Are you struggling with your pronunciation?
That's because you have yet to learn the Sounds of Portuguese.
Learners of Portuguese must work on their listening skills if they are serious about becoming fluent. That’s unquestionable. Yet, exposure to spoken Portuguese can easily overwhelm students, especially beginners.
So, how do you go about practicing and consistently improving your listening skills in Portuguese right off the bat without ever feeling discouraged?
Students should practice their Portuguese listening skills deliberately and systematically by tapping into adequate materials that match their language level. Distinguishing between passive vs. active listening is key to ensuring language learners understand the benefits of either practice and purposefully work on both fronts.
In what follows, you’ll learn the concepts of passive vs. active listening (in this language learning context) and the gifts of either practice. Concerning active listening in specific, we’ll look into what constitutes “adequate” practice materials and get acquainted with a streamlined 4-step method to maximize your results.
Finally, I will share a few quality practice resources you can tap into. Let’s get started.
Why do your listening skills matter?
Your listening skills are key to reaching fluency. From a language learning perspective, a well-trained ear has positive knock-on effects on all other language skills.
To begin with, sharpened listening skills make you more attuned to basic Portuguese language sounds. A good grasp of Portuguese phonology leads to better pronunciation, which in turn increases your confidence levels when speaking in your target language.
The more confidently you speak in Portuguese, the better the experience is for all involved in the conversation. As a result, you may be willing to engage in talking more often.
And here’s the thing. Each time you practice speaking, you are automatically improving and reinforcing your listening and pronunciation skills. It’s a virtuous cycle.
Now, you have to be deliberate and actively work on your listening skills to advance them. Otherwise, they will most likely lie stagnant or, at best, evolve at a sluggish pace.
For the reasons mentioned above, the later your listening comprehension skills start blooming, the later you will achieve conversational fluency. In that case, below-average listening skills become a limiting factor slowing down your language learning project as a whole.
Hopefully, that won’t be your case. Below, I will be suggesting a straightforward 4-step method that will make your listening practice more systematic and effective.
But before we go on to that, let’s distinguish between two different kinds of listening: passive vs. active listening.
Passive vs. active listening
In a language-learning context, it is useful to distinguish two kinds of listening, namely passive and active. Let’s take a look at these concepts to learn their differences and how you can use either to work on your language skills.
Passive listening takes place when, say, you have a Portuguese radio station playing in the background while you’re doing the dishes.
As a beginner or lower-intermediate student, you might not be able to make out most of what is coming out of the speakers.
Sure, you might catch a word here and there, but otherwise, all you will hear is a string of sounds melting together into some indistinct jumble.
Now, however unintelligible it might be, passive listening is highly beneficial to the development of your language skills and you should therefore integrate it into your learning strategy.
You see, by simply being exposed to the spoken language you are absorbing Portuguese sounds and melody into deeper layers of your subconscious.
This attunement to Portuguese phonology is key and will eventually show at a later stage of your learning journey in the form of heightened listening and pronunciation skills.
The beauty of passive listening is that you can do it from day one. You can tap into Portuguese TV, radio, and other media to work on your language skills, even as a beginner. You just have to shift your focus from semantics to phonetics.
It is definitely worth integrating passive listening into your learning toolkit. However, to make progress in your listening skills in a way that you start understanding what is being said, you’ll need generous doses of active listening.
A few tips to make the most out of passive listening.
• Focus on the sounds you hear, especially those that sound unfamiliar to you. Be playful and try to mimic them.
• Explore and play around with your lips, jaw, and tongue positions when you struggle to reproduce a specific language sound. Does the airflow come out through your mouth or your nose? Are your vocal cords engaged or not? Pay attention to those things.
• Pay attention to and mimic melodic and rhythm patterns.
Active listening occurs when you intently try to make out words, phrases, and sentences that you hear. It requires full attention and your focus is more on semantics rather than phonetics.
Ideally, you want to practice active listening with quality materials that match your current level of language proficiency – it shouldn’t be too easy, and it should be too difficult either.
See, you want it to be fairly challenging so that it gives you enough room for growth and development without it being overwhelmingly difficult and off-putting.
The length and topic delimitation of your practice materials are, likewise, important. Desirably, you want to practice active listening on relatively short chunks of text/audio that revolve around a well-defined topic – it makes it easier for you to follow along.
Also, you should have access to the transcript. At some point during your listening drill, you may use it to fill in the gaps.
Finally, make sure that you have a coherent strategy to go about your listening drills. Next, I am suggesting a straightforward 4-step method that will give you the best results. Read on.
Let the Power of Stories Lift Your Portuguese.
The 4-step method for active listening practice
The following method is designed to give you the best results when drilling active listening. It assumes two things: (1) that you are working with adequate resources matching your proficiency level (as discussed above) and (2) that you have access to a transcript.
Step 1: Listen in one go
Listen! Forget about the transcript for now. At this stage, you want to listen to the audio without any interruption and see how much of it you can grasp.
You will most likely miss some words or even full sentences. That’s totally fine – it’s supposed to be challenging. Do it over again and see if you can fill in any blanks.
Remember, find something more advanced if it feels too easy. In the opposite case, tune into a lower difficulty level if possible, otherwise, just move on to step 2.
Step 2: Play copycat
Play it again, but now focusing solely on sounds and mimicry. In your first round, simply shadow what you hear, that is, mimic the sounds as you hear them. Do it in one go.
Pay special attention to sounds that you are not familiar with yet, as well as to melodic and rhythmic patterns you find peculiar to the language.
Play it a second time. This time around, pause the recording at your convenience and spend as much time as you need with it. Depending on what catches your attention, you will be mimicking either single sounds, words, or entire sentences.
Be observant of your lips, jaw, and tongue positions while you’re reproducing the sounds – the more you tune into the physicality of it, the better you will perform.
Step 3: Fill in the blanks
Bring the transcript into the picture. Play the audio and read along to fill in the gaps with the words you couldn’t parse before.
Before you rush to look up new words and expressions in the dictionary/translator, try to figure them out from the context. Only after trying the contextual approach should you fall back on the dictionary.
This contextual (no-translation) approach makes vocabulary long-term retention more likely to take place and contributes to wiring your brain to your target language.
Step 4: Listen one final time
Take a short break before taking this final step. Come back and play the audio one last time ( preferably without the transcript). Everything will probably sound much clearer now.
Take a moment to rejoice and celebrate the progress you’ve just made. Well done!
Things to keep in mind
• Sometimes you may find English translations in your drills. Use them only if you must! In that case, read the translation in one go beforehand to get the gist of it (beginners may find this very useful). Alternatively, read it afterward as a validation that you’ve got it right (especially concerning idioms and idiomatic expressions). So, either before or after, not in the middle.
• Avoid jumping between languages to compare word by word or sentence by sentence. That will turn your learning process heavy, slow, and ineffective. Always strive for a no-translation approach and to learn new words and expressions from the context.
• Finally, don’t get caught up in details – they’re beside the point. You’re good to move on once you’ve understood the text in its entirety. You can always revisit the material later on.
Get your pronunciation right.
Other online resources for listening practice
Mind that the resources I am about to suggest are European-standard specific. Learn more about how the European and Brazilian standards compare: European vs. Brazilian Portuguese – How Different Are They Really?
Portuguese Dips is my own YouTube channel aimed at Portuguese language learners and where I speak entirely in Portuguese.
Tips! Find out more YouTube channels for language learners: 10 YouTube Channels for Portuguese Language Learners.
At Portuguese Lab, you can browse through their pedagogic podcast episodes. Transcripts are normally available.
Portuguese with Carla
Portuguese with Carla is a well-humored and entertaining podcast. Carla and her co-host present you with everyday life situations/dialogues (role-plays) and then go back to break them down for you, bit by bit. Transcripts are also available.
Practice Portuguese is a language-learning subscription website. You can listen to the audio content for free, but you’ll have to pay and subscribe to their plans to get hold of the transcripts.
TV-shows with Portuguese subtitles
For more advanced learners, Portuguese TV may be an excellent source for active listening. Here’s a guide to Portuguese TV shows with Portuguese subtitles: 22 Online Portuguese TV Shows with Subtitles to Boost Your Language Learning.
It is relatively easy to find sources for passive listening. If you are currently living in a Portuguese-speaking country, then well, it is all around you. Otherwise, just turn on a Portuguese radio channel, preferably Antena 1 or TSF.
Podcasts can also be a good source for either passive or active listening. You may want to take a peek at this article: 16 Podcast Shows to Nurture Your Portuguese Language Skills (and Get to Know More About Portugal).
Hey! If you’ve enjoyed reading this article you might as well enjoy reading these:
• Mindsets and Strategies to Learn Portuguese the Best (or any other language)
• 38 Quick Tips to Improve Your Portuguese
• Online Portuguese Learning Resources that Are Actually Worth Your Time.
Get right on track towards fluency
Stay tuned for upcoming online courses and other learning materials.