Tips on Learning Portuguese
Tips on Learning Portuguese
Many of us are watching the Olympics in Brazil. Despite all of the bad reports that we always get in the lead up to any Olympic Games – some British newspaper called the 2010 Vancouver Winter games the worst Olympics in the world ever, then there were all the problems with toilets in Sochi and now pollution in Rio – it looks like actually things are proceeding swimmingly, so to speak.
People ask, if I go to Brazil, can I communicate? What language do they speak? First of all, some may not know that Brazilians speak Portuguese. There’s no Brazilian language, there is Portuguese. If you want to go there and just have 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. There’s Portugal, which I know is a lovely place to visit. It’s 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 Tips on learning Spanish blog 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.
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, maybe through a beginner book like Teach Yourself. You can also go to LingQ, our site where we have a lot of beginner material for Portuguese.
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.
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.
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.