If you want a decent return on your investment, says Helen Joyce, the best language to learn is Brazilian Portuguese...
Some lunatics learn languages for fun. The rest of us are looking for a decent return on our investment. That means choosing a language with plenty of native speakers. One spoken by people worth talking to, in a place worth visiting. One with close relatives, so you have a head start with your third language. One not so distant from English that you give up.
There really is only one rational choice: Brazilian Portuguese. Brazil is big (190m residents; half a continent). Its economic prospects are bright. São Paulo is Latin America’s business capital. No other country has flora and fauna more varied and beautiful. It is home to the world’s largest standing forest, the Amazon. The weather is great and so are the beaches. The people are friendly, and shameless white liars. You’ll be told “Your Portuguese is wonderful!” many times before it is true.
You won’t need a new alphabet or much new grammar, though you may find the language addicted to declensions and unduly fond of the subjunctive. You’ll learn hundreds of words without effort (azul means blue, verde means green) and be able to guess entire sentences (O sistema bancário é muito forte: the banking system is very strong). With new pronunciation and a few new words you’ll get around in Portugal and parts of Africa. If you speak Spanish, French or Italian, you’ll find half the work is already done — and if not, why not try? With Portuguese under your belt you’ll fly along.
Best of all, you’ll stand out. Only about 10m Brazilians have reasonable English, and far more Anglophones speak French or Spanish than Portuguese, of any flavour. I did not choose this language; it was thrust on me by the offer of a job in São Paulo. But when I think of my sons, now ten and five, one day being able to write “fluent Brazilian Portuguese” on their CVs, I feel a little smug.
Helen Joyce is The Economist's São Paulo correspondent
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Editor's note: Thanks to our ever-alert readers—the first was Caio Capelari—for pointing out that the original illustration for this article featured a Portuguese newspaper and not a Brazilian one. We do appreciate that an ocean separates the newsstands of Rio from those in Lisbon. And thanks to Andrew Stickland for sending a new image from São Paulo this morning.