Portuguese is the only language I have learned which I didn’t take any formal classes or have any tutors for. And I can say I am now reasonable proficient, able to hold a conversation and understand most of what’s going on in daily life. So how did I get to this point? How did I teach myself Portuguese? The answer is it was a long and mostly solitary journey. But if you want to know how to learn Portuguese, these are the steps I took.
I want to preface by saying I didn’t not take formal Portuguese language courses by choice. I like the structure and comradery of the classroom environment and they have worked well for me learning other languages. But unfortunately, Portuguese isn’t a very common language to learn in New Zealand. There were no Portuguese classes on offer at my high school, and my University had one basic class which didn’t fit in my timetable. So if I wanted to learn Portuguese, I didn’t really have much choice. And I really wanted to learn Portuguese.
Pre-conditions before I started learning Portuguese:
Before I started learning Portuguese, I already spoke Spanish fluently. I had decided that I wanted to learn Spanish well before I started pursuing Portuguese as I didn’t want to get confused between the two. That plan didn’t exactly work out (but that’s another story for another day…). But my knowledge of Spanish did greatly help me to pick up Portuguese more quickly. This is mostly because of the shared vocabulary, but also because of the similar grammatical structures.
Of course, my fluency in Spanish is not the only thing I did to learn Portuguese. Knowing Spanish will not automatically make you good at Portuguese, as many people seem to think. They are two separate languages that need to be learned as such. However it’s important to note that I wasn’t exactly starting from square one when I started learning Portuguese. Having said that, the method I followed to learn Portuguese is pretty much the same one I would use to learn any language, even a completely new one.
I think of my learning of Portuguese as something that took place across a few phases – a few steps I progressively took towards becoming fluent in the language.
Step 1: Learn basic grammar and pronunciation
Focus: Pronunciation and grammar – develop basic understanding of language
Method: Pimsleur, Grammar books
The first thing I did was to learn and thoroughly understand how the grammar works in Portuguese. I am in the minority that actually enjoy learning grammar – it fascinates me. But whether or not that’s you, learning grammar is a vital foundation to learning any language, and it will help you a lot as you get further along in the language. Learning it first means you’ll be well ahead of others of your level when it comes to understanding what people say, and even when it comes to making mistakes.
How to teach yourself grammar
I knew the grammar of Portuguese would be similar to Spanish, but I also knew there were quirks and differences, so I didn’t want to rely on that. So what I did was buy one basic Portuguese grammar book and one book which teaches Portuguese from a Spanish speaker’s perspective. The books I got to start me off were Portuguese in Three Months and Pois Não .
Review of the grammar books I used to teach myself Portuguese
Portuguese in Three Months was an alright book but I bought it focuses because I wanted to find out more about both European and Brazilian Portuguese. It had some good grammar explainers but I later found out it was only telling you the grammar commonly used in Portugal, and not Brazil. Nonetheless, it was a good place to start from to learn the basic structures and vocabulary from scratch. The book takes you through basically all the grammar, starting from the most basic to the more complex. This is great, but I should state that I don’t think this book (or anything for that matter) can actually teach you a language in 3 months – and here’s why.
Pois Não is a great book for Spanish speakers to learn Portuguese. It is aimed at native Spanish speakers who know English, but it worked just fine for me as a native English speaker who knows Spanish, too. This book is written by Brazilian linguist Antônio Roberto Monteiro Simões and points out all the specific differences between Spanish and Portuguese. This includes differences in grammar and pronunciation, and there is even a CD which explains the differences in pronunciation. I found this was a way to teach myself Portuguese faster because there is so many similarities from Spanish that I could use once I knew what the differences were.
So what I did was try to spend an hour or two per week going through the books, making some notes, doing the exercises, and self-correcting.
How to teach yourself pronunciation
At the same time as I was studying grammar, I was also learning the pronunciation of Brazilian Portuguese through the audio course, Pimsleur.
Pimsleur is slow and I wouldn’t recommend it on its own to learn a language, but it is without a doubt a great way to learn pronunciation and copy the Brazilian accent with better precision. This was great as I could learn Portuguese to pass the time while I was on the bus or the train. It worked really well for me. Pimsleur recommends you to speak out loud, though, so some people might prefer to do this while in the car or at home. The problem is that it can get quite tedious, so you might zone out if you have nothing else to do simultaneously. I did all three levels of Brazilian Portuguese that were on offer at the time, and it may have taken around six months to finish everything.
Step 2: Listening comprehension
Focus: Listening comprehension – understanding spoken Portuguese in context
Method: Watching movies and shows in Portuguese, listen to music
Once I had something of a grasp on the Portuguese grammar and sounds, I was able to move on to consuming materials. I started with spoken material, but this step is really interchangeable in its order with reading. To decide which one to focus on first, you should think about what your goals are for the language (for example, if you’re learning it for university study, reading might be more important, but if you’re learning it to interact with people, listening will probably be more useful).
I started by watching children’s programmes. This is a good starting point because the language used in those is generally simpler and the themes are more related to everyday life than many adult shows are. I don’t tend to watch things that were made in other languages and just dubbed into Portuguese, as they never feel as natural as native Portuguese shows and movies are. Also, you’ll learn more about the culture and behaviour when you watch something that is a Portuguese original. Don’t worry – there is plenty to choose from, with Brazil having one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world.
To start off, the Brazilian much-loved classic children’s show Sítio do Picapau Amarelo is an awesome show and it is on Youtube. Then there are the renowned movies like Cidade de Deus and Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho. Although nowadays, the easiest things is probably just to look things up on Netflix. There are plenty of great Portuguese shows popping up on Netflix. Some of my favourites are 3% and Oniciente. Brazilians are also big on Youtube, so you can find some great channels on there, too.
Another thing you can do to improve listening comprehension is listen to music in Portuguese. I have written a post about the best songs in Portuguese to get you started.
How to improve your listening by watching shows and movies:
Watch with Portuguese subtitles and make notes of the words and phrases you don’t understand, look them up. Also, make sure that what you are watching is adequate for your level – the general rule of thumb is about 80% of the words should be familiar and about 20% should be unfamiliar. If it is too easy, you won’t learn very much and if it’s too hard, you will just get lost.
Step 3: Reading
Focus: Reading comprehension – understanding written Portuguese in different contexts.
Method: Reading news articles, social media posts, memes, children’s books
Reading in Portuguese was the next skill that I slowly developed. There is no shortage of written Portuguese language material to devour, but these are the main resources I used.
1. Social media
I started by just joining forums and groups on social media that were majority Brazilian. This got me used to the more colloquial written Portuguese. It also helped develop my understanding of the Brazilian culture and the way Brazilians think.
I also started frequenting Brazilian news sites like Globo/G1 and BBC Portuguese. These kinds of sites obviously utilise a completely different type of language to the more colloquial social media style. So it was good to see how much the formal language differs from the informal in Portuguese (spoiler alert: a lot). This also helped me to understand more about Brazilian politics and current events, which washes over into the culture a lot.
3. Children’s books
Another thing that can be fun to do and is a totally different diction again, is books. Just like I do with shows and movies, I start by reading children’s books. Children’s books use simpler language and tend to explain things more. Once your reading comprehension improves, you can move on to something a little more advanced. Again, I prefer native Portuguese materials over translated ones, but that’s just me.
Here are some books written in Portuguese that you may enjoy:
- Malala – A Menina Que Queria Ir Para a Escola is a book I have just finished. It is written by a Brazilian journalist and is aimed at children. It is the true story of the Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai who campaigned for her right to attend school as a child.
- Menina Bonita is a lovely uplifting story about a girl who loves her dark skin so much she wants to make sure her own child is just as dark. Again, this is written for children with straightforward language.
- Turma da Monica is a much-loved Brazilian comic book series for young children. The link is for a few of the released comics rolled into one paperback book, so you’ll have plenty to get through.
How to improve your reading with books and articles:
When reading more so than watching, you can focus on every single word you don’t understand and increase your vocabulary more rapidly. Even if you understand the context of something you’re reading, whenever you come across a word you don’t know, just look it up. If you can’t look it up, at least make note and look it up later. You can make notes or a list of the words and revise them later. If you have the patience, read the text again later and make sure you remember all the words.
Step 4: Writing
Focus: Writing ability, communicating with native speakers
Method: Conversation partners Conversationexchange, Couchsurfing, Facebook Whatsapp
Now that I had studied and consumed the language immensely, it was time to start producing it actively. I started by finding some language exchange partners on Couchsurfing and Conversation Exchange and chatting to them on Whatsapp. There were not many native Portuguese speakers living in my area – which is fine, because I only really wanted to txt at that point anyway.
Why writing before speaking? This is again a personal preference, but I like to feel fairly confident in the language I’m learning before I start speaking it. By writing, I can get people to point out my mistakes in a non-confrontational environment. I can also think more about the sentences I am producing before they come out.
How to improve your writing with practice:
With writing, the important thing is to not get complacent. With this I mean, don’t just write using the words and structures you know how to use. Instead, think about what you really want to say and then do your best to find out how to say it. If you write something wrong, it’s a low pressure environment so no stress! Before you start talking, you can ask your chat partner to correct any mistakes you make, so that way you learn more each time you make one.
Step 5: Comprehension and Speaking
Focus: Listening comprehension and speaking ability, oral communication
Method: Immersion, listening, speaking for necessity
Eventually, it is time to start using the language orally. The best way to do this, at least for me, is to put yourself in a situation where you are forced to speak the language and where you have plenty of opportunities to speak it. There are a few ways you can do this.
The most obvious thing to do is travel to the countries where Portuguese is spoken. But just getting on a plane isn’t enough – you need to make sure you are creating an immersion environment for yourself. Here’s how to make the most out of your travels to learn a language.
If travel isn’t something you can or want to do at the moment, there are other ways to learn. Something I’ve found effective is finding native speakers who live in your local area to meet up with. Spending time with groups of people who are native Portuguese speakers is another immersion environment you can create. Look on language exchange websites, go to language exchange meet-ups. You never know, someone from the Brazilian community in your area might even be looking for a flatmate or something.
3. Video chats
If you don’t have any native speakers in your local area, you are going to have to push yourself a little more to make sure you speak. Find language exchange partners online who are happy to do video chats or phone calls. These people might be wanting to learn English or another language you speak, though, so you will need to make an effort to make sure you get your chance to practise as well.
I did a combination of those things minus the online chats. The first time I properly went to Brazil, I stayed with a Brazilian family for two weeks via Workaway. This was a great way to immerse myself in the culture and become more familiar with the language. When travelling Brazil outside of that, I was able to ask people for instructions and navigate a local market by myself. I’ve written about this experience in my post about learning Portuguese in Brazil.
A few months after that I moved to Melbourne, and that is where I started doing language exchanges and attending meet-ups, and where I eventually met my now husband.
Step 6: Refine & Improve
Focus: Fluency and proficiency
Method: Immersion, advanced study
Once you’ve got to the point where you are able to have basic conversations and get by, it can be easy to give up on learning any more. Many people reach a plateau when they are at the intermediate level, which means that advancing more becomes harder and harder. But if you want to truly reach fluency, you should keep up your momentum. Basically, the way to do this is repeat all the steps above, but at more advanced levels.
For example, read up more on grammar points that you still haven’t fully grasped, and do some exercises. Watch Brazilian movies and shows without subtitles. Read more advanced books aimed at adults (Paulo Coelho is a good author to try). Travel to Brazil and spend more time there if you can, making genuine connections with people and using the language in more diverse and creative ways.
I am in this stage at the moment. I’ve been to Brazil twice last year and each time I was basically fully immersed in the language and culture. It’s easier for me now because I have a Brazilian partner, so I am around his friends and fmaily all the time while we’re there. I even planned and held my wedding in Brazil, so I talked to a lot of the vendors, attended meetings, and negotiated contracts.
You don’t need a Brazilian partner to be immersed in Portuguese, though. As long as you have friends or a job/study in Brazil, and are interacting with people on a daily basis for a decent period of time, you will get there!
So, that’s how I taught myself Portuguese. Now I am at the stage where I can have genuine and interesting conversations from a variety of people from different backgrounds. I can understand written and spoken Portuguese pretty well in different contexts. I feel that I have done pretty well, but I also know that I am still learning and there is always more room to improve!
Are you learning Portuguese? If so, which stage are you at? Let me know in the comments below.
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