For most Portuguese learners, a major focus of the adventure is a textbook or self-learning guide.
You can think of a great textbook as a guide into the wild jungle of the Portuguese language—a guide who knows all of the shortcuts and tricks to navigating this difficult terrain.
Have you found yours yet?
The great Portuguese textbooks out there have grammar explanations that are neither too complicated nor too simple, have sample dialogues and exercises that allow you to experience the language as it’s actually used, and provide key cultural insights that motivate you and help you actually function in a Lusophone country.
Fine, you say, but which Portuguese book is best?
I’ve got five of the hottest recommendations here, but the right one for you is going to depend on a few factors.
Finding the Right Portuguese Textbook for You
In spite of the best efforts of language reforms, Portuguese still shows quite a few differences in grammar, vocabulary and especially pronunciation between the various countries and regions where it’s spoken.
This means that the first decision you have to make is which variety of Portuguese you want to learn. A book devoted to Brazilian Portuguese is a terrible idea for someone who wants to speak to people in Portugal and vice versa.
Other considerations to take into account are your goals.
Do you want to just be able to get by on a first trip to Rio, or do you plan to stay there for years? Do you need to be able to write formal Portuguese for academic or business situations, or do you want to know what’s being said at the world’s hottest parties and dance contests (where Portuguese is spoken, of course!)?
Finally, consider how you learn best. Are you someone who learns best by taking apart grammar systematically, piece by piece, or do you want lots of practice based on situations of gradually increasing complexity?
Depending on how you answer all of these questions, the best book for you might be quite different from the best book for your fellow learners. As I go through the suggestions below I’ll of course outline for whom each book is best, but it’s wise to go into this with a strong sense of your goals, style and dialect choice so that you make sure you choose a book that perfectly matches you.
5 Highly Recommended Portuguese Textbooks for Learners
These books feature 24 chapters, each of which introduces you to a realistic situation that you might encounter when you find yourself in a Portuguese-speaking country.
You listen to the chapter’s dialogue first on the CD, and then again while reading it in the textbook. This is followed by notes on vocabulary, grammar and culture that are meant to lead you into being able to produce written and especially spoken language yourself in similar situations.
The grammar explanations focus on just getting you to be able to communicate well, and aren’t built to make sure you satisfy the requirements of, say, a university Portuguese exam.
I love this method—in fact it’s from my favorite series of language books—but as a grammar geek I wished there were even more written exercises and grammar reference material. If you’re like me, you may want to supplement this with one or more of the books below. But this book by itself is perfectly adequate for beginning learners who just want to quickly get to a conversational level of Portuguese.
These language guides are especially ideal for self-motivated learners who also work with language exchange partners or tutors on italki. They provide a solid frame of reference so that learners can get feedback on their ability to produce the phrases that they’re learning in each chapter.
“Complete Portuguese” teaches both European and Brazilian Portuguese, while the Brazilian version is only for learners focusing on that dialect. Be sure to buy the versions (as linked to) with the audio CDs. The books are also sometimes sold without them.
This oldie but goodie is easy to come by used and for cheap, as it gets assigned in university classes. I found it to be great fun, as it’s the only guide I’ve ever used that focuses on the grammar of spoken Brazilian Portuguese. That’s right, not written. And no, it’s not a book of slang expressions.
This is probably not the first book you want to start with, unless you already have a lot of experience learning languages and/or a good understanding of grammar terms. But it’s great for intermediate learners and beyond who are looking for shortcuts to improving their listening and speaking with Brazilians by studying a bit of the grammar of the language as it’s actually spoken.
If you’re terrified of grammar and/or new to language learning, these could be great guides to Portuguese grammar.
These books refuse to even employ terms like “noun,” “pronoun” and “conjugation.” Rather, they set up other categories of words and rules for how they can work together to impart meaning. While that could be problematic if you want to use these books in conjunction with other books or with teachers who are unfamiliar with the method, their slow, friendly, hand-holding style will be comforting for some.
This book is notable mainly for providing a huge quantity of lessons, practice and accompanying audio (in the form of nine CDs). The focus is on everyday Brazilian Portuguese and in making sure you acquire the most commonly used vocabulary. Some grammar is there, but it isn’t the main focus.
This option would be particularly useful for those whose Portuguese has gotten a bit rusty and want to do a thorough review, as well as for those who want a supplement to “Complete Brazilian Portuguese” that offers more practice exercises, basic vocabulary and much more audio to listen to.
There’s also an “Essential Edition” which offers just the opening material in a cheaper package for beginners, and an online version that offers the same material as the complete edition plus even more exercises—but is much more expensive.
5. “Falar… Ler… Escrever… Português: Um Curso para Estrangeiros” (Speak… Read… Write… Portuguese: A Course for Foreigners)
A lot of learners already speak Spanish or other Romance languages when they decide to tackle Portuguese, and so they can already understand the written language quite a bit when they start. If that’s the case for you, then this Portuguese-only guide might be perfect.
It focuses on Brazilian Portuguese and has the same basic structure as the Complete guides (see my first recommendation)—dialogues are followed by notes on grammar, vocabulary and culture.
I used an earlier edition of this book over a decade ago, and I still fondly remember it in particular for its cultural notes, which proved invaluable for understanding why certain song lyrics were so important, or the types of conversations one might have in Brazil.
There’s also an accompanying “Livro de Exercícios” (workbook) available.
There are lots more Brazilian and European Portuguese textbooks out there to choose from. If these suggestions don’t perfectly match you, I hope you can at least use them as a basis for making sure that the book you do choose delivers on you what you’ll need.
Boa sorte (good luck) with your journey into the wilds of the Brazilian language.
Mose Hayward not only learned to speak Portuguese fluently, but to open wide and slobber like crazy for the perfect Brazilian kiss.
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