How to Master the Brazilian Portuguese Nasal Vowels

Today, we have a special guest post from Idahosa Ness.  I’ve been really looking forward to this post because not only has he learned the science behind “language Flow”, he’s got Portuguese pronunciation down with pretty much 0 accent!

Let’s welcome him with big, open and Brazilian abraço – take it away Idahosa!

To learn Portuguese and blend in with Brazilians with your accent, you’re going to need to master The Flow of Portuguese.

In my language-learning philosophy – – “The Flow” of a language refers to the sound patterns that underlie its words and phrases.  You can learn every word in the dictionary, but if you don’t master the flow of Portuguese then you won’t be able to converse fluently.  

Without a doubt, your biggest challenge with Portuguese flow will be in mastering the nasal vowels.  These sounds are not only difficult for most foreigners to articulate correctly, but they also occur all the time in Portuguese speech; so there’s no avoiding them.

But not to worry, you can master the portuguese nasal vowels in less than a month with proper training.

Here’s the process to Portuguese nasal vowel mastery:

  • Understand what a nasal vowel is and what it is NOT
  • Tune your ear to the sound of nasalization
  • Develop an awareness of your “Velum”
  • Train your control over the nasalization muscles.

Take the time to understand the diagrams and practice the drills in this post and you will eliminate over half of your foreign accent in Portuguese and dramatically increase your comprehension and speaking fluency.

Let’s get started…

 

 What Portuguese Nasal Vowels are NOT

Before we get into what portuguese nasal vowel are, it’s important to know what they are NOT and start undoing any bad pronunciation habits you may have.

In general, nasalization refers to the flow of air through your nasal passage.  When air passes through your nasal passage, a unique sound is created as the air vibrates within your nasal cavity.

In English, nasalization typically only occurs when any of these nasal consonants sounds are present:

  • /n/ as in “no”,
  • /m/ as in “me”
  • /ŋ/ as in “going”

Since these are the only times nasalization occurs in English (and many other languages), we learn to associate the /n/ and /m/ sounds with nasalization in general.

In other words, if nasalization occurs when there is NOT an /n/, /m/ or /ŋ/ present, you will probably hallucinate one.



For example, Portuguese learners often press their lips to make the /m/ sound at the end of the word “sim,” or place the tip of their tongue against the back of their gumline to make the /n/ sound in the middle of “gente”.

These are incorrect pronunciations – there is no /m/ in “sim” and there is no /n/ in “gente.

Watch a Brazilian’s mouth while the say these sounds and you will able to see that their lips don’t move for “sim” and the tip of the tongue is at rest for “gente”.  So if you hear these /m/ and /n/ sounds before, it’s because you hallucinated them!

In my experience as a Portuguese accent coach, I identify this replacement of nasal vowels with nasal consonants as the most common pronunciation error of portuguese learners and biggest giveaway of a foreign accent.  



You may be wondering how I can say there is no /m/ or /n/ sounds in these words when the written words contain the ’n’ and ‘m’ letters.  Even though you see an ‘n’ or ‘m’ written down on papers, that does NOT necessarily mean that the /n/ and /m/ sounds actually occur.



Language does NOT always sound the the same way it’s written.

 In fact, I recommend people to learn how to speak and understand a language before learning how to read and write it, since visualization of script can seriously distort your perception of sound.

You can learn more about how written word can misguide you in language-learning on my post “.”  For now, just remember to always trust your ears over your eyes.

Speaking of our ears, let’s learn learn how to tune them to the real nasal vowels.

What Portuguese Nasal Vowels Actually Are

Now that we know what nasal vowels are not, it’s time to take a little phonetic crash course to understand what nasal vowels are.

The act of speaking requires the expulsion of air through the mouth, nose, or both at the same time.  If you completely block the oral passageway so that air escapes ONLY through your nose, the resulting sound is a “hum”.

Usually when we hum, we block airflow out the mouth by pressing our lips together, but I want you to try to hum with your mouth completely open and tongue-tip sticking out past your teeth as I do in the audio file below.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/91523858%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-iEszp” params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

When you hum with your lips and front of the tongue disengaged, the only way to block the oral passage is by pressing the back of your tongue against your soft palate, or velum.

Fool around with this humming sound and focus on the sensations at the back of your mouth.  The goal of this exercise is to mentally localize your velum.   It’s important to develop an awareness of your velum, as controlling it is the key to mastering the nasal vowels.

Developing a Physical Awareness of Your Velum

The velum is a grouping of soft-tissue at the back of your mouth.

The velum is surrounded by muscle fibers that can pull it back to block the nasal passage when speaking.  When you create “oral sounds,” you are actively contracting muscles to pull the velar back to block the nasal passage and redirect 100% of the air out your mouth

 

If you relax these muscles and leave the velum in its rest position, the air will pass through BOTH the nose AND the Mouth.  The resulting sound is a nasal vowel.



 

So the trick to the nasal vowels is to relax.

This can be challenging because you are so accustomed to activating these velar muscles all the time when you speak English.  Whenever you practice these sounds, know that if you are forcing any sort of exertion, then you are probably doing the opposite of what you need to do.

Developing your Nasal Vowel Perception

The name “nasal vowel” can be misleading, as it suggests that air comes out through ONLY the nose.  But vowel sounds by definition require air to pass through your mouth, so “nasal vowel” really means “Oral vowel WITH nasalization on top.” 

If you’re an English speaker, you may be surprised to know that we actually do have nasal vowels, depending on the accent and circumstance.  Here are a few examples of words where you might actually add some “nasalization on top” of the vowel sound.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/91522747%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-dSXQ0″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

It’s important to train your ear to this “nasalization on top” because it plays a major role in Portuguese.  For example, the only acoustic difference between the portuguese words “se” (if) and “sim” (yes)  is this “nasalization on top:

In the recording below I do the following steps 5 times in a row.

  1. I start with a Portuguese oral vowel
  2. I then make a humming sound
  3. I finally do both sounds at the same time (i.e. articulate a nasal vowel).

If you listen closely to the recording, you should be able to hear that the third sound of each set is indeed a combination of the first two.  

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/91522750%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-dSXQ0″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

If you are new to Portuguese sounds, there is a good chance you will NOT hear the difference between the oral and nasal sounds at first.

If this is the case for you, I suggest you spend some time listening to this recording repeatedly, as these are actually the 5 nasal vowel sounds of Brazilian Portuguese.  Once you have acclimated your ear to these sounds, you can then focus on creating them with your mouth.

The Portuguese Nasal-Oral Equivalents

The best way to learn how to pronounce the Portuguese nasal vowels is to start with their “oral equivalents.”

To take a step back in our Phonetics crash-course, the main thing that distinguishes one vowel sound from the next is the position of your tongue in the mouth.  

For example, the /a/ vowel has a lower tongue position than the /u/ vowel.  Alternate between the sounds “AAAAH” and the sound “OOOO” and you will notice your tongue moving up and down between the two.

If you remove the nasalization from a given nasal vowel while keeping the same tongue position, you get its “oral equivalent”.



For example, if I take the /õ/ vowel and block the nasal airflow with my velum without moving my tongue, I get its oral equivalent – /o/.

Conversely, if you add nasalization to a given oral vowel while keeping the same tongue position, you get its “nasal equivalent.

This is very helpful for learning these new nasal vowels.  If I am having trouble getting the /õ/ vowel, I can start with the much more familiar /o/ and then focus on adding nasalization WITHOUT changing the position of my tongue at all.

This type of reverse-vowel-engineering will help you manually tune your Portuguese nasal vowel sounds while you’re still building the muscle memory to articulate them without thinking.

In the recordings below, I alternate between each nasal vowel and its oral equivalent.  Remember that when doing this, I am keeping the tongue completely still while contracting and relaxing my velar muscles.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/91522742%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-dSXQ0″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/91522745%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-dSXQ0″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/91522744%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-dSXQ0″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/91522756%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-dSXQ0″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/91522749%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-dSXQ0″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

The same theory applies to the nasal diphthongs as well (Dipthongs are when you combine two vowel sounds in the same syllable).  Listen to the recording below and try to mimic me if you can.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/91522748%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-dSXQ0″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Developing Nasal Control:

The most challenging aspect of nasalization in Portuguese is the frequency that you must alternate between oral and nasal in normal speech.

Take this phrase  for example: “A gente não vai continuar de cozinhar os pãozinhos”

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/91522752%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-dSXQ0″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

In the 3 seconds it took me to say this sentence, I had to alternate between nasal and oral ten times.  That means I’m doing an average of 200 fine motor contractions/relaxations of the velum per minute on average when speaking Portuguese!

To make such fast, fine motor movements, you will need to develop a solid control over your velar muscles.  

I wasn’t born with this control – I had to train it.  I personally train my foreign language motor skills by learning and repeatedly singing songs in the language with a perfect accent.  This is what I train my students in with my .

Aside from song-training, however, you can specifically train velar muscle control through targeted speech therapy drills.

The first drill I do is the “Double-Time Drill”.  In this drill, you take each oral-nasal pair and alternate between them at a slow and steady beat.  Then, you double the speed and try to maintain the clear distinction.  Then you double it again.  Finally, you work your way back down to the original slow pace.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/91522743%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-dSXQ0″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

The second drill is called “The Rally Drill” and its purpose is to increase my maximum speed.  The goal is to be able to do this alternation way faster than you’ll ever need to in normal speech so that in comparison the normal rate will seem slow and easy.

This drill also starts by alternating slowly between the nasal and oral equivalents, but instead of keeping a steady pace, you want to gradually increase the speed until you reach your max, then maintain it as long as you can until you start to mess up.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/91522755%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-dSXQ0″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

The purpose of the Double time and Rally drills is to develop your core command of the velum.  But these sound combinations never occur in Portuguese, so it’s good to have some real life portuguese words to practice these nasal/oral alternation.

Here are a few words to practice with.  When you’re bored, practice saying them over and over again as fast as you can and this will also develop your velar control:

  • São Paulo
  • Mamãe
  • Quente

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/91522746%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-dSXQ0″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Investing in your Flow Development

You might feel silly doing speech therapy drills like these, but if you take them seriously now, you will rapidly accelerate your Portuguese acquisition.  

The biggest determinant of how quickly and fully you learn a language will be your mastery of the Flow.

If you try to learn the flow passively while you learn vocabulary and expressions, the entire process will be slowed down.  Many learners can achieve a decent flow mastery after a long period of exposure and experience with the language, but most do not learn it at all and end up hitting a ceiling early one.

  • If you know a lot of Portuguese vocab but still struggle to understand Brazilians when they talk fast, then you have a Flow problem
  • If you know all the portuguese grammar rules but still trip over every other word when you speak, then your problem is with the flow.

It personally took me a month to develop a strong command of the flow of Portuguese, and I did it before before studying a single vocabulary or grammar concept.  Then when I got to Brazil, I was able to achieve conversational fluency within 3 weeks just by mimicking and interacting with people as much as possible.

By the end of my second month, I was alright able to trick brazilians into thinking I was a native (though the afro helps).

If you’re interested in learning more about Flow, then I strongly recommend you – Flow 101 (click to learn more).  In it, you will learn all the basics of phonetics and how to train your ability to hear and produce the sounds of Portuguese or any other language you may wish to study.

I also recommend checking out and T for regular tips on Flow-Training and Language-Learning.  You’ll enjoy this post on .

Thanks for reading – and keep on flowin!

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  • Jeru: Oh, being to some extent a linguist, I finally got the idea of distinguishing the nasal vowels in Portuguese speech from a Russian speaker’s point of view. The thing is to catch at first the orality of the oral vowels. Actually, both Portuguese nasal and oral vowels are “modified” either by opening the nasal cavity for the sound, or by shutting it. In most languages where nasalisation doesn’t matter phonologically, pure oral articulation doesn’t exist, and all the vowels are more or less nasalized.
    There’s a general mistake in descriptions, I believe. When a correlation exists, both its parts are marked, so we should consider “nasal” and “oral” vowels in this case, but not “nasal” and “non-nasal”. The latter version of correlation misleads us by introducing two pseudo-categories, i. e. “default” and “modified”. So Russians (for example) perceive only extremely nasalized vowels as “nasal”, while the rest of the spectrum can sound “non-nasal” for them. But Brazilians in general tend to pronounce oral vowels as 100% oral with totally shut nasal cavity, while nasal vowels represent all the rest variants
    .

    • Excellent input! It’s amazing how we can train ourselves to copy the Brazilian speech patterns. When I learned Portuguese, I just copied the sounds as best as possible but these techniques are really helpful in getting people to speak great and fast!

      • BTW, I’ve noticed that most Americans typically strongly nasalize all their English flow, so that switching to “oral mode” may seem a bit harder to them. British English and Russian are something in between, but apparently neither of them contains that pure “orality” found in Portuguese 😉

        • Yeah it’s no hidden secret that us Americans have a tough time adapting to different “flows” of Portuguese, but it can be trained like Idahosa showed. 🙂

          • I hope it will help! Still hear too little, partly thanks to different position of the oral-nasal border. A typical example: when Francisco, a pousada manager, read a bus company name “Jardinense”, I caught it at first as “Jardinesse” in his flow 😉

  • Hi. “A gente não vai continuar de cozinhar os pãozinhos” should be “A gente não vai continuar a cozinhar os pãozinhos” =P

      • The right is “A gente não vai continuar cozinhando os pãezinhos”. Because the plural of pão is pãezinhos and a cozinhar is more commom in Portugal, in Brazil we use cozinhando

        • I agree with Luana. “continuar cozinhando” sounds more natural here in Brazil and “pãezinhos” is the correct plural form of “pãozinho”.

  • OMG I can’t stop laughing at the way you ‘mamãe’, the first ‘a’ sounds i don’t know … For me the 2 ‘as’ sound almost the same, with almost no difference between the oral and the nasal, because there’s a ‘m’ after the first ‘a’, i think it makes it nasal (?). They way you said sound similar to the way I say ‘mamão’, here the first ‘a’ sound the same way you said the first ‘a’ at mamãe, it sounds oral, like at ‘amor’. Maybe its because of my accent (I’m from Rio) I think people at the northeast says it a little similar of the way you said at the record

  • OMG I can’t stop laughing at the way you ‘mamãe’, the first ‘a’ sounds i don’t know … For me the 2 ‘as’ sound almost the same, with almost no difference between the oral and the nasal, because there’s a ‘m’ after the first ‘a’, i think it makes it nasal (?). They way you said sound similar to the way I say ‘mamão’ (papaya) here the first ‘a’ sound the same way you said the first ‘a’ at mamãe, it sounds oral, like at ‘amor’. Maybe its because of my accent (I’m from Rio) I think people at the northeast says it a little similar of the way you said at the record

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