How similar/intelligible are Romance languages?

Just poked my head into Spanish and noticed that it is really… really similar to Portuguese which I have experience with. They definitely don’t feel like french… but My Italian friend said that she can read french news just fine but doesn’t really understand them when they talk.

How well do Romance natives understand each other? If I spoke portugese to someone in Guatemala, a Spanish speaking country, could I communicate with them? I’m pretty sure we could in the written form.


Many of my native Spanish speaking friends (from Colombia and Ecuador) say that they can get the general gist of a Brazilian Portuguese speaker in common travel situations as long as the Brazilian agrees to speak quite slowly and clearly. They don’t seem to have much trouble understanding the gist when reading practical texts (a work email, an advertisement, a menu, etc).

I have heard the reverse from Brazilians. My South American friends usually tell me they can speak “Portuñol.”

Might be an interesting project to read “Who Is She?” in all the Romance languages, comparing them side-by-side!


For someone who is a portuguese (brazilian) native speaker.

We can understand spanish without problem, written and spoken. The problem is when the meaning of the word is diferent. I already comunicate with people from Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Spain and I understand they accents easily. I never heard someone from Guatemala so I can’t say, but I think you could.

Portuguese from Portugal it’s quite different from brazilian portuguese. We communicate, however, again the problem is the words that the meaning have changed.

Italian. It’s close, but depending on the context we don’t understand them. Written is more easy than spoken. In the beggining of the year I started italian with thirty minutes at day, I already can understand almost everything what they are saying. Btw I’m reading La Divina Commedia and i did not find difficult.

French. The hardest. When they speak I’m lost. Written only with effort, because the vocabulary it’s more intelligible.

I never listened romanian so I can’t say.


Romance Languages Compared: 25 Phrases in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese - YouTube Compares 4 romance languages… also: Romance Languages Comparative Vocabulary Lists: Learn French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese Together

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The mutual understanding when speaking tends to be very much lower than writing.

I can read Italian fine even though I barely studied it thanks to French and Spanish but cannot understand 100% when Italians speak. Same thing with Catalan, it’s also ridiculously easy to read for me but I understand really little when they speak. Romanian is the odd one and even in its written form I get very little out of it.

Spoken Portuguese is really hard to comprehend and Portuguese speakers somehow understand Spanish way better than the other way around. However, I think you could speak Portuguese in Guatemala and get away with simple things, but it’s somewhat like Russian-Ukrainian: people claim that they understand way more than they actually do. So keep this in mind when you’re in Guatemala.


Portuñol is a mixture between (português + español). This happens a lot, because in general the words are very similar, but some are quite different. So sometimes you don’t know if the word is the same or different. In the end you mixture the languages.


As it’s been said, reading is easier than listening.

Portuguese and Spanish are very close one to another. I studied 6 months in Portugal and had Spanish classmates who only spoke Spanish to the teachers or to our Portuguese classmates, with some Portuguese words here and there. And the Portuguese spoke to them in Portuguese. Within a few weeks they all understood each other pretty well to discuss all kinds of topics. Note that I don’t know if Brazilian Portuguese would be easier or not for Spaniards. The listening part may be easier but Portuguese as spoken / written in Portugal seems closer to Spanish (and to French for that matter) than Brazilian Portuguese.

Spanish friends have told me they could understand Italian quite well if not spoken too quickly. I think it’s the same for us French native speakers. I have never studied Italian but I read a few books and regularly listen to the news in it. Understanding spoken casual Italian is more difficult. Same thing with Catalan as Jaliscostate said.

Romance languages are very similar when it comes to advanced vocabulary, but less so for daily vocabulary and expressions.

Also, I think most French / Spanish / Italian / Portuguese speakers “learn” another Romance language at school. So we’re at least familiar with a few basic things like verb conjugations and basic vocabulary. I think most French people know that “comer” means “to eat” in Spanish (at least where I’m from). Since it’s the same in Portuguese, they know it in two languages.

French seems to be the most difficult one to understand, probably due to our strange spelling and to the fact that French isn’t phonetic when the others are. Also, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian are full of “o” and “a” endings while French isn’t.

Romanian is harder, but after putting Wikipedia in Romanian I feel that with some exposure I could understand it well too.

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i have studied spanish and portguese they are similar but yet diferent i think people that speak portuguese can understand spanish better initially than the other way around because of the pronounciation in portguese it is way richer with many sounds that don’t exist in spanish ,i find the brazilian accent much easier to understand than the one in portugal

i believe ifyou spoke to some one in guatemala in portuguese they would not understand you unless they have studied portuguese or maybe in the border regions between the two countries

french for me is hard to understand in the beginning and italian i don’tt know well but it has some things that are similar to french

In my experience Spanish/Portuguese/Italian speakers can understand each other if they’re motivated and willing to make some effort. That typically happens when speakers of those language get to know each other in a different country, for example. They will typically pick up a few, more confusing word as they go. Any romance speaker who has travelled enough has had that experience. My own interest in Italian began when I went through that experience in Austria. Now, my eldest daughter has begun interested in the language after a similar event in Britain
Difficulty varies with the particular language and, even more, accent. Thus, accents from central/southern Portugal are usually more difficult to comprehend than other languages/varieties, including Brazillian Portuguese. I hear that even native Brazilians have somettimes difficulty understanding Portuguese speakers.
For example, I went to Southern Portugal some years ago. My Portuguese was so-so at the time but i had planned to practice. In reality, people just preferred me to speak Spanish and maybe throw in some Portuguese words when the Spanish ones were very different (portuñol).
I recently had a work-related talk with a Brazilian programmer through Skype. I spoke Spanish, he spoke Portughese. I do know Portuguese but I don’t think he ever deliberately studied Spanish. Anyway, we found it much easier to speak that way thatn trying to choose a common language.
In other contexts, you may find that people just don’t understand much. It is a very interesting phenomenon that people will only understand what they think they can understand, and this does not only happen among speakers of different languages, you may find that your typical cashier in London can understand rather odd Indian accents but get completely blocked if they detect even a slight French, Spanish or Italian accent. Same thing in Paris, …
Another factor to take into account is your own mastery of the language. A great part of the advantages that native/proficient speakers have when understanding a related tongue is lost to intermediate learners.
As a typical example, if you’ve been studying Spanish to an intermediate level, you may get completely lost if you hear the Portuguese sentence:
Onde mora você?
Because the verb “morar” (which exists in Spanish, with the same meaning) is a rather literary word, unusual in common speech and the learner may have never come across it, whereas a native/advanced speaker would know it.

So, what do I think would happen in Guatemala? It depends, but my advice would be:
You can get by with your Portuguese to a great extent as long as:

  • You speak clearly and preferably with Brazilian pronunciation
  • You pick up (or learn previously) some key Spanish words (some common Portuguese words difficult for Spanish speakers to get: achar, fechar, ficar, … replace for creer, cerrar, quedar)
  • Very important!: you are nice and kind and show your listeners that you’re making a serious effort to be understood

Another example: I have some Spanish friends who go to Italy very often and for extended periods of time (several months). They have never bothered to learn proper Italian. They speak Spanish with Italian words thrown in (italiañol??) and they have no trouble making themselves understood

I’ve taken a train from Nürnberg to München in Germany once. There came Spanish speaking brother and sister, and it was an Italian there. They all talked their own language to each other (Spaniards in Spanish, the Italian in Italian). I took part in that conversation, too. But it were no problems understanding everything for all of us. I am pretty sure the Spaniards did not even try to learn Ialian before their visit ot Germany, the Italian did not try to speak any Spanish.
But telling the truth, my Russian speaking wife and mother who do not speak neither Italian nor Spanish were able to guess the subjects we were talking about: international words, the names of the cities and countries + emptional manner of speaking and gesture help understanding something, too.

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I speak quite good french (C1 -C2),
My spoken spanish is at B2 and portuguese at B2 as well (I hope)
While knowing those languages helps me to understand italian I wouldn’t say I know it.
It would spead up the process of learanig it though.

If two sides (let’s say portuguese and spanish )are willing to cuminicate they can do it,
but it ruquires an effort from both sides.

The greater vocabulary in your native tongue the easier it will be learn a foreign language - not only romance languages but slavic, geramnic etc.

A few polish examples followed by their english translation and a rarely used synonym:

wrażliwy - sensitive - sensytwny
równowartość - equivalent - ekwiwalent
wrodzony,rodzimy - native - natywny
chwała - glory - gloria

and the list goes on…

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I just wanted to point out that “native potunol” dose exist and it’s called galican spanish - It’s a dialect continuum between spanish and portuguese.

man that is a political statement ha ha

No, native portuñol does exist but it’s not Galician. It refers to a set of dialects spoken around some Brazilian border areas:

I understand him better than some brazilian native speakers. Maybe because he speaks slowly.

And in the Iberian peninsula there is “barranqueño”, another variety of native portuñol
Both Galician and Mirandés are separate languages, not portuñol

Ok - let me rephrase that - To me galician sounds like long established mixture of spanish and portuguese - hence I would name it portunol.
This is completly subjective point of view.

As I told above, Spanish-Italian coversation had a lot of common Latin words which are international and can be understood by Russians, too.

After knowing French, Spanish, and Portuguese all to conversation or higher level, I can pretty much listen to any Romance language and get the gist/know what they are talking about. I’ve studied Latin, Catalan and Gallego to some degree also. It’s to the point that I don’t buy any starter books for the language, I just go straight to authentic content.

Your comment is more directed towards natives, but I believe I can fairly answer it also.

From speaking with other Spanish speakers, they tell me they can understand Portuguese/Italian/Catalan/whatever and get the gist of it. However, when it comes to French, the ones I know usually don’t know/can’t listen and understand Spanish or Portuguese, but the writing, a lot of the times they can guess the meaning.

If you spoke Portuguese to a Guatemalan, I believe you guys could, to some degree, communicate enough to satisfy your needs, assuming you both have some basic knowledge of shared words.

I would expect a Spanish speaker from Spain being able to understand more, due to being surrounded by other romance languages, and probably at some point they’ve tried to understand/listen to it.

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