I’m learning Portuguese!

by Gigi Griffis
Porto bar

As you may already know, this year I decided to make Portugal my home base. 

Which means putting down roots in a way I haven’t in a long time. Signing a longer lease. Getting a longer visa. And, of course, learning a new language.

That’s right, I’m learning Portuguese. [Insert me dancing in happiness here.]

Now, I’m an unorthodox person, so you won’t be surprised to learn that I haven’t approached Portuguese like I think most people would. I don’t have Duo Lingo. I haven’t signed up for classes. Instead, I plan on learning the language much like a child would, through games and stories, fun and practice. 

In other words, treating the language process as a fun adventure, not homework.

My goals, going into this, were simple: do something to learn more Portuguese every day, focus on comprehension (no perfectionism allowed), and make it fun (so that it never becomes a chore and falls off my to-do list on a tough day).

Here’s me speaking on video after a little over a month of this process:

(And, and one quick caveat: I studied Spanish in university and was, at one time, pretty conversational. This has some up and downsides: The upside is that I am familiar with the grammar structures and there are lots of similar words, so I understand more than I would if I came in speaking only English. The downside is that I accidentally switch to Spanish words because they’re more familiar to me. So my conversations can slip a little into Spanish.)

Portuguese progress: month one

(Ok, now a couple more things: 1) I was quarantined with covid for dois semanas, not meses, ay-ay-ay; 2) I’m straight-up panicking while filming myself in this because I’ve only practiced with strangers and now I’m exposing my very slow progress to the world, so desculpe for the utter awkwardness.)

Here’s what I did to get to this (extremely modest) ability, so far:

Portuguese TV

Rule three: learning Portuguese must be fun. And what’s more fun than reality TV? This month, I re-watched The Circle, Brazil, watched a few episodes of Love is Blind, Brazil (before I got too mad at the sexism on the show and switched), watched part of Gloria on Netflix (before the rape scene drove me away, unfortunately), and started 3%.

I watched them all with English subtitles on and often paused the show to try pronouncing words myself or to rewind and repeat something. Occasionally I switched to Portuguese subtitles so that my brain could connect the pronunciation with the written words and then I’d rewind and switch back to English (because my comprehension in all Portuguese isn’t good enough yet). 

The wild thing about this approach is that after watching 30 minutes or an hour of TV, I’d always feel really confident to go try my own Portuguese. Something about watching and understanding some of the conversations made me braver in my day-to-day quest to speak. So if I could watch an hour or two of The Circle before going to the market or taking the dog for a walk, I felt much less nervous about trying to chat with a market vendor or fellow dog-owner. 

Now, it’s worth noting that some of these shows are Brazilian Portuguese and some are Portugal. Pronunciation, accent, and even some words are different across the two dialects. My ultimate goal here is to be understood (and to understand) in Portugal, but because there’s so much more available in Brazilian, I’m not limiting myself to European Portuguese shows (of which there is only one on Netflix at the moment).

It’s also worth noting that this approach means that I already understand wayyyyyy more than I speak. I’ve spent a substantial number of hours listening and much fewer trying to string together my own sentences. If your goal is to speak quickly, you may want to invert my process and spend a lot more time out and about, in cafes, chatting with people on dating apps, etc. etc.

YouTube videos

While I didn’t want to take the traditional approach of lessons, I did need basic lessons in a few things just to get me off the ground. So I searched for videos on pronunciation, the alphabet, and counting and watched them multiple times to familiarize myself with those three foundational topics. I also watched a couple videos comparing Brazilian and European Portuguese.

Podcasts for kids!

I went looking for story podcasts to work on my listening comprehension and was thrilled to discover Historias de Ninar para Garotas Rebeldes. This is a series of short stories about badass women from history told in very clear, well-enunciated Portuguese for kids! In other words: These are already stories I’d be interested in, they’re made for kids (read: easier to understand), and I get to practice my comprehension skills while also getting excited about a topic I love.

TV was easier to comprehend at first both because I had subtitles I could rely on and because visual cues help, but even though listening to podcasts is more challenging, it’s also fun. Like a little puzzle that I can try to put together mentally while I ride the bus into town or sit on a restaurant patio in the sun. 

Speaking practice day to day

For the first week or so of learning, I didn’t speak to anyone at all. Because my goal is for this to be fun and I knew that I’d be frustrated trying to speak when I had no foundation. That’s the time I spent learning the alphabet and my numbers and literally walking around making the less familiar sounds of the language (like ao, which has a nasal tone here) over and over again. 

Once I felt comfortable pronouncing a few basic phrases, I started trying to speak in day to day life. At the market. With a waiter. With my roommate’s mom when she came to drop off veggies. The more very tiny conversations I had, as you’d expect, the better I got at the basics and the more I picked up adjacent words and ideas along the way. I’m also (I think) a more relaxed and fluid speaker with strangers than if I think someone I know will see me (see: video above).

Oops, I got covid

As I said in the video, in mid-November, I got covid. Being sick meant a bit of a break from learning and it took me a little while after recovery before I started to get back into the groove. It also meant that even when I was up for some learning, I turned to TV shows and YouTube videos and did not spend much time practicing my conversational skills.

So, have you learned a language? Talk to me in the comments. What worked for you?


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Barb December 13, 2021 - 7:46 am

Jay is moving to the Balkans in early in 2022. (Specifically Kosovo). The dominant language is Albanian. So far he’s been doing conversational videos and memorizing vocabulary (he is a great memorizer) so with the vocabulary he will be able to make himself understood and hone his grammar skills in country…I guess the different Balkan countries all have their own slightly different version of Albanian, which is good and bad for him!

Yurena December 15, 2021 - 2:28 pm

Barb – the Albanian spoken in Albania and the Albanian spoken in Kosovo are pretty much the same (just a few slang words are different) as the reason Albanian is one of the two official languages in Kosovo is that lots of people are Albanian-Kosovar. I recommend your friend to listen to singer Yll Limani – he speaks/sings the Albanian spoken in Kosovo – and Albanian singers Flori Mumajesi and Klajdi Haruni to get his ear trained to the subtle differences. One more thing, in Albania and to a lesser extent Kosovo everybody watches all the American tv programmes with no subtitles and their level of spoken English in the cities is really, really good. PS: I used to teach EFL in Tirana. Kosovo is a gorgeous place (delish food, too!). Your friend or family member is going to have a great time.

Rebecca December 15, 2021 - 1:59 pm

I have been learning a bit of Korean, Mandarin Chinese, and Thai. So far still not fluent in any of the languages but, I can at least understand every third word. Still not the best. What has been working for me is just hearing it and having English subtitles to help me hopefully understand better. As for the written part of these languages it is still for lack of a better word Greek to me. I have no real reason right now to learn any of these languages except to say that once travel restrictions hopefully shake loose a bit more and people on planes behave better than snakes on a plane (sorry couldnt resist that reference). I hope to try and move or at least make a more lengthy stay in Thailand.

Yurena December 15, 2021 - 2:32 pm

I had no idea you had left Croatia! I might have missed a couple of posts. Portuguese people are adorable!! do be careful though when learning the language as actually the differences between Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese are quite noticeable in vocabulary and especially pronunciation, to the point one of my Brazilian friends here in Northern Ireland often says she only gets the gist when trying to have a conversation with someone from Portugal.
Best of luck in your new adventure!


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