student, a professional, or simply someone passionate about improving your English pronunciation, this comprehensive guide is designed to assist you in your quest for accent perfection.

In this article we will explore the intricacies of acquiring an authentic American English accent while specifically addressing the pronunciation problems faced by Portuguese speakers. We'll take you on a journey through vowels and consonants, rhythm and stress patterns, and even subtler aspects like spelling discrepancies.

By the end of this guide you'll have a wealth of knowledge and practical techniques to enhance your English pronunciation, allowing you to communicate with confidence and clarity.

For a video introduction of the most common challenges faced by Portuguese speakers, watch this video first:

Consonants in Portuguese versus English

Now let's dive into how consonants play a pivotal role in the clarity and precision of your American English pronunciation. In this section, we'll delve into the intricate world of American English consonants and provide valuable guidance to help you refine your consonant sounds. 

Let’s explore the subtleties of consonants in American English and equip you with the tools to sound more like a native English speaker. 

‘TH’ Sounds

You've probably noticed that the "th" sounds in words like "thing" and "this" can be quite challenging for native Portuguese speakers. “Th" sounds don't exist in Portuguese, so native speakers often will use a “t” sound in place of the “th” sound.

The first step to perfecting your American English accent is to understand the correct mouth and tongue positioning for these sounds.

To master the "th" sound, you need to position your tongue between your upper and lower teeth. For the voiced "th," as in "this," you should engage your vocal cords, creating a vibrating sound. On the other hand, the voiceless "th," as in "thing," is produced with the same tongue position but without the vibration of the vocal cords. 

For more information on these two sounds, check out these videos from BoldVoice:

A helpful tip is to follow along with a text while listening to an audio, underlining the voiced "th" sounds and circling the voiceless ones. With practice and patience, you'll soon be pronouncing these sounds confidently and fluently in American English!

'S' and 'Z' Sounds

Often, the spelling 's' in English is pronounced as a "z" sound. The difference between "s" and "z" is subtle: the "z" uses the same mouth shape as the "s" sound, but includes a vibration from your vocal chords.

If a word ends in "s" because it's a plural or a possessive, like "coach's resources," in English both of those ending sounds are pronounced as a "z". Many Portuguese native speakers will pronounce these words with the softer "s" sound.

For more information on why these (and other) sounds are challenging for Portuguese speakers, check out this video:

‘R’ Sound

Another aspect of perfecting the American English accent that often poses a challenge for Portuguese speakers is the "R" sound. In Portuguese, the "R" sound is quite different, often resembling either a rolled “R” or a deeper, throatier, almost "H"-like sound.

To sound more like a native English speaker, you'll need to adjust your mouth and tongue positioning. In English, the "R" sound is created by slightly raising the back of the tongue toward the soft palate without any vibration in the vocal cords.

To practice this sound, consider using tongue twisters that feature "R" sounds. Tongue twisters like "Red lorry, yellow lorry" or "Three free throws" can help you get the hang of the proper tongue positioning and produce the smooth English "R" sound. 

‘H’ Sound

The often overlooked "H" sound is another stumbling block for Portuguese speakers striving for an authentic American English accent. 

In English, the "H" sound is almost always pronounced. To nail this sound, it's crucial to understand the mouth and tongue positioning. The "H" sound is produced by gently expelling a puff of air as you open your mouth, with no vibration of the vocal cords. It's all about positioning your tongue just behind your top front teeth and creating that airy breath. 

To practice this sound effectively, you can employ "H"-based tongue twisters like "Harry the hungry, hungry hippo is happily eating ham in his house." Tongue twisters are excellent tools to help you develop a natural "H" sound and integrate it seamlessly into your English speech. 

Dark ‘L’ Sound

Many Portuguese and Brazilian students especially tend to make the mistake of replacing word-final ‘L’ sounds with a somewhat ‘W’-like sound. However, the dark 'L' is a vital component of authentic American English pronunciation, heard in words that end with an 'L' or have an 'L' followed by a consonant, such as "cool," "tall," or "milk."

This sound is subtle yet distinctive and is characterized by a velarized or "dark" quality, which sets it apart from the clear 'L' sounds found in Portuguese. Unlike the clear 'L' sound, where the tongue tip touches the alveolar ridge behind the upper front teeth, the dark 'L' sound involves a different tongue position. To create the dark 'L,' you should retract your tongue slightly further back in your mouth, towards the soft palate. This retraction of the tongue is what gives the sound its distinct, velarized quality. 

This adjustment in tongue positioning is the key to mastering the dark 'L' sound and adding authenticity to your American English pronunciation. With practice and dedication, you'll find yourself pronouncing words like "pull" and "handle" with ease and confidence.

Final ‘D’ Sounds

Another common challenge for native Portuguese speakers perfecting their American English accent lies in the pronunciation of final 'D' sounds. It's not uncommon for Brazilian speakers especially to replace the final 'D' with a 'dʒ' sound, resembling the 'j' sound in words like "judge." 

However, it's important to note that this replacement doesn't occur among native English speakers, making it a noticeable accent feature. This tendency to incorrectly substitute 'D' with 'dʒ' sounds is most prominent at the end of words, where words like "made" might be pronounced as "maje." 

To overcome this hurdle and achieve a more native-like pronunciation, consider honing your skills with minimal pairs, such as "bad" and "badge." Practicing these pairs will help you differentiate between the final 'D' and 'dʒ' sounds, ensuring you can confidently pronounce words in their entirety with clear, authentic American English pronunciation.

Final ‘T’ Sounds

In a similar vein to the final 'D' sounds, Portuguese and Brazilian students might find themselves replacing final 'T' sounds with 'tʃ' sounds at the end of words. This means that words like "mat" can sound more like "match." 

However, it's worth noting that this substitution is not typical in native English speech. To refine your American English pronunciation of these final 'T' sounds, it's beneficial to practice with minimal pairs such as "bat" and "batch." These pairs will help you distinguish between the final 'T' and 'tʃ' sounds, allowing you to articulate words with precision and a more authentic American English accent. 

By diligently practicing these minimal pairs, you'll be well on your way to mastering those elusive final 'T' sounds and perfecting your English pronunciation. It can be especially beneficial to record yourself repeating these minimal pairs as a way to pinpoint errors and gauge your progress.

Final ‘M’ Sounds

The final 'M' sounds can present another hurdle for Brazilian learners of American English in particular. In Brazilian Portuguese, when 'm' occurs at the end of a word it's typically pronounced as a nasal consonant, often resembling 'n' or 'ng.' This pronunciation nuance frequently carries over into English, where words like "rum" may end up sounding more like "run" or "rung." 

To enhance your English pronunciation and differentiate between the final 'M' and the nasal sounds, consider practicing with minimal pairs or even trios. These pairs, like "rum," "run," and "rung," will help you to develop a keen ear for the subtle distinctions in sounds and enable you to pronounce words with clarity and precision, aligning your accent with native English speakers. 

Differences between Portuguese and English Vowels

Vowels are at the heart of any language's pronunciation, and for Portuguese speakers striving to achieve a flawless American English accent, mastering the subtleties of vowel sounds is crucial. Let’s explore the nuances of American English vowels with tips and insights on how to improve your vowel pronunciation to sound more like a native speaker of English.

Schwa Sound

One of the subtler challenges that Portuguese speakers face when perfecting their American English accent is the tendency to insert strong vowel sounds where native English speakers employ the soft, reduced schwa sound. 

The schwa, represented by the symbol /ə/, is an unstressed and neutral vowel sound. It's one of the most common vowel sounds in American English and often appears in unstressed syllables. This sound is so subtle that it's almost like a quick, soft "uh" sound. You can find schwa in various words and syllables in American English, such as the first syllable of "banana" or the second syllable of "sofa." 

For more details on the schwa sound, check out the video below.

The mouth and tongue positioning needed to produce the schwa sound is relatively simple. You should relax your tongue and jaw and create a neutral, central tongue position. The lips should remain relaxed and slightly open. Essentially, it's a very natural and neutral sound that doesn't require any particular effort. Incorporating the schwa sound into your speech is a subtle yet crucial step in achieving an authentic American English accent, as it adds a fluidity and rhythm to your spoken words that native English speakers often use in everyday conversation.

U Spelling

The “U” spelling is also unreliable when it comes to English pronunciation. The only way to correctly apply these sounds is by building up phonemic awareness and muscle memory.

For example, in the words “up” and “tunnel,” a Portuguese native speaker will often use the sound, while in comparison, the American speaker will often use the  sound instead.

These vowels are very common, so being able to make the sound difference will help with your clarity and with your audience.

Distinguishing Similar Vowels

Portuguese speakers may encounter difficulties in distinguishing between similar vowel sounds in English, as English offers a more extensive variety of vowel sounds than Portuguese. This abundance of vowel sounds in English can be particularly challenging, especially when it comes to differentiating between sounds that may appear similar to non-native speakers. 

'EE' and 'IH' Sounds

In the journey to perfect an American English accent, Portuguese speakers often encounter a notable challenge concerning the differentiation between the "EE" or /iː/ (as in “freeze”) and "IH" or /ɪ/ (as in “frizz”) vowel sounds. English employs both of these vowel sounds, each with its distinct pronunciation, whereas Portuguese primarily relies on the "EE" sound. Because of this, native Portuguese speakers will mistakenly insert the "EE" where English calls for the "IH" sound.

Take the word “little”. Most Americans would use the “short i” sound here.  

Portuguese native speakers will often pronounce the “i” as an "EE" sound, making a sound like a long "EE.”

To accurately produce the "IH" sound, position your tongue slightly lower and more relaxed compared to the "EE" sound, and your lips should be relaxed as well. It's a shorter and more centralized sound, distinguishing it from the "EE" vowel in American English.

To practice distinguishing between these vowel sounds, utilizing minimal pairs like "green" and "grin," "feet" and "fit," and “wheeze” and “whiz” can be incredibly helpful. 

'EH' and 'AA' Sounds

The contrast between the vowel sounds in EH, or /ɛ/ (as in “bed”), and "AA" or /æ/ (as in "bad"), is another area where native Portuguese speakers often face challenges when perfecting their American English accent. The "a" sound in "bad" doesn't exist in Portuguese, which leads to a common mispronunciation where speakers often pronounce these sounds like the "EH" in "bed." 

To rectify this, it's crucial to comprehend the correct mouth and tongue positioning for the "AA" sound in "bad." When pronouncing "bad," position your tongue relatively low and central in your mouth, with your mouth slightly open. To create the "a" sound, your lips should be unrounded. The key is to produce a clear and distinct "AA" sound that sets it apart from the "EH" sound.

Pronouncing "bad" and "bed" accurately is not just about perfecting your American English accent; it's also vital for effective communication and being perceived as a proficient English speaker. Mispronunciations can sometimes result in misunderstanding, particularly in minimal pairs like "head" and "had." Practicing these pairs helps in distinguishing the subtle differences, ensuring that your English pronunciation is precise and clear, ultimately enhancing your ability to convey your thoughts and ideas with confidence in English.

Inserting Word-Final Sounds as a Portuguese Speaker

The habit of adding sounds to the end of words can be a subtle yet distinctive feature of Portuguese speakers learning American English. This tendency arises from the fact that it's less common in Portuguese to have words ending in consonants, and as a result, Portuguese speakers may unconsciously insert a small "e" sound at the end of English words. For instance, instead of saying "sculpt," they might say "sculpt-e," or rather than "work," they'll pronounce it as "work-e." 

To rectify this habit, it's beneficial to record yourself while speaking English and pay close attention to this error. A useful technique for practicing is to over-enunciate the final consonants in words, at least while you're in the learning process. By doing so you'll become more conscious of this tendency and gradually eliminate the added "-e" sound, ensuring more accurate and polished American English pronunciation.

Stress Patterns in English versus Portuguese

Another notable challenge for Portuguese speakers when perfecting their American English accent is the difference in stress patterns between the two languages. These variations can lead to errors in pronunciation, such as pronouncing the word "comfortable" with stress on the third syllable ("comfortAble") rather than on the first syllable ("cOmfortable"). The key to mastering these stress patterns lies in awareness and practice.

To address this issue, immerse yourself in American English media such as podcasts, news reports, and TV shows. Make a deliberate effort to listen to American speakers with the specific intention of paying close attention to where they place the primary stress in words and sentences. By exposing yourself to the rhythm and patterns of American English speech, you'll gradually internalize the correct stress patterns and refine your accent. As you practice and become more aware of these nuances, your pronunciation will become increasingly aligned with native speakers, enhancing your overall fluency in American English.

Achieve a Native-Level American Accent as a Portuguese Speaker

Achieving an authentic American English accent as a non-native speaker is undoubtedly a challenging endeavor. While this article has provided valuable insights and tips to address common pronunciation problems for Portuguese speakers of English, the journey to impeccable English pronunciation involves much more than a few pointers. To truly learn the American accent, it's essential to commit to ongoing, consistent practice while receiving individualized, expert feedback. The results are undeniably rewarding, and the impact on your career can be profound.

If you're looking for a structured and effective way to improve your English accent, consider utilizing tools like the BoldVoice app. With BoldVoice you'll gain access to Hollywood accent coaches through videos and receive tailored pronunciation lessons using AI technology. The app's daily practice notifications will help you stay on track and ensure that your progress is steady and consistent. 

Over time, with dedicated practice and the guidance of BoldVoice, you'll find yourself speaking clear and comprehensible English, making it a valuable tool on your journey to mastering an authentic American English accent. So, don't hesitate—take the step to improve your English pronunciation and accent today with BoldVoice. Your path to clear, confident, and impactful English communication awaits.

You can try BoldVoice with a free 7-day trial to get started on your accent journey!
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Eliza Simpson
Eliza Simpson
Speech & Accent Coach at BoldVoice
About the author
Eliza Simpson is a Hollywood speech and accent coach based in New York City. She holds a Degree in Acting from Rutgers University and has trained at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London. As a speech and dialect coach, Eliza has worked in film and TV for productions appearing on Netflix, Hulu, and Apple TV+. Eliza is a head coach on the BoldVoice app.
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