I’ve noticed you’re pretty darn good at speaking your native language. Your grammar is impeccable. Your vocabulary is vast. Frankly, I’m impressed.
Can I ask what your secret is? Did you study flashcards when you were a child? Did you download Duolingo and use it daily?
Of course not.
When we’re babies, we don’t need formal teaching to learn a language. We learn naturally, through immersion.
Your family members made odd sounds with their mouths. And your little baby brain started to recognize patterns in those sounds.
For most of us, one of the first speech patterns we notice is a warm sound: ‘mama.’ This sound was used to refer to the sweet woman who took care of us. And by making a similar sound we could get the woman’s attention.
After you learned how to say ‘mama,’ you probably learned ‘dada,’ ‘ya,’ ‘no,’ and ‘hi!’ And then you tried stringing those words together into a sentence, just like you’d heard others do.
“Me ya want fire truck.”
“Hi dada, up now.”
“Yuck, no vegetables.”
Frankly, your grammar was terrible. But you were a little pattern recognizing machine, and over time your sentences sounded more and more like the patterns you heard your parents use.
“I want to ride in a fire truck.”
“Daddy, please pick me up.”
“These vegetables are gross and I’m not going to eat them!”
You were gaining an instinctive sense of grammar.
All humans excel at learning language naturally (without workbooks or flashcards or apps). It’s ingrained in human nature, fortified by thousands of years of evolution.
We can’t help it. Show me the laziest, most good-for-nothing newborn, and I guarantee you he’ll be talking in 5 years.
All humans who are exposed to language, learn language. (Only feral children don’t).
If you’d like to improve your Portuguese, set aside your flashcards for a few days and try learning language naturally, the way you did as a kid.
Learn about topics that interest you, rather than the topic covered in chapter 4 of your Beginner’s Portuguese workbook.
Immerse yourself in the Portuguese language. (You can do this from the comfort of your own home).
And practice speaking to other people, even when you’re a beginner and your language skills are akin to “Me ya want fire truck.”
Extra: 10 things you should consider if you are learning Portuguese
Learn Portuguese Faster with What Interests You
I often meet students who have been learning Portuguese for months, but struggle to have even a simple conversation.
So I ask what they are currently working on and their answers always perplex me.
One woman was learning fruit vocabulary. I guess her workbook had a section on fruit.
Being a disciplined student, she had created 50 flashcards with the English name of the fruit on one side, and the Portuguese name on the other.
Apple : maçã
Pineapple : abacaxi
Persimmon : caqui
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this approach to learning Portuguese…if your goal is to write a grocery list.
But if you want to connect with locals on your 3-month backpacking trip through Brazil…
Or you want to speak to your partner’s grandmother in her native language…
There’s a better way.
When babies learn to speak, they start with words that are most relevant to them. It’s no surprise that many people’s first words are “mama” and “dada.” Babies spend most of their time with their parents, so it’s useful to speak to them directly.
Babies then proceed to learn other words that are relevant to them such as the names of their favorite foods or toys, or common words like “yes” and “no.”
How often do you use ‘persimmon’ in a conversation?
Learn how to speak about topics that are relevant to YOU. If you’re allergic to pineapples, learn how to say ‘Sou alérgico a abacaxi.’ It’ll be useful throughout your trip so you can ensure you never get served a dish with pineapples.
But there’s no need to learn ‘apple’ and ‘persimmon’ and 47 other fruits that may never come up in conversation.
Plus, when you learn words that aren’t relevant to you, you end up forgetting them within a few months anyways. And all that time spent making and practicing flash cards will have been for nothing.
So what should you learn instead of fruit vocabulary?
Think about your everyday conversations with friends and family. Chances are, you tend to talk about things that interest you.
If you love soccer, learn basic soccer terminology so that you can talk to the guy sitting next to you at the bar as you watch Brazil v. Argentina.
(Your conversation will be a lot less fun if all you can talk about is persimmons…)
But no matter what you choose to learn, don’t just memorize a list of words. Language is meant to be learned in context.
In the next section, I’ll show you how to learn Portuguese faster from the comfort of your own home.
Immerse Yourself in Portuguese
Babies are immersed in their country’s language from the minute they are born. Your parents spoke it while they spoonfed you. Your siblings spoke it as they played ‘peekaboo’ with you.
Humans have a natural gift for picking up patterns, so over time you start to make sense of the words being spoken around you.
You recognize sounds that repeat, and notice that certain sounds are used in specific situations. Interesting, you think, except it’s more of a feeling because you don’t know the word ‘interesting’ yet.
Whether you’re a newborn or a retiree, immersing yourself in a language will rapidly accelerate your learning.
But newborns sure have it easy. After all, they are born into a community where everyone speaks their target language.
Adults who are learning a second language aren’t surrounded by friends and family who already speak their target language.
Fear not, my blossoming polyglot. You can still surround yourself with the Portuguese language through technology.
Phone and Social Media
Let’s face it, you probably check your phone more times a day than you talk to an Actual Human Being.
Why not change the language settings on your phone to Portuguese? Since you’re already so familiar with your phone, you’ll be able to navigate by relying on icons, memory and intuition. You’ll see a lot of new Portuguese words, but it will all be in the context of an interface you’ve been using for years. So you’ll have a sense of what an unfamiliar word might mean.
You can also use this technique with Facebook or other social media sites. Go to the settings and change the language to ‘Portuguese.’ Your friends’ posts will appear in the language they were posted in, but Facebook’s interface will be in Portuguese.
You can further immerse yourself by consuming Portuguese media like TV, podcasts, and music. Remember to choose media that genuinely interests you so that watching is a joy rather than a chore.
Repeat consumption is key. Immersing yourself for an hour once a year won’t get you anywhere. Babies are fully immersed in a language for almost a year before they utter a word.
Now, you’re a lot better at pattern recognition than a baby, so you won’t need a year to start speaking. But if you want immersion to make a difference, plan to consume Portuguese media for weeks or months.
Watching Portuguese clips is a great way to start immersing yourself in Portuguese.
If you are a complete beginner, you can turn on subtitles.
If you are intermediate, you can watch without subtitles and rely on the characters’ expressions and the context of the show to help you understand what’s going on. Watching without subtitles pushes you to listen closely to the dialogue and strain to make sense of it.
Follow these steps to find interesting TV clips:
1. Choose a topic you are interested in, like cooking or soccer.
2. Go to google translate to translate your topic into Portuguese. If you want to watch a cooking show, translate “cooking show.” (If you’re wondering, it’s programa de culinária).
3. Copy and paste the Portuguese version into YouTube.
4. Choose a clip that seems interesting.
5. If you are a beginner, turn on auto-translated subtitles. Click the ‘CC’ button, then click the settings icon → Subtitles / CC → Auto-Translate → Portuguese. Note: some videos will not include a ‘CC’ button. This means the video’s owner disabled closed captioning. In that case, look for another video.
6. If the actors are speaking too quickly, lower the speed of the video to 75% or 50%. Click the settings icon → Speed → .75.
Doesn’t watching a captivating TV show sound a lot more fun than going through 100 flashcards?
And this method really works. My Serbian friend came across a Spanish soap opera in high school while she was flipping channels. She got hooked on the absurd plotlines and constant drama and soon found herself addicted.
She followed the soap for years and inadvertently learned conversational Spanish. After some formal lessons to help tighten up her language skills, she pursued a master’s in business from a university in Spain. The curriculum was 100% in Spanish.
But how do you immerse yourself in a language as an adult?
If you’re an intermediate Portuguese learner, you may want to listen to Portuguese podcasts. I like to throw on a podcast in the background while I do dishes and other chores.
There are a thousand ways. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Change your cell phone to Portuguese (or any language you are trying to learn).
2. Change your Facebook too.
3. Find a binge-worthy Portuguese TV show. (If you like cooking shows, try Masterchef Brasil).
4. Look for a podcast on a subject you’re interested in.
5. Go on LyricsTraining.com and look for Portuguese music in your favorite genre. (I explain how to use Lyrics Training in this video).
6. Go on Meetup.com and search for Portuguese language meetups in your town.
The great thing about music is that you don’t have to understand the lyrics to enjoy it. That’s why I encourage even beginner Portuguese learners to listen to Portuguese music. It’s also a fun way to learn about traditional Brazilian culture or modern Brazilian pop culture.
If you’re interested in traditional culture, listen to original Brazilian genres like samba, sertanejo or bossa nova. I’ve met a lot of foreigners who enjoy The Girl From Ipanema or Reggae bands such as Maneva, Natiruts.
Or if you prefer modern music, just search on Letras.mus.br for Brazilian singers, favorite genre, such as “Portuguese Samba music” or “Portuguese Sertanejo.”, you will be able to see the lyrics and sing along =).
Living in Brazil
Sometimes people assume that they will naturally learn Portuguese faster just by spending time in a Portuguese-speaking country. After all, living in a Brazil means being completely immersed in Portuguese, right?
Wrong. totally wrong, many visitors never immerse themselves and become frustrated.
As they stand in awe of Iguazu Falls they talk to their significant other. In their native language.
They relax in the evenings by scrolling through their Facebook page and watching their favorite TV shows on Netflix in their native language!
Immersion is not something that happens naturally in our current technological era. If you’d like to learn Portuguese quicker and improve your pronunciation, you must intentionally immerse yourself, whether you’re living in Brazil or at home.
Practice, Even If You Sound Dumb
Tourists are often embarrassed by their Portuguese, fearing that they sound silly. They hang back in conversations. They may communicate with shopkeepers with hand gestures rather than using what little Portuguese they do know.
Contrast this with kids who will smile at total strangers and tell them “Me made poop.”
Kids aren’t embarrassed by their atrocious grammar (…or their bowel movements). And why should they be? They’re beginners. Just. Like. You.
Language is like any other skill. When you want to get better at playing the guitar, you practice. When you want to get better at salsa dancing, you grab a partner and hit the dance floor.
If you want to become a better Portuguese speaker, practice speaking Portuguese. You may make grammatical mistakes. You’ll probably sound like an ogre who recently suffered a concussion.
Who cares? You are a beginner. You’re not supposed to know how to speak Portuguese, by definition.
If you’re visiting Brazil, practice with every single person you meet.
If you’re taking Portuguese lessons in your home country, practice with your teacher. If you’re teaching yourself Portuguese through a workbook or app, find people online who will practice with you. There are dedicated sites for this as you will see here.
Most people won’t care if your Portuguese is awkward. People care about what you have to say, not how you say it. Imagine you’re at your first sit-down dinner in Brazil and your waiter mentions that he loves Antonio Carlos Jobim. If you’re able to chat with him about your favorite bossa nova songs, he’ll be interested…regardless of your grammatical fails.
(In fact, if you struggle with a sentence, he may even reword the sentence in perfect Portuguese. In this way, he’s inadvertently teaching you to speak better.)
Your conversation will be a lot more memorable than a conversation that’s grammatically correct but boring as hell. (“What are your favorite fruits? Mine are apples, pineapples, and persimmons.”)
If workbooks and flashcards are working for you, then by all means, stick with it.
But if you’re feeling bored or unhappy with your progress, try learning Portuguese like a child would. The way humans have naturally learned language for thousands of years.
1. Only study topics that interest YOU. Don’t just follow some arbitrary curriculum from a one-size-fits-all workbook.
2. Immerse yourself in Portuguese. Set your social media sites to Portuguese and start watching Portuguese TV and listening to Portuguese podcasts and music.
3. Practice speaking Portuguese with anyone who’ll listen. Even if it’s just your cat.
Good luck on your language learning adventure!