I concur with David Nunan when he calls listening “the Cinderella of second language learning.”
It’s always been 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, speaking does feed on listening. By all logic, lots of listening should precede your speaking.
For me, there was always a sense of accomplishment in realizing I was able to understand what was being said to me in Portuguese the more I exposed myself to the language. It built up my confidence to actually start speaking it because hey, since I could understand what the word means and I got the sound it of it down (pesky nasal phonemes aside), I might as well just say it out loud.
If you’re like me, you’ll dive straight into a Portuguese-speaking country with no knowledge of the language save for a few Brazilian soap opera episodes. This means you’ll need to get your listening practice via real-life encounters with natives.
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.
We’re living in the golden age of language acquisition through technology, so the internet is also here to help you in your quest.
Here I’ve laid out the five listening hacks for Portuguese that were of great help to me and other fellow language learners from all over the world, complete with online resources to help you put them to good use.
So, grab those headphones and let’s get to it!
Improve Your Portuguese Listening Skills Today with 5 Practical Tips
1. Assignments are your friends
While it’s never a bad idea to just use Portuguese audio as background noise (as we will see a bit later on), it really makes a difference once you construct your listening activities around specific tasks.
Why assignments work
The tasks you give yourself will force you to practice active listening, as they’ll give any listening activity a concrete and immediate purpose. The listening experience is much more productive when you’re doing it and looking for specific information in what’s being communicated to you.
If you’re already using an online course, reading a textbook or taking a local class in Portuguese, you’ve probably noticed that most listening exercises aim for you to recognize and discriminate between different aspects of the message, such as context, names, details or word categories.
Some activities may be designed with a practical approach in mind, where you need to pinpoint the places you’re hearing about on a map or fill in a form with the details listed in the recording. Meanwhile, others may just be sets of questions which you have to answer based on what you’ve heard.
How to improve comprehension with assignments
Whichever the case may be, it’s very important that the exact tasks or questions be known 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.
The tasks requiring you to read and answer questions you received after listening have long been debunked as less efficient, since they involve scraping through the memories of what you’ve just heard for something relevant, and this is a task with which not even native speakers would be guaranteed success.
You can easily find relevant tasks for audio (see resources below) but when speaking with natives you’ll need to assign yourself a task. For example, when you start up a new conversation, you might decide you’re going to learn about someone’s family, job or hobbies.
A fun little interactive site called Practice Portuguese is one great example of mixing listening with assignments. Their podcasts are free and they’re not too shabby, but I have all the love for their premium features which you can get for about $6/month and unsubscribe from whenever you wish.
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 for me if the material I’m using uses natural, flowy talk as opposed to those contrived and over-scripted conversations we know all too well.
Speaking of which, FluentU is currently working on developing an amazing, 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 will be more engaged and learn better. Not only does FluentU offer authentic video featuring native speakers, but it offers scaffolding that isn’t available anywhere else so you can have all this authentic content approachable and truly within reach. It’s 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, there’s a convenient iPhone app (Android coming very soon). Stay tuned for more updates on the Portuguese program!
2. Practice intensive listening
This technique takes active listening to a whole new level.
How to improve comprehension with intensive listening
For intensive listening (IL), you need to find one piece of audio around 40 or 50 seconds in length (one minute maximum) and it should include 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 it will be a time-consuming and rather tedious operation (taking roughly 30 minutes for 1 minute of audio), but this is where you need to push yourself and stick with it because it will absolutely pay off.
The Pomodoro Technique 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. Rewrite your summary now, 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) then look out for any new words or interesting phrases in there.
Doing this four times a week for about 12 weeks is bound to perk up your 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.
An old favorite of mine for this purpose is an educational podcast called Say It in Portuguese, dedicated to those enigmatic Portuguese proverbs and idiomatic expressions that make for its charm.
Every episode focuses on a new expression discussed between two native speakers, and there’s a helpful transcript available for each podcast. It’s great because it enables you to listen to some genuine, unforced Portuguese dialogues while learning about useful expressions, such as 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. 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, always welcome in the language learning community.
3. Give extensive learning a go as well
Although it may seem like a more “passive” version of the intensive listening, don’t knock extensive listening (EL) off the table.
Why extensive listening works
It basically consists of absorbing as much authentic (emphasis on authentic) spoken language as you can. 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
- to build connections between written and spoken Portuguese
- to help you tune into intonation and accents
- experience the pleasure of listening to Portuguese, which is instrumental in your motivation to learn the mechanisms of it.
John Field actually recommends an initial period of EL 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, in that you aren’t constricted by pre-set tasks or questions. The material should be lengthy. I would recommend a duration of somewhere between 20 and 60 minutes since that’s more or less the threshold for brain saturation when confronted with unknown material in a scantily known language.
Through this brain saturation, EL allows you to adjust to the tone, speed and accents of the language. EL is first and foremost a way for you 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 comprehension with extensive listening
Although I consider my journey towards listening fluency almost complete, I still do an hour of extensive listening here and there just to not lose touch with the sound of Portuguese and for that “yeah, I still got it!” feeling.
However, when you’re just beginning to learn the language or making your way up to intermediate level, there’s value to frequency. And, like I said before, there’s value to making it part of your personal time.
I strongly encourage you to avoid confining the listening practice to the space of your home. Instead, take it with you whenever you are on the go. By doing so you’ll be able to integrate EL into your routine and do it with regularity.
It’s also useful to pair up extensive and intensive listening. Do EL right before you do IL on the same day, or do EL one whole day before you do IL. This can help you prime your brain and get in the zone for IL.
You can also opt to alternate the two types of listening all week long. Flip between these exercises every other day.
Just remember that the goals—and subsequently the materials—should differ for each type of exercise.
A good resource to practice this is the RTP TV and radio stations, directly from “Tuga-land” (aka Portugal) and available online free of charge.
Just head to their 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.
I personally enjoy popping on a Portuguese series called “Bem-vindos a Beirais” any time the saudades (nostalgic feelings) for Portugal come over me. 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 EL 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 their website, but they cover a wonderful array of speakers and topics so that you can learn about exactly what appeals to you.
If you just head over here, you’ll find 72 pages packed with Portuguese TEDx goodness from Portugal and Brazil. The only downside is that the site only allows one filter, so once you have the talks grouped by the language you can’t also sort them by length or topic.
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 EL experience.
One thing I found to be useful in practicing EL 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.
4. Take it devagar-devagarinho
Devagar being the operative word here. It means “slowly” and it’s the word I most abused 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.
They’ll often 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.
For videos available on YouTube, there’s this nifty YouTube Playback Speed Control tool that you can add as an extension to your Chrome browser. It works best at 75% for me, as it’s slow but you’ll never get too much of a lull between words. Use the “-” key to bring it down to 50%, if need be.
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.
For a simpler software, you can go for Amazing Slow Downer if you don’t mind chipping in $50 for the PC version or $15 to download it on your iPhone.
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. And honestly, what could be more fun than training your ears to the sounds of bossa nova, fado or funaná?
Of course, one should bear in mind that poetic license is often employed in song lyrics, meaning they don’t necessarily follow grammar and syntax norms. But that’s okay, because textbook Portuguese isn’t always practical in the real world. By absorbing the language via music, you can ensure that your Portuguese will have some flavor to it.
There’s plenty of Lusophone musicians to keep an eye out for. I’m happily discovering increasingly more Portuguese music videos with lyrics on-screen, such as the collection offered by this particular YouTube channel.
The real revelation I had with regards to music and language learning was the brilliant website called Lyrics Training.
Here you can choose from the 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).
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. Should there be any word you really don’t know, you can just click one button or press the “Tab” key and the program fills the gap for you.
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 bit of what has made my ears become friendlier with Portuguese, in the hopes that your ears will appreciate it too.
All that’s left to do is find a cozy seat and infuse yourself in the language of Fernando Pessoa.
Crank up the music, listen to a radio series while you’re knitting, do some intensive listening with a TV episode, listen extensively to a great podcast and slow that speech down when those podcast speakers are getting extra-chirpy.
Get started now and you’ll be well above the “smile and nod” level the next time a Portuguese speaker looks your way.
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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