“I Want to Learn Portuguese!” The Champion’s Guide to Getting Started Right
Portuguese is by far the easiest language I’ve learned.
That’s because I found it the most compelling language to learn.
Identifying a personal connection to Portuguese is the key making everything else flow easily as you set out on this rewarding linguistic adventure.
In this post we’ll look at what sorts of overarching motivations are best for learning Portuguese, and how to tie those to our weekly goals and the tools that we use to achieve them.
- Identifying Your Motivations for Learning Portuguese
- Achievable Short-term Portuguese Goals
- Tools for Learning Portuguese
- Staying Motivated as You Learn
Identifying Your Motivations for Learning Portuguese
You probably have a few reasons already identified for wanting to learn Portuguese. Not all motivations are equal, however, in terms of their effects on learning. Consider the following common motivations for learning Portuguese:
- “I want Portuguese on my CV.”
- “Portuguese would be an easy language to add after Spanish.”
- “It would be sexy as hell to sing in Portuguese.”
These might well be true motivations, but they’re not good motivations because they’re not going to give you any concrete need to understand or communicate. Contrast those motivations with these:
- “I want to understand Brazilian music.”
- “I want to seduce my Brazilian sweetheart.”
- “I want to meet people and dance marabenta in Mozambique.”
- “I want to enjoy samba rock parties in São Paulo.”
- “I want to be able make sales to Portuguese clients.”
These are the motivations that not only focus you in on certain structures and vocabulary, they give you compelling reasons to continue when you’re months or years deep into your study and the going gets rough.
Having specific motivations is also important as you need to choose what variety of Portuguese you want to focus on. Trying to learn both European and Brazilian Portuguese at the same time can be quite confusing. If you want to learn both, I’d recommend focusing on one and adding the other later. Note that people in Portugal tend to speak English very well, and Brazilians much less so, so for many anglophones Brazilian Portuguese is a more practical choice.
Achievable Short-term Portuguese Goals
The motivation(s) that you settle on must then be translated into achievable short-term goals. If your goals relate to music, you might early on try learning the lyrics to simpler songs like this classic below, “Trem das onze” by Adoniran Barbosa.
If your motivations relate to business, a good early step is to simply be able to place a phone call in formal Portuguese and ask to be called back.
As you work forward, you’ll of course learn grammar too, but it’s nice to think of those lessons as shortcuts that are helping you get closer to your ultimate objective, which is to be able to communicate with Brazilian sambistas, Angolan capoeira clubs or whomever. To give one example, knowing how to conjugate the subjunctive is going to come in handy when you want to tell people about your desires: which song you’d like to play, what capoeira training you’d like to do, etc.
Tools for Learning Portuguese
Your goals will of course determine the tools that you use. Here are the most common and important tools for Portuguese, and how you can connect them back to the principal motivations that you’ve identified.
Portuguese classes, lessons and language exchanges
Almost everyone who learns Portuguese wants to be able to speak (as opposed to just read) in the language, so you’re going to want some sort of interaction with others, preferably native speakers, as you learn.
Online tutoring has the advantages of connecting you to individual teachers from Portuguese-speaking areas at the time that works well for you, and usually at a lower cost than language schools and university classes. The popular italki platform is a good place to find those teachers, and it can also connect you with language exchange partners for free.
A textbook/self-teaching guide with exercises
You (perhaps along with your teachers) can select a book that fits with your goals. It’s extremely important to select a book that focuses on the variety of Portuguese (European or Brazilian) that matches your motivations, and the accent that your teacher has—otherwise you’re in for a world of confusion.
One book I highly recommend for those who want to speak to Brazilians is “A Grammar of Spoken Brazilian Portuguese,” but if your goals are more literary or formal you’ll want a more traditional academic textbook.
Videos for learning Portuguese
As I imagine I’ve made pretty clear by now, if you have any taste at all you already listen to lusophone music. And you may have heard of YouTube? Next time you’re on there, also Google the name of the song you love plus letra (lyrics) and you’ll get the text of the lyrics; for popular bossa nova songs you can often also find translations into English. Next, memorize and practice using any new vocabulary you learn in new contexts.
Another resource for learning Brazilian Portuguese is the language learning program FluentU. It combines short authentic clips with interactive subtitles that explain vocabulary in context. The words you learn can be saved as multimedia flashcards and reviewed through personalized quizzes.
Even if your goals are purely oral/musical, written materials can be useful for learning, as they provide a visual and tactile experience with the language. It’s easier to start out with the short texts and stories in textbooks, but as you advance you can move on to short stories, magazines, blogs, etc.
Whatever you read in English, there are great things out there for you in Portuguese as well. Here is one guide to classic literature that is available free for download, and here is a website with the Grimm brothers’ stories in Portuguese.
For pure memorization of trickier grammar points or of the vocabulary which is key to your overall motivation but that you’re afraid you’ll forget, traditional flashcards can work wonders.
You can also download a free app like Anki and create flashcards for it, which you can then work through in your spare toilet or metro moments, instead of swiping right on people you’ll never love, or crushing electro-candies.
Staying Motivated as You Learn
If you have strong, personal motivations for learning Portuguese and your week-to-week goals and tools flow directly out of them as described above, it should be relatively easy to stay motivated over the long haul. Keeping that motivation at the forefront makes it easier to choose what you want to learn, to remember and integrate what you do, and to keep the entire process a lot of fun.
That said, it can also help for many to have a regular routine. Most people find that language learning works best if it’s something that happens every day—for at least 15 minutes. This way you’re constantly coming back to what you’ve learned and you’re less likely to forget it. If you’re on a regular plan, you’ll also notice that you’re humming samba rock songs to yourself on the subway, and thinking about Brazilian plans and issues even in your “off” hours.
As Barbosa sings—and as many rodas de samba (samba jam circles) also tend to belt out at the end of the night: não posso ficar, nem mais um minuto, com você (I can’t stay for even a minute more with you). But I hope this has given you a jumping off point for connecting your own quality personal motivations to short-term goals and the tools you need to achieve them as you learn Portuguese. Whatever those motivations are, you’re lucky to have chosen a language that’s pretty darn easy to stick with.
Mose Hayward writes frequently about Brazilian culture, including this guide to attaining fluent-seeming Portuguese in just 20 minutes, from gestures to slobbery Brazilian kisses to question tags.