As a former language teacher and someone who has worked on language teaching courses in the publishing industry for nearly 20 years, I am under no illusions that learning a foreign language is easy. I have been learning Portuguese since 2012 and have used a plethora of self-study courses in the aim of finding a method that works for me. While I can’t claim to be an expert of language learning, I would like to share my experiences of learning Portuguese and to give some tips based on what has worked for me.
Self-study courses only take you so far. Speaking is crucial to learning a language and something that isn’t taught well on self-study courses, so I also attend a weekly Portuguese class with a native-speaker teacher. The teacher speaks in Portuguese for most of the class, only speaking in English to explain a grammar point. Sometimes it is frustrating wanting to say something and not having the vocabulary or grammar to say it, but it is a good way to discover what I can say with the vocabulary and grammar I do have.
I booked a course of ten two-hour lessons in preparation for taking the DEPLE exam. It isn’t something I would do regularly as it was very expensive (at £44 per hour) and I found the one-to-one teaching a little intense. It depends on the relationship that you have with the teacher but it can be a fantastic way to progress quickly.
Meet Portuguese people
I have joined a Portuguese-English language exchange group that meets once a week in the city where I live, which I found advertised on a social networking site. The group comprises native Portuguese speakers from Portugal, Brazil and Africa, plus British people and people of other nationalities who want to practice their Portuguese. We meet in a pub and chat about all kinds of things, just like any group of friends, but we speak in Portuguese. As it is purely a social group it takes some of the stress out of speaking the language, as no one is constantly correcting my grammar, and as a result I have found I am gaining confidence at speaking in Portuguese. I also have a very good Portuguese friend with whom I speak on the phone in Portuguese once a week. I find that listening to her without seeing her body language makes me focus on what she is saying more than when we meet face to face.
I regularly watch the news on RTP (the state-owned Portuguese TV channel) via the internet. Each news story is preceded by a short written text giving a brief description of the story, which allows me to get the gist before I listen and the pictures usually help with understanding. The journalists tend to have clear accents, which makes understanding easier.
I also follow soap operas on RTP. Although the storylines are silly they are also quite predictable, which makes it easy to follow. I can also put Portuguese sub-titles on while I watch, which allows me to read any bits of dialogue I don’t understand, although I try and avoid doing this.
Watching Portuguese television has really helped my listening skills.
I have discovered a wonderful website, Practice Portuguese, run by Rui Coimbra and Joel Rendall who produce entertaining and informative podcasts in European Portuguese. The podcasts are great for developing listening skills without being as intimidating as genuine TV and radio broadcasts.
Newspapers and magazines
Most Portuguese newspapers are available online. I tend to select a news story which interests me, rather than just reading the front page, which tends to be about politics and uses specialised vocabulary. I usually buy a women’s magazine when I visit Portugal and read articles from time to time. As many of the articles are similar to those in British magazines it is easy to get the gist of the article.
I have discovered a whole new world of Portuguese films, although I would avoid the films of Pedro Costa if you are watching them to hear European Portuguese spoken, as many of his films centre around the Cape Verdean community in Lisbon and are spoken in Creole rather than Portuguese. When I visit Portugal I always treat myself to new film, but I make sure it includes English subtitles.
In some other languages there are parallel texts of some of their most famous literature, which comprises of a verso page of the original text and a recto page containing the translation into English. I think this is a good way of enjoying literature in its original language when your level of that language isn’t very high. I haven’t managed to find any parallel texts of Portuguese literature, so I have created my own version, by buying a copy of the book in both Portuguese and English and reading them simultaneously: a chapter of the Portuguese version, the same chapter in the English version and then the Portuguese chapter again for a fuller understanding. This is really useful if you are studying for a GCE A level in Portuguese.
I have recently taken a Portuguese language exam (the DEPLE) and am now working towards the DIPLE. The main exams are: GCSE in Portuguese (A2/B1 level of the CEFR)
GCE A level in Portuguese (Edexcel or Cambridge) (B2 level of the CEFR) CAPLE exams – set by the University of Lisbon:
⦁ CIPLE (A2 level of the CEFR)
⦁ DEPLE (B1 level of the CEFR)
⦁ DIPLE (B2 level of the CEFR)
⦁ DAPLE (C1 level of the CEFR)
⦁ DUPLE (C2 level of the CEFR)
At the moment I feel that I am stuck on the ‘B1 plateau’, but I am studying texts from a higher level and I find that working towards an exam keeps me motivated and willing to push myself.
I love finding out about Portuguese culture through literature, film, food and festivals. I feel that knowing the language helps me understand the culture and understanding the culture helps my language learning.
I try and visit Portugal at least twice a year, which isn’t enough but is better than nothing. While there I force myself to speak Portuguese at every opportunity, which is hard for me as I’m not a gregarious person and I do get a bit disheartened when the other person can’t understand me or I can’t understand them. However, I do notice how my spoken Portuguese improves after being in Portugal for a week.
A little every day
I try and study a little every day. I have 20-minute train journey twice a day and I use that time to study. It is surprising how much I can do in that daily 40-minute study time.
I hope some some of these tips work for you and please don’t get disheartened when the level of the sentences you speak doesn’t match the level of vocabulary and grammar you have in your brain. This is perfectly normal and although it is tempting to not speak in Portuguese for fear of making mistakes, especially when the other person speaks very good English, persevere and it will get easier.