The evolution of a language lesson

by Gigi Griffis
Reading Portuguese picture books

As you may remember, late last year I officially got my visa for Portugal and started learning Portuguese.

Now, I’m not learning the language the way you might expect. I don’t have lessons. I haven’t bought a textbook. 

What I have done is tried to find ways to make it into something I love. This means listening to podcasts in Portuguese. Watching shows with captions on and a notepad in hand. And, of course, reading.

And since my language level is very basic, reading (in this case) means picture books! It’d be too frustrating to try and read an adult novel or any hefty non-fiction. And I learned pretty quickly that even middle grade books are beyond my capacity. 

The good news? Picture books are charming

So I find myself day by day immersed in a world of lonely pandas trying to dance their way into friendship with flamingos. Fireflies acting as stars to light the way. Clever caterpillars tricking birds into letting them go.

And the reward center of my brain is constantly lighting up. Because even though I have to look up words in every book I read, there are times in each one where I get it. Where every word on one page makes sense to me. Where a picture gives me the ah-ha moment I needed about the one mystery word in the mix. And I am delighted because the story clicks into place, the panda finds her friend, the fireflies dance into the ceiling of a cave, spreading across it like stars. 

I like to tell people eu falo Portugues como um bebe – I speak like a baby. And I know it’s true because I’m learning like a baby. And I love every moment of it.

Because my goal here isn’t perfect grammar. It’s not academic comprehension. It’s not to be able to fill out 16 worksheets conjugating fazer. It’s not even to spell the above sentiment correctly (I may not have and I haven’t checked).

The goal is communication.

It’s understanding

And every inch I move in that direction is a win. 

The past few months got extremely busy with a very tight project (more on that later) and I’ve neglected my Portuguese during that time. But the joy I’ve felt as I’ve started to inch back into it now is immense. The fact that I could make a joke with the water guy when he came to check the meter gives me a ridiculously boundless source of joy. The woman at the store who told me that my pronunciation was so good she thought I was a local…she was no doubt lying, and I still feel absolutely toddler-style proud of myself. 

In April, I’ve given myself a much lighter schedule. I need to heal from pinching a nerve in my neck. I need a breather for my mental health. And I want so very much to devote more time to my picture books, my TV shows, the little steps forward toward my new language.

I speak very little now. I get tripped up on basic things. And yet…yet…I can see how far these baby steps have taken me already, can feel them pulling me forward bit by bit, day by day. 

Como um bebe.

Estou aprendendo.


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1 comment

Rebecca April 11, 2022 - 11:34 am

Have you tried to listen to songs? I find it helps me a bit because I can listen to it over and over to try and speak the words/sing along and if I can get English subtitles so I know what the word(s) are even better. Enjoy the process. You might get lucky and find language lessons via Youtube as well or some other platform online.


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