About Learning Portuguese
It’s not hard, it just takes time.
The story I tell to stressed-out young people doing their final exams at school is this: The only thing I learnt at school that I had any use for in life, was French. And in the final exams, I failed it catastrophically. So don’t sweat it. (Yes indeed being able to read and write, add and subtract and even think, I suppose they’ve been useful too). All students should learn a language while their brains are spongey and fresh. It set me up for many adventures.
I used French on a number of travels, but then knowing French helped me to speak Italian and Spanish. I spoke Arabic for nine months, I’ve understood a bit of German, Dutch and I’ve dabbled in Swedish and even Turkish. Some people think I have a talent for languages – but it’s not that at all. I have learnt how to learn languages. (I confess, Greek is beyond me. South East Asian languages – no way. Although I’d like to have a go at Indonesian and Hindi one day). I’ve also learnt how to forget them too…
I learnt Portuguese in about six months. I’m not fluent. My accent is probably terrible. But I can get by most of the time. So my first tip is: language is about communicating. You’re not likely to give a speech at the UN anytime soon so near enough is good enough. The Arabs told me it takes a lifetime to learn Arabic. Most Arabs can barely speak it themselves. The only important thing is to be understood.
If you are not just passing through as a tourist, and you’re serious about learning Portuguese properly, then you really have to have lessons. I took private lessons. I could learn how it suited me, at my own pace. I could shape the lessons to my needs; learning building vocabulary for example, or if I needed to write an email to someone in Portugal, that could become the lesson. One-on-one, it was difficult to lie about why I hadn’t done my homework. It was personal.
With five lessons a week, two hours each, I learnt the entire school curriculum of grammar in six months. I’m not a genius, but I am a committed student. I did at least one hour of homework every day.
Here are my tips:
You have to figure out how YOU learn a language. Maybe you’re an aural person and you can copy speech after hearing it. Maybe you’re a visual learner; you need to see it on the page. Do you need to know the structure of the language; the grammar and the way it works? Maybe you respond to learning from the vocabulary, starting with picture cards of cat and dog and chair? If you find the method that you like and it helps you to remember what you’re being taught, it will be so much easier.
Learn what is relevant to you. Learn words you need to know, learn stuff you want to know. Try to link learning the language with your other interests. If you read the sport section, find it in Portuguese instead. Cookbooks, Building Manuals, Portuguese versions of books you’ve read before (I nearly always buy a copy of The Little Prince, a book I never get tired of and is availiable in most languages) it will help you become interested and give you some motivation. Even a supermarket shop can be a lesson in itself. I used to spend hours in hardware shops with the shopkeeper apparently pleased to give me the Portuguese name for every last thing.
Go Full Immersion. It’s a bit of a brain spin, but you have to stuff as much in there as you can. And then you have to get it out and use it, and use it again and again before you forget it. The more exposure you can get to the language the more you’ll absorb passively. Watch movies in Portuguese or with subtitles, listen to the radio, read the newspapers and magazines. Surf the net. Even you if understand nothing at all at first, at least you’ll be getting familiar with the sound and the pace of the language. You will inevitably be able to pick out words you know… and then phrases and then eventually you’ll just be isolating all the words you don’t know.
Watch TV. The pictures really help! I learnt so much from watching the game show Millionaire in Portuguese. Also cartoons are good – they tend to speak clearly using fairly basic language with lots of inflexion. News is also good. You might find subtitled shows useful too, if only to see how sloppy the translations are…
Write it down. I don’t know about you, but my memory is crap. If I hear a new word I have to write it down. You have to learn the Portuguese alphabet so you can ask people to spell things for you.
Keep at it. You might feel like you’re learning nothing for a long time, but then you will have a breakthrough and realise you’ve learnt a lot. It happens gradually and it happens in waves. It takes time…be patient!
Love your teacher. If you don’t like them you won’t like learning. They say the best way to learn a language is to get a lover, but that may not be convenient! But it does help if you enjoy spending time with your teacher, and you like the sound of their voice, you think it’s cute when they correct you constantly, and you look forward to the next date, er, lesson. Becoming mates with my teacher really helped me. She’d take me on “school excursions” to meet her Brazilian friends in bars – very educating evenings…
Get a Brazilian! Seriously, some people find spoken Brazilian Portuguese easier to understand than European Portuguese. It’s prettier, more melodic and they don’t leave off half the syllables! Have a listen and see if you like it. Beware that at some stage you’re going to have to make the switch.
Learn Portuguese. I think it’s one of the most beautiful languages on Earth. It’s not hard, it just takes time.