I concur with David Nunan when he calls listening “the Cinderella of second language learning.”
Listening is always lying in the shadows of her older stepsisters: speaking, reading and writing.
While there’s undoubtedly value in being able to communicate in your target language, to speak well, you need to know how to listen well.
This means that if you want to speak well in Portuguese, lots of Portuguese listening practice should precede your speaking practice.
We’re living in the golden age of language acquisition through technology, so the internet is also here to help you in your quest.
In this post, I’ve laid out the five hacks for Portuguese listening practice that helped me master the skill and will do the same for you. I also include plenty of online resources to help you put these listening hacks to good use.
So, grab those headphones and let’s get to it!
The Benefits of Portuguese Listening Practice
We’ve already mentioned that listening improves your speaking skills. You can’t respond to something if you didn’t understand, can you?
But if you still need more convincing, there are plenty of other benefits to practicing your Portuguese listening skills:
- It makes you more confident. Building your listening skills will help push you to actually start speaking the language because hey, if you can recognize and understand a word by its sound (pesky nasal phonemes aside), you might as well say it out loud.
- It allows you to have authentic Portuguese interactions. Whether it’s through Brazilian cooking shows or with real-life encounters with native Portuguese speakers, learning to listen means using real-world Portuguese resources.
This, in turn, means you become exposed to the language as it’s actually used, so you can be better prepared for real-world interactions “in the wild.”
- It gives you a sense of accomplishment. You can really see how much you’ve progressed in your studies when you understand every word of something that was gibberish just a short while ago!
And if you’re not into the boot-camp way of learning—where you’re constantly training, drilling and quizzing yourself—and you prefer a more progressive kind of immersion, know that there are plenty of ways to jump-start your listening fluency.
Below are five fun ways to improve your Portuguese listening skills that really get the job done.
Improve Your Portuguese Listening Skills with 5 Practice Hacks
1. Give Yourself Specific Tasks
While it’s never a bad idea to just use Portuguese audio as background noise (as we’ll see later in this post), active listening is important for actually pushing your learning forward.
But just listening isn’t enough. For targeted, constructive learning, you’ll need to give yourself specific assignments for every listening study session.
Why Assignments Work
The tasks you give yourself will force you to practice active listening, since they’ll give any listening activity a concrete and immediate purpose.
The listening experience is much more productive when you’re looking for specific information in what’s being communicated to you.
If you’re already using an online Portuguese course, reading a textbook or taking a local class in Portuguese, you might have noticed that most listening exercises include comprehension questions. These usually require you to recognize and discriminate between different aspects of the message, such as context, names, details or even specific words.
How to Improve Listening Comprehension with Assignments
Some activities are practical, requiring you to pinpoint the places you’re hearing about on a map or fill in a form with the details listed in the recording. Others may just be sets of questions you have to answer based on what you’ve heard.
Whatever the case may be, it’s very important that you determine the exact tasks or questions before the actual listening happens, as this will allow you to be more strategic about your listening. Trying to view and answer questions only after listening isn’t a comprehension activity; it’s a memory activity.
You can easily find relevant tasks for audio (see the resources below for a few options) but when you’re having a conversation in Portuguese or listening to audio of your own choice, you’ll need to assign your own tasks beforehand.
For example, when you start a new conversation you might decide to find out about your conversation partner’s family, job or hobbies. If you’re listening to a Brazilian Portuguese podcast, you might task yourself with summarizing the information after you finish listening, or finding a few examples of adjectives in use.
Recommended Resources for Portuguese Listening Assignments
This fun interactive site is one great example of mixing listening with assignments. The site offers some free Europen Portuguese podcasts that aren’t too shabby, but I have all the love for their premium features, which you can access for a low monthly fee.
In addition to podcasts, the premium upgrade will get you video subtitles to follow in real time while listening. You’ll also get a transcript of each episode, which is great for intensive listening exercises (more on this later), and a list of all the essential words and expressions to look over before starting.
Last but not certainly not least, you’ll get a quiz tailored to the content of each episode.
What’s also great about this website is that it features real, authentic talk, infused with calão (slang) and colloquial expressions that take me right back to the streets of Lisbon upon listening. In some episodes, one of the founders’ grandmothers appears and gives us a taste of Portuguese in its rawest forms. You can almost smell the sardines grilling while listening to these!
It makes an enormous difference if the material you’re using to study uses natural, authentic speech as opposed to those contrived and over-scripted conversations we know all too well.
Speaking of authentic learning material, FluentU is currently working on developing an immersive Brazilian and European Portuguese learning program which takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Using FluentU, you’ll be more engaged and learn better. Not only does the program offer authentic video featuring native speakers, but it also uses scaffolding to make all this authentic content approachable and truly within reach. It’s really the best way to start learning how to use Portuguese in the real world.
The interactive subtitles, vocabulary lists and tailor-made flashcard decks will help you learn actively while watching your favorite videos, giving you an extra boost in Portuguese reading and listening practice.
Plus, you can access the program via its convenient iOS and Android apps, or directly in your browser. Stay tuned for more updates on the Portuguese program!
2. Practice Intensive Listening
This technique takes active listening to a whole new level. It turns any audio into a full language lesson! Here’s how to use intensive listening to improve your Portuguese listening skills.
How to Improve Comprehension with Intensive Listening
First, find a bit of audio around 40 or 50 seconds in length (one minute maximum) which includes a transcript or accurate, word-for-word subtitles.
Once you’ve found your desired material, give it one full listen, then write down what you think was discussed in a short summary.
Then, listen again and try to transcribe the audio yourself without looking at the subtitles. There will be a lot of pausing and rewinding, and you might find that it’s a pretty time-consuming and rather tedious operation. This is where you need to push yourself and stick with it, because it will absolutely pay off.
The Pomodoro Technique, where you take short breaks throughout your intensive work, will come in handy here to make sure your brain doesn’t zone out after too much sustained attention.
Once you’re done, check the actual transcript and compare your work. Make any corrections necessary and jot down new words.
Now rewrite your summary, bearing in the mind the details you may have omitted before.
If possible, have a native speaker correct your summary. (italki is a great place to have corrections made, since you can hire a private Portuguese tutor at a super affordable hourly rate) who’ll help you discover new words or interesting phrases to use.
Practicing intensive listening this way a few times a week will perk up your Portuguese listening abilities immensely. It’s particularly efficient to do with episodes of the same show or podcast, where the same people are saying new things, since you’ll get used to their pronunciation.
Time yourself every time you do a transcription, so you can watch how much better you get at this the more you do it!
Recommended Resources for Intensive Portuguese Listening Pactice
“Say It in Portuguese”
This educational podcast is an old favorite of mine for the purpose of intensive listening. It’s dedicated to those enigmatic Portuguese proverbs and idiomatic expressions that give the language its charm.
Every episode focuses on a new expression, which is discussed between two native speakers. There’s a helpful transcript available for each podcast, which allows you to listen to some genuine, unscripted Portuguese dialogues while learning about useful expressions, like fazer uma vaquinha (literally “making a little cow”) or não ser flor que se cheire (not being a flower worth smelling).
Curious about the true meaning of those expressions in context? Listen to the podcast!
Here’s another option if you can’t find an audio that works for you: Track down a piece of writing in Portuguese that you like and try submitting it to the good folks down at Rhino Spike, where a native speaker will record an audio of it for you.
This way, you can practice intensive listening on a more varied range of content. Rhino Spike also lets you bump your request ahead in the queue if you record an audio request in your native language. Tit for tat is always welcome in the language learning community.
3. Give Extensive Learning a Go, Too
Although it may seem like a more “passive” version of the intensive listening, don’t knock extensive listening off the table.
Why Extensive Listening Works
Extensive listening basically consists of absorbing as much authentic spoken language as you can (emphasis on authentic).
The best way to do this is to surround yourself with natives speakers of your target language. Since that may not be achievable right away, you can do it with simple materials that suit your level and interests.
The objectives of extensive listening are to:
- Increase your ability to quickly recognize spoken Portuguese words
- Build connections between written and spoken Portuguese
- Help you tune into intonation and accents
- Experience the pleasure of listening to Portuguese, which is instrumental in your motivation to learn its mechanisms
Research suggests that an initial period of extensive learning should be used as a process of normalization before delving into the very artificial situation that intensive listening entails. I say “artificial” because, in real life, you won’t have the comfort of repeated hearing at your own pace with transcripts available to assess your comprehension.
Unlike intensive listening, the extensive strategy deals with vast amounts of text and audio and is more relaxed, since you aren’t constricted by preset tasks or questions.
By exposing yourself to the language passively, extensive listening allows you to adjust to its tone, speed and accents. It’s first and foremost a way for you to grow accustomed to the language and come to enjoy it, so you can do it in a more relaxed state of mind and in more diverse environments.
How to Improve Portuguese Listening Skills with Extensive Listening
Although I consider my journey towards listening fluency almost complete, I still do an hour of extensive listening here and there so I don’t lose touch with the sound of Portuguese and for that “yeah, I’ve still got it!” feeling.
However, when you’re just beginning to learn the language or making your way up to the intermediate level, there’s value to frequency. I strongly encourage you to avoid confining the listening practice to the space of your home. Instead, take it with you whenever you’re on the go. By doing so, you’ll be able to integrate extensive listening into your routine, and do it with regularity.
It’s also useful to pair up extensive and intensive listening. Listen extensively right before you listen intensively on the same day, or dedicate one day to passive listening and the next to active listening. This can help you prime your brain and get in the zone for intensive listening.
Just remember that the goals—and subsequently the materials—should differ for each type of exercise. While intensive listening requires short bits of audio, the material for extensive listening should be lengthy, like a good show or a playlist of Portuguese songs.
One thing I found to be useful in practicing extensive listening is getting one of those adult coloring books and coloring away while the radio or podcast is playing. As random as that sounds, the repetitive motions help focus my mind, yet they don’t require so much of my attention that they become distracting.
Something like knitting or sewing would work to the same effect.
Recommended Resources for Passive Portuguese Listening Practice
RTP TV and Radio
This resource comes directly from “Tuga-land” (a.k.a. Portugal) and it’s available online free of charge.
Just head to the website and choose which TV or radio station you want to listen to em directo (live). It packs quite an eclectic offer, so you’re bound to find something to your liking either on TV or radio.
The RTV app even has subtitles in Portuguese which are fairly accurate and great for getting a boost in reading and vocabulary—just activate CC on the player!
TEDx Talks are also quite handy for extensive Portuguese listening practice. As you may or may not already know, TEDx Talks are independently organized local events that occur all over the world as part of the TED Talks that have taken the world by storm.
Not only are the videos easily accessible via YouTube, but they cover a wonderful array of speakers and topics so you can learn about anything that appeals to you. Just search the offerings for Portugal, Brazil or even a specific Portuguese-speaking city.
If you can find the time and patience to browse through the available offerings, I’m sure you’ll find exactly the right video for your extensive listening experience.
4. Slow Down!
Going devagar (slowly) in your Portuguese listening practice can help you process more information.
Devagar is the word I abused the most in my first three months in Portugal. For every five phrases I muttered, one was surely “Fale mais devagar, se faz favor” (“Speak more slowly, please”).
I had this problem more with peninsular Portuguese and less with the Brazilian variety, which is appropriately nicknamed português com açucar (sugary Portuguese). Luckily, people were understanding and kind enough to slow their speech down for me.
Why Slowing Down Works
Asking people to slow down their speech gives you a chance to listen more closely. You’ll hear every single sound they make while speaking and hear clear enunciation. When people speak faster, they tend to skip over and leave out sounds here and there, or slur their words together.
Many people are very accommodating for language learners and will even repeat themselves for you, too—and repetition is key in learning new grammar patterns and vocabulary.
But what do you do when your source of spoken Portuguese isn’t a flesh-and-blood human, but instead comes through an electrical device? Well, devices can’t respond to your pleas of devagar but, sure enough, there are some ways to bring down the speed of recorded speech. Read on to find out more about this!
Recommended Resources for Slowing Down Portuguese Audio
YouTube Playback Speed
You’re in luck: Videos on YouTube have a built-in speed control! In a meta twist, you can watch a YouTube video on how to slow down YouTube videos.
There’s also Audacity, which you can download for free and use for a number of audio editing operations, including slowing down the speed or pitch of a recording. It may not be the most user-friendly one out there, but once you get the hang of it, it’s super useful.
Amazing Slow Downer
For a simpler software, check out this software if you don’t mind chipping in some money for the computer and mobile versions (a trial and “lite” mobile versions are available, though!).
5. Listen to Music
Music has long been an ally to those trying to learn a foreign language.
Why Music Works
Carmen Fonseca-Mora talks about a link between language learning and music, since both connect through sound and are used to convey a message, even though language relies on logic and music is more on the emotional side.
You increase your listening fluency by getting to know the cornerstone of any culture: its musical creations. There are plenty of Lusophone musicians to keep an eye out for. And honestly, what could be more fun than training your ears to the sounds of bossa nova, fado or funaná?
Of course, you should bear in mind that poetic license is often employed in song lyrics, so they don’t necessarily follow grammar and syntax norms. But that’s okay, because textbook Portuguese isn’t always practical in the real world, either. By absorbing the language via music, you can ensure that your Portuguese will have some flavor to it.
Recommended Resources for Portuguese Music Listening Practice
This awesome website automates intensive learning with songs!
Choose from a multitude of music videos (grouped by genres) to start learning. While a video is playing, you have to fill in random missing words from the lyrics you’re hearing. The number of gaps depends on the level of difficulty you select, ranging from Beginner (16 words) to Expert (all of them). If there’s a word you really can’t figure out, the program can fill the gap for you.
This aligns greatly with the idea behind intensive listening, in that you’re basically filling in an already-existing transcript. And since it gives you a task to complete and a score at the end, it provides you with extra incentive to listen.
Another cool feature is that you have songs both in Brazilian and European Portuguese, proving once and for all that the two can happily coexist on the same language learning platform. This way you can navigate the differences in accent and vocabulary without having to open a new tab.
And just to add the final cherry on this already delicious cake, there’s even a “Karaoke” mode, where you can sing your lungs out to the best of the best lyrics in Portuguese. A microphone might come in handy for this one.
I find it an all-around fun and easy way to practice active listening, not to mention a great opportunity to learn the lyrics to songs you like. So if you’ve always wanted to sing along to “Ai Se Eu Te Pego” like a pro, now’s your chance.
So, there you have it. I’ve shared a few of the Portuguese listening practice tips that made my ears become friendlier with the language, in the hopes that your ears will appreciate it, too.
All that’s left to do is find a cozy seat and immerse yourself in the language of Fernando Pessoa.
Get started now and you’ll be well above the “smile and nod” level the next time a Portuguese speaker starts up a conversation.
Clara Abdullah left the cold and angry Eastern Block at the age of 25 to pursue her love for social work in Portugal. There, she learned the ins and outs of the Portuguese language and became a bona fide alfacinha. Her passions include feijoada, Antonio Variações and loudly saying“Epa!”
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