skip to content

Studying Portuguese at Cambridge

What sort of a language is Portuguese?

Portuguese is the fifth world language. It is spoken by approximately 200 million people on four continents, Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. It has remained the official language of the former Portuguese colonies in these continents, and important cultural, trade and political links persist between them and Portugal itself. 

Portuguese is a Romance language, closest to Spanish but with similarities also to French and Italian. A knowledge of any of these languages, and in particular Spanish may be useful but is not essential since Portuguese in Cambridge, although available to students with a G.C.S.E. or A' level qualification, is also, and perhaps more frequently, taught as a beginners' course, with no assumption of a prior acquaintance with the language.

Why study it at Cambridge?

These days, a knowledge of one of the less widely studied languages, particularly in the case of a language such as Portuguese, which combines its rarity in schools and universities with an important position as a world language and demand in the job market, is seen as a distinct advantage by many employers. Portuguese was recently pinpointed by a government spokesperson as one of the languages of foreseeable importance in the political context over the next decades and it is the language of access to the rich cultures of Portugal, Brazil and the other Lusophone countries (Angola, Mozambique, the Cape Verde Islands, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé). The historical and broader cultural background of Portugal and its former empire, the history of Portuguese expansion in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries which boasts such figures as the first navigator to circumnavigate the Cape of Good Hope, the first navigator to go from Europe to India by sea, the first man to circumnavigate the globe, the first man to reach Brazil, and the first navigators to make contact with Japan, all make Portugal, Portuguese-speaking countries, their language, literature, history and culture an essential part of a European vision today. 

What is the course like?

Modern Languages at Cambridge is normally a four-year course, with the third year spent abroad. All students are required to study two languages up to the Part I examination. Portuguese can be combined with all the other modern European languages available at Cambridge, with a classical language (Latin or Ancient Greek), or with an oriental language (Arabic, Hebrew or Persian). Equal weight is attached to the two languages studied in Part I, and the emphasis is on acquiring a solid working knowledge of the language. Oral, writing and translating skills are all taught, using modern methods (including considerable use of the target language in the classroom and use of audio-visual materials). The teaching of Portuguese literature, culture and history is also begun early, and by the end of the second term beginners will have read some texts in the original Portuguese and written essays and commentaries on them. At the end of the first year, beginners take examinations covering grammar, translation, essay in Portuguese, analysis of literary texts, and an oral exam. Most students attend a Summer School in Portugal in their first summer vacation (for which some scholarships are available). Post A-level students sit two language papers, an oral, and the choice of a paper on introduction to the literature, culture and history of three Portuguese-speaking countries, a paper on Portuguese literature, history and thought since 1825, or a linguistics paper. In their second year, students may choose up to three out of a range of seven papers.  

The third year can be spent in a country of Portuguese expression, studying at a university or in some form of approved employment. In Part II (the final examination) a range of papers is available, covering nineteenth and twentieth century Portuguese, Brazilian, Angolan and Mozambican literature, culture and history, and the structure of the Portuguese language.  Any of these can be combined with papers in the other languages and literatures, linguistics, etc. 

The Department very much welcomes graduate students, both at the level of M.Phil. and at the level of Ph.D., particularly in the areas of nineteenth and twentieth-century Portuguese and Brazilian Literature, some aspects of Mozambican Literature, and Feminist Theory. 

For those whose degree course does not include Portuguese but who wish to study the language as an additional subject, Certificate and Diploma qualifications are available. These are both one-year courses.  Certificate takes beginners in Portuguese up to A' Level standard and Diploma takes those already of A' Level standard up to the level of Part I.

What facilities are available?

In addition to extensive collections of books accessible in the Modern and Medieval Languages Library and the University Library, the Portuguese government funds events related to the promotion of Portuguese language and culture. Audio-visual materials for self-teaching and supervised learning purposes are available in the Language Centre and in the CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning) Facility.  

Visiting speakers funded by the Portuguese government may also on occasion contribute to the academic year's teaching and the Portuguese and Brazilian societies organise events of a social and cultural nature including lectures and more informal opportunities to practise Portuguese.

Where can Portuguese lead?

Other than the jobs normally pursuable by any arts graduate, a qualification in Portuguese, a language for which demand still greatly exceeds supply in the job market, has frequently led our students to careers in banking, management, finance, teaching, translation, advertising, marketing, European Community-related positions and many other areas. Graduates able to offer Portuguese as one of their languages often find that it is that desirable commodity which first gains them employment in a job market in which other world languages are much more frequently offered by modern languages graduates.  

Colleges which include members of staff from the Spanish and Portuguese Department in their Fellowship: Clare, Emmanuel, Fitzwilliam, Girton, Queens', St Catharine's, St John's, Trinity, Trinity Hall, but most colleges will welcome applications in any subject. 

For further information about Portuguese at Cambridge please contact Prof M M Lisboa.


  • Portuguese is spoken in four continents by some 200 million people.
  • Portuguese is one of the official languages of the EU and it is the fifth world language.
  • Portuguese is the language of the biggest and most dynamic South-American country: Brazil.
  • Portuguese is the official language of five African countries: Angola, Mozambique, the Cape Verde Islands, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé e Príncipe ÷ and it is spoken in Asia, in Goa and Macau.
  • Portuguese is a language for which demand exceeds supply in the job market.