How To Learn Portuguese

Portuguese is considered by many to be the sixth most spoken language in the world with speakers in the hundreds of millions. I learned Portuguese after having already learned Spanish. In this post I discuss how to learn Portuguese, but first, where is the language spoken mostly?

Portuguese in Brazil

How To Learn Portuguese

Some may not know that Brazilians speak Portuguese. There is no Brazilian language, there is Portuguese.

If you want to go there and have just enough of the language to say hello and be friendly with people, then all you need to do is buy a phrasebook, try to memorize three, four or five expressions and that’s all you’ll be able to do.

I had this experience when I went to Vietnam. After six or seven days, all I could say was thank you, please and goodbye, that’s about it. We just can’t absorb a lot of the language, at least my brain can’t, all that quickly.

However, if you really want to get into the language, which I highly recommend, there are 200 million people in Brazil. A great place to visit, or so I’ve been told.

Portuguese is an important language in the world and it’s very similar to Spanish. If you’re interested in learning Spanish, you should check out my How Long Does it Take To Learn Spanish post. But, if you already know Spanish, then learning Portuguese is easier for you, insofar as the vocabulary is concerned. If you learn Portuguese first, you can then learn Spanish, French, Italian, the other romance languages.

 

Get a (Very Simple) Grammar Book

So what would be the first tip on learning Portuguese? I would recommend that you get yourself the Portuguese Verbs & Essentials of Grammar. When it comes to grammar books, the smaller and simpler the better. You also want a grammar book with examples of how the language is used and without any drills or exercises.

It’s a resource that you go back to again and again because you can’t absorb all the grammar rules and all the endings the first time, not even the second time. You go back and you go back and every time you pick up a little more.

Generally speaking, there are a number of things that Portuguese does differently from Spanish. For example, if you’re familiar with romance languages, typically the auxiliary verb to indicate the past tense, is “avoir” in French, “haber” in Spanish, but in Portuguese they use “tener”. So that becomes the auxiliary verb and you have to get used to that.

There are some funny things they do. For example, ‘to think’ is not only “pensar”, it’s often ”achar”. Then they have very handy words like “ficar” which is ‘to be’,or ‘to get’. It’s has a lot of different meanings that you have to get used to in context.

There are lots of things to discover when learning Portuguese that make it a very interesting language. They have interesting uses of the infinitive that we don’t find in other languages. They have a personal infinitive and then they have future subjunctive that kind of looks like the infinitive. All of these things are there and they’re explained in great detail in books like Portuguese Verbs & Essentials of Grammar, but you should also have a few go-to sites for any language you’re learning. For example, if you were to Google “Portuguese grammar”, you could find tons of free resources giving you chapter and verse on learning Portuguese grammar.

However, you can’t learn the grammar from the get-go. Therefore, I would still recommend that you expose yourself to the language. There is a lot of beginner material for Portuguese on LingQ.

 

Which Portuguese Should You Learn?

Some people wonder before they start studying Portuguese, should I learn the Portuguese from Portugal or the Portuguese from Brazil?

My own experience and my opinion is that, in a way, when you start out it doesn’t really matter. Even though the pronunciation is quite different, probably the pronunciation in Brazil is easier because they pronounce all of the vowels, all of the syllables, which the Portuguese from Portugal don’t. The Portuguese sometimes kind of chew them, they don’t pronounce them. So there are some difficulties there. There are some issues in terms of how the ‘r’ is pronounced. You’ll discover, in fact, that the ‘r’ is sometimes a rolled ‘r’ and sometimes a guttural ‘r’ and it varies depending on where you are.

All of these things are difficult to notice at first. You shouldn’t be trying to notice too many things; you just want to get some words. When I start out, I’m motivated to work my way through whatever content I’m listening to and reading. I was using Living Language when I was learning Portuguese as we didn’t yet have the language on LingQ, and I thought, oh, it’s easy: I’ll just convert my Spanish to Portuguese. Then I realized it’s not that easy because you have to change your habits.

If you’re a Spanish speaker, whether a native speaker or speaking Spanish as a second language as is my case, you have to change your habits. We’re kind of reluctant to let go of the comfort of Spanish, so to try and just pick up a few phrases like, oh, they say this in Portuguese instead of this is not going to do it, in my experience anyway.

So I wasted a lot of time trying to just pick up the few ways in which Portuguese is different from Spanish, and then I went to Portugal and hoped that I would be able to speak. But I wasn’t able to speak at all, even though I’d spent weeks or months doing a lot of listening to Portuguese.

 

Always Learn From Interesting Content

What worked was when, at LingQ, we had someone in Brazil who created a lot of content about taking her kids to the zoo and things like that, interesting content. We got Café Brasil and a lot of good content like that and then I found some wonderful podcasts from Portugal, so I was mixing them both.

Mostly, I was interested in tuning myself to how they structure the language and how they express things. It’s different. They use ‘tu’ the singular form in Portugal; in Brazil they mostly only use the “Voce”, which is the third person for ‘you’. There are a lot of things like that and you’ll eventually get used to it.

I think a person should do a lot of listening and reading in both the written forms. It doesn’t matter if you pick up a book written by Paulo Coelho, it’s not obvious (in terms of any dialogue) whether it’s Portugal or Brazil. Go for both and then at some point decide which accent you want to focus on.

I had lot of fun with learning Portuguese, and studying it helped with my Spanish. Although, in an initial period my Spanish knowledge kind of held me back. If you’re already a speaker of another romance language, then add another arrow in your quiver. If you’re starting from scratch and you want to go to Brazil or Portugal, do the Portuguese, it will open the door to other romance languages. It’s a language that’s well worth studying.

 

What Motivates You to Learn Portuguese?

The main tip I have on learning a language is, first of all, get motivated. Every person has to discover the language on their own and stay with it until they achieve what they want to achieve. Fluency is achievable, especially if you’re studying on LingQ. That’s why we’re thinking of changing the slogan to “All the Way to Fluency!”

So if you want to get to fluency, go for it. Portuguese for an English speaker is a relatively easy language to learn and for a speaker of other romance languages extremely easy, but not a slam dunk, you’ve got to work at it.

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I learned Portuguese on LingQ. Join us and power up your language learning.

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4 comments on “How To Learn Portuguese

Patrick O'Rourke

I’ve even trying to learn portuguese for 2 years and 10 months and it’s the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve been to Brasil 12 times now and my girlfriend lives there. I can only say a few things like you mentioned. Hello good bye please and thank you. I can order water and say a few other things. My girlfriend only peaks English with me because I can’t speak Portuguese and it’s very frustrating. We were never taught much English grammar terms in school so I don’t understand much like “infinitive, subjunctive, preposition, articles” or any of that which makes it difficult when reading rules in books. What can I do? The more I try the more confusion it seems to create. Thanks! Pat

    @Steve: Great article! Portuguese is a beautiful language. I recently moved to Lisbon and I’m trying to switch from the Brazilian form that I learned to the European form that I want to speak now.

    Re: this sentence:

    **They use ‘tu’ the singular form in Portugal; in Brazil they mostly only use the “Voce”, which is the third person for ‘you’.**

    Você is not the third person for you. You is always the second person. Você is a formal form of the second person singular in Portugal but is the informal form of the second person singular in Brazil. It takes the same conjugation as the third person singular (ele/ela – he/she), but it is not the third person itself.

    @Patrick: It’s true that in your native language, you don’t need to learn or know grammar. But it’s obviously very helpful when learning foreign languages. Maybe you should become more familiar with English grammar first and then apply that knowledge to Portuguese. In answer to your specific terms:

    infinitive: the full form of the verb, unconjugated. So an English example of an infinitive is ‘to speak’. The Portuguese equivalent is ‘falar’. Within the verb falar, there are many other forms, e.g. ‘eu falo’ is ‘I speak’. But falar is the infinitive form.

    subjunctive: a verb tense especially prevalent in the Romance languages such as Portuguese and one that is related to uncertainty or doubt. We don’t really have it in English (although it does exist in some minor forms such as ‘I recommend that he go there’ (i.e. not ‘goes’, as it usually is after he). In Portuguese the various subjunctive forms can follow trigger words like ‘que’ and ‘se’. At the level you’re at, the subjunctive is not important because you will be understood without it, but learning a set phrase or two with the subjunctive can be helpful, e.g. to say ‘if you want’ in Portuguese uses the subjunctive: ‘se você quiser’, rather than the indicative (standard) ‘se você quer’.

    prepositions: my non-academic definition is ‘little words’. Things like on, in, by, under, etc. They are used to form phrases and give context (often spatial, e.g. ‘on the fridge’ and ‘in the fridge’ mean different things).

    articles: there are two forms in English: the definite article (the) and the indefinite article (a, an). The Portuguese equivalents are o/a (and plurals os/as) for the definite article and um/uma for the indefinite article. The definite article is when there is only one of something (.e.g ‘the sun’, not ‘a sun’) or when it’s very clear that you’re talking about a specific unit. So if you have a dog, you would say, “I’m going to walk the dog,” because it’s obvious that you can only be referring to the specific dog that is your pet. But in another context you might say, ‘I’m going to buy a dog,’ because it’s not clear exactly which dog you’re talking about.

    Boa sorte!

    Name *cm

    Hi Pat! Sorry your having troubles. I’m learning Portuguese too. I haven’t been to Brazil yet, but I joined a Portuguese speaking church in my hometown. I was very lucky to find it. I have noticed though that language habits form very quickly with different people…one of my friends speaks Portuguese to me and I have the bad habit of answering her in English. The easiest people to talk to are the ones that don’t speak any English. Then I have to use Portuguese. But I totally understand the silent frustration having a native Portuguese speaker talking to you in English and you are too tongue tied to say something in Portuguese and your hoping and praying they will change to Portuguese! As far as grammer goes, I barely know what an adjective is! I read alot of Portuguese everyday and somehow it helps me understand spoken Portuguese better. I have spent 1-2 hours everyday for the last 400 days watching Portuguese videos on youtube. I watch the news, documentaries etc with the Portuguese closed captions on. Its helped tremendously. The better I understand what people say, the better I can speak. Language learning has the lowest lows and the highest highs. This is the first foreign language I’ve tried to learn. Seasoned veterans like Steve have great advice. He doesn’t panic even when he temporarily forgets an entire language!

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