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The Language and Culture Crash Course to Maximize Your Brazilian Study Abroad Experience

When you think about your coming study abroad experience in Brazil, is your mind running a complete blank?

Or does it just conjure up the stereotypical images of beaches, carnival parades and over-sexed people?

(That last trope is particularly misleading, by the way—more on that later.)

Oh, and perhaps you imagine yourself studying a bit while you’re there, too.

Whether you’re part of a very organized study abroad group or headed for a more independent experience in a Brazilian university, it really pays to prepare for the challenges of life as a young gringo in Brazil.

I’ve taken these experiences on myself and boy do I have a list of things I’d have done to better prepare the first time I went.

So here I’ll give you the best of my tips, plus some from the many foreigners I know who’ve studied and lived in Brazil.

They fall into two main categories: language prep (whatever your level) and diving into Brazilian social life, especially making friends and finding things to do off-campus.

By focusing on those areas, you’ll be prepared for a truly rich and authentic experience that goes way beyond the stereotypes.
 


 

Ready for Your Study Abroad Experience in Brazil? Not Until You’ve Read This!

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How to Prep Your Language Skills Before You Go

Even if you’re not actively learning Portuguese, building up some language skills ahead of time is one of the most valuable ways to maximize your study abroad experience.

It’s just common sense. If you spend your trip in an English-only bubble, how much of the country could you really experience?

In this section we’ll first look at how to self-assess your language needs no matter your level, and then at how to most efficiently improve your Portuguese for your trip.

Identify the Skills You Need

What specific skillset do you need for studying abroad in Brazil? Consider the following areas. You might try practicing with a Brazilian Portuguese speaker to see how you fare (more on how to find one later in this post).

Informal spoken Brazilian Portuguese for your region of study:

Can you understand the accent in the region where you’ll be studying? Notably, accents and spoken grammar differ in the north, the northeast, in Rio, in São Paulo and the south, with lots more regional and socio-economic variations as well. Try watching movies set in your study abroad region or YouTube videos that demonstrate the local accent.

And if you’ve only learned European Portuguese, the Brazilian variety will be a particular challenge. In this article you’ll find several textbooks for a crash course in Brazilian Portuguese, if you need it.

Portuguese for food, directions, bus and travel:

Brazilians give terrible directions and do so with great enthusiasm. Before your trip, make sure to:

  • Practice asking clarifying questions in Portuguese
  • Learn the major landmarks in the city or town you’ll be studying in
  • Get familiar with the forms of transport there

Likewise, make sure you’re prepared for the day-to-day stuff you take for granted at home. Do you know how to order food? Get tickets for events? When you go to the rodoviária (long-distance bus terminal) will you be able to ask around for the right stand to sell you tickets to the right place?

If not, these are all points you can focus on with the practice tools we’ll cover below.

Portuguese for your subject area:

If you’ll be taking classes in Portuguese in your own field of study, do you know the important specialized vocabulary in Portuguese? Touch base with your advisors and professors for guidance on the words or word families you’ll need to be familiar with in Portuguese. It’s also smart to research the Portuguese pronunciations for the names of important people in your field.

Practice with Immersive Learning Tools

The factors above have likely pointed out at least a few very targeted areas to home in on before your trip, whether you’re a complete beginner or nearly fluent in Portuguese. Immersive Portuguese language tools are the best way to quickly improve those areas along with general speaking and listening skills—which are of utmost concern for soon-to-be study abroad students.

If you haven’t heard the term before, immersion means being surrounded by written and spoken Portuguese—when you arrive in Brazil, you’ll be totally immersed. These tools can mimic the immersion learning process from home as you’re preparing.

italki lessons and conversations:

italki is a useful resource because it offers both formal, private tutoring lessons and informal conversational practice. You can use the private lessons to achieve your specific language goals before your trip and the conversation exchanges to prepare for everyday life in Brazil.

italki is full of Brazilian Portuguese teachers—you may even be able to find one who’s enrolled in or teaching at the same Brazilian university where you plan to study. You can browse for teachers based on their location, pay rate, specific educational skillsets and more.

Once you choose a tutor, suggest that you’d like to roleplay the scenarios you expect to face while studying abroad. You can use the pointers in the previous section for ideas, but be sure to ask your teacher to suggest more.

To find conversation exchanges on italki, browse the “Language Partners” section of the site. The idea is to find Brazilian speakers who are learning English (or your native language if not English), so you both get something out of the exchange.

Authentic Portuguese videos on FluentU:

FluentU provides real-world foreign language videos, like movie trailers, music videos, inspiring talks and more, that’ve been transformed into language learning experiences. The forthcoming Portuguese program will teach you authentic Brazilian Portuguese from the same media that native speakers watch every day.

Each video comes with captions you can click for an instant definition and native pronunciation of any word. That way, you’re actively building your vocabulary while you absorb the sounds of the language as Brazilians really use it. There are also flashcards and exercises tailor-made for each video so you remember the words when you’re done watching.

Plus, with the FluentU mobile app, you can take the videos anywhere to squeeze in some studying between classes or even once you arrive in Brazil.

For the knowledge-lovers or aspiring polyglots out there, you can explore FluentU’s existing programs like Spanish for free with a 15-day trial.

How to Maximize Your Portuguese While You’re There

I know dozens of gringo students and other young people who’ve spent periods living in Brazil—all of them have both loved and hated it. One of the main things they comment on is the simultaneous ease and difficulty of making Brazilian friends.

Brazilians are famously social, warm and easy to strike up conversations with, but they’re just as infamously unreliable, fake and lacking in follow-through. Here’s some of the best advice from myself and those I know who’ve been through this.

By understanding Brazilian social life and how you can participate in it, you’ll get much more than just classroom learning from your study abroad experience—and your Portuguese skills will skyrocket, even if that wasn’t your main objective.

Participating in Student Life: Look On- and Off-campus

There are always some interesting political, artistic and cultural events on Brazilian campuses, though a Brazilian student’s life isn’t as campus-focused as in the U.S. It pays to make efforts to follow your interests and participate in events off-campus, too.

My standard advice for living abroad is to try to find parallel groups in your new land that match your interests. If you’re a rock climber, go rock climbing (and yes, this can be fabulous in Brazil!). You’ll be motivated to practice and absorb the language through an activity you already enjoy, plus you’ll meet like-minded native speakers.

Facebook groups tend to be the number-one way for Brazilians to find others who share their interests, so do some Portuguese-language searches for your favorite activities. When you meet others who do, ask them if they’re in WhatsApp groups focused on that interest in your community.

Then there are certain things that Brazil does so well you’d be remiss not to try them, even if they don’t exactly match what you’d do in your homeland:

  • Forró and samba rock dancing: These are Brazilian social lubricants and accessible to anyone, even the most flat-footed. I know plenty of people who don’t particularly enjoy dancing otherwise but who learned to love forró in Brazil.

Samba rock is the best thing in the world but is limited mainly to São Paulo. More gifted/masochistic dancers might try out samba de gafieira or samba no pé, frevo, Afro-Brazilian and much, much more.

  • Learn to cook: Offer to become a sous-chef slave to anyone who’s willing to teach you to make a proper tapioca, caldo de mocotó (bull’s or pig’s foot soup) or moqueca de peixe (fish with coconut milk stew), for example.
  • Martial arts: People from around the world come to Brazil to study jiu-jitsu and capoeira.

Making Brazilian Friends: Be Persistent but Flexible

Brazilians are famous for keeping things loose and arriving late or not at all. This can be particularly frustrating if you’re alone on a study abroad trip, trying to make friends, and find that Brazilians keep canceling at the last minute or even after the fact. Note that if a meet-up isn’t re-confirmed the day of, it’s almost definitely not happening.

Even if you’ve confirmed and re-confirmed, always take a book to read or have a Portuguese app on your phone so you can study while waiting for someone who may or may not show up. You can also make friends with other foreign students and invite them along to any outings with Brazilian students, so that you know you’ll at least have some company.

And learn to go with the flow. As long as you get out there, something amusing usually happens with someone, even if it’s almost never with the friends you thought you’d be hanging with.

Dating in Brazil: As Anywhere, Be Cautiously Open

As I mentioned in the intro, Brazilians are not hyper-sexual or especially promiscuous, so get those notions out of your head. It’s a pretty religious country and can be just as—if not more—uptight than anywhere else, with carnival serving as a bit of a gigantic release valve.

Like people of any nationality, there are Brazilians who love to date, hook up and fall in love, of course. Dating apps are very popular, so using them can be a great way for gringos in Brazil to meet new friends as well as lovers.

It should be noted that some foreign men have found that they have to be wary of women who approach them flirtatiously and turn out to be expecting semi-prostitution arrangements (especially on the beaches and touristy areas in Rio, but note that in Brazil overall this doesn’t happen much). And women dating men should be particularly aware of some Brazilians’ perceptions that foreign women are “easy” as well as easily duped. If he seems like he might be married, he probably is.

All that said, most Brazilians are romantic and lovely, and dating can be a fabulous motivator to improve your Portuguese.

 

I’m writing this from São Paulo, where I’m staying for a few months, and it’s a good decade after my first foray into this marvelous country. I’ve come back to Brazil so many times over the years and each time stayed for as many months as I possibly could. Everyone else I know who’s come to Brazil gets similarly hooked. Sure, the country has its annoyances, but we all get past them.

Your study abroad adventure will likely be just as full of ups and downs, and ultimately just as life-changing, compelling and addictive. So yes, you should prepare to make the most of it, but ultimately, you don’t have to worry about getting everything just right during your study abroad trip, because you’ll definitely be back.


Mose Hayward has also authored advice on packing for Brazil.

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