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So you are learning Portuguese, that sounds great! There are plenty of good reasons for doing it, and I am sure that you have yours.
While some motivations are instrumental and demand short-term results (for instance, learning a few useful phrases for traveling), others rest on a long-term commitment to learning the language.
This article is specially written for long haulers, that is, for those of you who are willing to fully embrace the Portuguese language and to stay put throughout a long, at times bumpy, learning journey – from beginner level all the way up to fluency*.
That being said, what’s the best way to learn Portuguese? Here’re nine strategies to learn Portuguese in a sustainable and effective way.
* You can consider yourself fluent in your target language when you have the ability to engage in meaningful conversations with native speakers. In other words, you will be crossing the fluency threshold when you can self-reliantly express your thoughts while articulating complex and abstract concepts (it normally corresponds to the B1/C1 levels according to CEFR).
While crossing that threshold is a great achievement, be aware that there are many shades of fluency. Truth be told, we are never done with brushing up a second language. Period.
1. Practice daily
You learn Portuguese the best when you practice it on a daily basis. While this might sound like a platitude, the truth is that this basic principle is often neglected by language learners.
Keep this in mind: you will be better off practicing your Portuguese for fifteen minutes every day than for two hours once a week.
See, our brains perform best when fed on a regular basis, preferably daily. By keeping in touch with your target language every day, your brain will need less time to recap and build upon what you’ve learned the day before.
Put it another way, you will be more effective in cycling new input into long-term knowledge and thus, you will be making better use of your time and energy.
Conversely, if the gaps between practicing sessions are too long, your brain will spend almost all of its energy recapping what you’d learned last, and little will be left to go forwards – who wants to be in such a state of learning paralysis?
Last but not least, practicing your target language every day gives you a sense of tangible progress. The realization that you’re continually improving your language skills nurtures your mental strength and perseverance. In other words, a sense of tangible progress is vital for you to stay put with it.
Now that you’re sold on the importance of daily practice, let’s see how we can make it happen as naturally as breathing.
2. Melt it into your daily routines
There is no better way to enable daily practice than to build it into your daily routines. And here’s the thing: you don’t actually need to time-block your day to stay in touch with Portuguese! Just take it with you as you go through your daily routines.
For instance, look around you and start recalling the words for the objects you’re seeing: what’s the Portuguese word for “stove”? And how do you say “fork”?
Or, embrace the habit of speaking out in plain sentences that describe your actions at any given time. How do you say, “I am taking a shower” in Portuguese? What about “I will eat lunch now”?
Note that speaking it out – in opposition to merely formulating sentences in your head – gets you used to actually speaking Portuguese*, which is a huge step!
Here are some more ideas.
Why not spend five to ten minutes every morning listening to a podcast episode at breakfast?
Finding a language exchange buddy** to text with throughout the day is also an excellent tool to keep you engaged daily.
Default your mobile’s operating system (or any other devices) to Portuguese and get automatically exposed to the language.
Do you use a guided meditation app to relax right before you go to bed? Maybe you can set it to Portuguese and fall asleep while listening to your target language (or find an equivalent app in Portuguese).
These were only a few suggestions to melt Portuguese into your daily life. Now it is up to you to take it into your own hands and come up with ideas and actions that fit your circumstances.
* Here’s an article on how to drill your speaking skills: Here’s How to Push Through and Improve Your Portuguese Speaking Skills.
** Tandem is a mobile app to find language exchange partners online. You can download and use it for free.
3. Keep it compelling and relevant to your interests
You learn best when the resources you are feeding on are relevant to you and your interests. Making your language learning a meaningful experience will keep you motivated and on track.
See, there is a myriad of Portuguese language learning resources out there, many of them online and for free – from flashcards and language exchange apps to podcasts and YouTube channels * catering to language learners.
But while such a resource abundance may be seen as a blessing, the truth is that separating the wheat from the chaff and knowing what you should be focusing on is not that easy, especially for beginners still finding their way in.
One way to avoid getting drowned in this sea of resources is to be selective and choose only those resources that align well with your passions.
Are you into sports, music, gaming, food, outdoors? Whatever it is, try to select the content that best agrees with your interests and hobbies. In so doing, your Portuguese practice will become effective and sustained over time.
* Here are a couple of reads on podcasts and YouTube channels for Portuguese language learners:
• 10 YouTube Channels for Portuguese Language Learners
• Best Podcasts for Portuguese Language Learners – Beginner through Advanced Levels
Also, try to build your language practice into your social life as much as you can.
As social creatures, and we all get nurtured by engaging in meaningful relationships, right? Melting language learning with your social life will make it more fun and meaningful, thus more sustainable in the long run.
Maybe there are things you can do locally such as taking part in language exchange meetups. If the latter is not possible, you can always go with Tandem.
Last but not least, mind the quality of the content you’ll be consuming. Be picky!
See, not all resources are made equal quality-wise, and let me be frank: low-quality language learning resources do suck – they are the exact opposite of great, compelling in-context learning materials. Read on.
4. Prioritize in-context learning
If you need to use your time wisely, prioritize in-context input over vocabulary lists or grammar drills. In-context learning is simply more effective.
In-context learning materials presuppose stories you can relate to and make sense of. Often, you’ll learn new words and expressions without having to look them up on the lexicon – you learn them from the context instead.
It also helps you keep motivated and in touch with the language on a daily basis provided that the materials are compelling to read or listen to. And here’s the thing, such a gratifying experience is likely to increase your word retention rate in the long run.
But there’s more!
In-context input designed for language learners (and when properly done) is normally propped with colloquial expressions used in everyday life. That helps you develop a sound idiomatic feel for the language and, as a result, you’ll sound more natural when speaking.
Think this way, what would make you learn Portuguese the best? Being exposed to the language as spoken by native speakers, or going through tedious word lists truncated from their context?
Did it ever happen to you having learned 300+ words in a new language and still not being able to string them together into a sentence in a real-life conversation?
You’re definitely not alone (me included), and that’s because many language learners spend their time memorizing amorphous words and fixed phrases instead of spending time with the “living beast” itself!
So, consider using more in-context learning materials to learn the language. Its benefits will show rather quickly.
We’ve been mainly talking about language input so far. Let’s now look at the other end: output.
Reading tips! Here’s a read containing tips about quality in-context learning resources: Online Portuguese Learning Resources That Are Actually Worth Your Time.
5. Drill your speaking
One common belief among language learners is that it will be a good while until you are able to start speaking in Portuguese. Wrong.
As a matter of fact, you can and should start drilling your speaking from an early stage in your learning journey.
Here’s the thing. The ability to speak in your target language stems to a great extent from you getting used to doing just that – to speak it out.
See, much of the speaking barriers experienced by language learners (even at the advanced level) are due more to them feeling uncomfortable doing it than the lack of vocab or knowledge about syntax rules – knowledge alone won’t cut it!
So, making yourself at home speaking in your target language – regardless of how basic and rough it may sound – is a great move towards fluency.
Now, you will have to be patient and endure a good stretch of time until you reach the point where you can actually engage in meaningful conversations. Hands down! But that’s not what I am talking about anyway.
Instead, I am suggesting that you practice and drill speaking Portuguese by enunciating short and plain sentences, using whatever vocab you’ve already learned thus far.
There are several strategies to go about it: from speaking out your daily actions in Portuguese (e.g. I am taking a shower > Estou a tomar um duche), through shadowing audio content as you listen to it, to finding language exchange partners or an experienced tutor who can hold the space for simple conversations.
Further reading! Here are a couple of reads to learn more about speaking practice strategies and selecting a competent language tutor:
• Get Better at Speaking Portuguese (Without Having to Live in a Portuguese-speaking country)
• Portuguese Language Tutors: Know What to Look For
Now be sure, it won’t sound spotless. Not even close. You will time and again stumble on things like word order, wrong prepositions, mistaken words, unclear pronunciation, and so on and so forth.
And yet, making those mistakes is such an important and integral part of the learning process itself. Believe me, learning to accept and feel comfortable with your faulty speaking is critical to advance your language skills.
6. Embrace your mistakes
Whether it is grammar, lexicon, or pronunciation, you will often make mistakes when speaking in Portuguese. It would surprise me otherwise – learning a new language is after all among the most complex processes human brains undertake throughout life. It takes time to master it.
Making those mistakes is perfectly fine and expected. What isn’t okay, however, is to let the fear of making them prevent you from speaking. That’s a problem, and unfortunately a common one.
So, how to go about it? Here is the short answer: embrace your mistakes to grow out of them.
By accepting the fact that your speaking won’t be flawless, you are preventing feelings of awkwardness from sneaking into your mind and holding you back. In other words, you are preventing fear and shame from getting in the way of your language learning.
Here’s another thing you can do. Whenever you speak in Portuguese, focus on pushing through the core of your message rather than on things like grammar correctness and petty mistakes.
Put it another way, focus on making yourself understood regardless of whether or not some preposition gets amiss or you use the wrong verb form.
See, such small mistakes are secondary to communication itself and shouldn’t prevent you from pushing the core message through to the other side.
In adopting this pragmatic mindset, you will quickly realize that you can in effect communicate in your target language. That’s what languages are for, right?
As a result, your confidence kicks in and keeps you daring to do it time and again. In other words, you fall into the blessings of a virtuous loop.
Note! I am not suggesting that you should be nonchalant about your mistakes. No. Whenever you notice them, keep track and act upon them. All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t allow perfection ideals and petty mistakes to hold you back from drilling your speaking skills.
7. Mind your pronunciation
If there is any language skill often neglected by language learners, that is pronunciation. Yet, pronunciation does matter. As a matter of fact, clear pronunciation is decisive to whether you get past the fluency threshold and how quickly you achieve just that.
The clearer your pronunciation is, the more confident you will feel in speaking Portuguese with others. The more you speak in your target language, the more you will get better at it, which in turn leads to further improved confidence and even more conversational interactions. You get the idea.
And yet, most beginners prioritize other language skills like grammar and lexicon, while assuming that pronunciation is something that eventually falls into place as time goes on. Sorry, that’s not the way it works. Actually, it is rather the opposite.
See, the longer you go on with an underperformed pronunciation, the harder it will get to mend it down the road. Thus, it’d be better for you to come to grips with the Portuguese sound system as soon as possible.
Btw, by clear pronunciation, I only mean that it should be accurate enough not to compromise either your confidence in speaking or your ability to make yourself understood (an underperformed pronunciation can jeopardize both).
Thus, I am not suggesting that you ought to sound like a native! This sound-like-a-native thing became a cliché in the language learning industry and the only thing it accomplishes is making you feel frustrated and insecure (for most language learners anyway) – it surely does more harm than good.
Here’s the thing. A clear speech is perfectly reconcilable with a foreign accent. There’s nothing wrong with having a foreign accent. Besides, it is part of your identity. Own it.
Tips to work on your speech clarity!
There are different strategies you can follow to work on your pronunciation skills. One is to break down Portuguese phonology and learn its sound units: Portuguese Pronunciation: A Helpful Guide to Portuguese Basic Sounds and Spelling Patterns.
Another way is to practice your listening skills. Pronunciation and listening skills are two sides of the same coin – your ability to reproduce Portuguese sounds hinges on how accurately you can hear them and vice-versa. One reinforces the other: Improve Your Portuguese Listening Skills: Best Practices.
8. Don’t overdo grammar
You don’t need to spend many hours studying Portuguese grammar to become fluent in the language. As a matter of fact, you can learn it organically through comprehensible, in-context reading and listening resources.
I am not a big fan of relying heavily on grammar to learn a second language. Let me elaborate. I do think that grammar has its place in language learning, but I also know it can be overwhelming and counterproductive, especially when you’re just starting off your learning journey.
Putting too much focus on studying grammar is likely to make you too self-conscious and insecure when you speak the language. Besides, grammar-checking your speech as you’re speaking is too heavy a process that surely slows you down and gets in the way of your speaking flow.
Conversely, learning grammar organically (through reading and listening) is gracefully effective in that you are naturally absorbing the language’s syntactic patterns in the deeper layers of your mind. In learning grammar this way, your speech will most likely be more articulate and sound more natural than otherwise.
Now, studying grammar often feels appealing because it might deliver a sense of control and progress. I get it. However, grammar prowess is not a reliable indicator of fluency. It is then fair to argue that studying and understanding grammar rules can give you a false sense of progress.
Let’s not forget though that we all have different learning styles and preferences. I know many students who get a kick out of drilling through grammar and mastering the set of rules governing Portuguese. If that is what keeps you motivated and on track, why not hold on to it?
The truth is that there are no ultimate recipes. I just wanted to make the point that there are risks involved in relying too heavily on grammar. That said, find your own balance between spending time studying it and consuming compelling reading and listening materials.
Tips! If you are a beginner, my advice is that you don’t fret too much about grammar at this early stage other than getting a gist of its basic features. Here’s a read for you: Dabbling in Portuguese Grammar – First Impressions for Beginners.
9. Be kind to yourself
By starting to learn Portuguese as a second language, you are also starting a long journey (assuming your goal is to achieve fluency). Such an enterprise is not for the faint-hearted – it takes discipline, perseverance, and willpower to carry it out.
In this article, I’ve suggested that staying in touch with Portuguese on a daily basis, while keeping your practicing materials compelling and relevant to your interests, is key to maintaining your motivation as you push it through.
Yet, there still may be times when you run out of steam anyway, feeling hopeless about the whole thing. In times like that, you need to transition to a different mindset: one of kindness and self-compassion.
You see, language learning is anything but linear, not least in the way you experience your own progress – today you feel exhilarated about how well your language skills are developing, only to become heavily disappointed the day after when, say, measuring yourself up against another learner, or doing poorly during a conversation.
The truth is that such an emotional rollercoaster is common among language learners. You’re definitely not alone here. Sometimes it will feel great, sometimes it will feel less great – that’s how it is.
Don’t be too harsh on yourself when you seem to be losing your grip. Give yourself a couple of days’ break if you need to, and do something else other than fretting over it. You are here for the long haul and a short break won’t detract you from pursuing your long-term goal. Come back to it when you feel recovered.
And keep this in mind. Though it might feel wobbly in the short term, your language skills will steadily improve over time and you will eventually break into fluency. All you need to do is to trust the process, be patient, and keep at it.
Stay tuned for upcoming courses, reads, and other novelties.