Are you struggling with your pronunciation?
That's because you have yet to learn the Sounds of Portuguese.
Most language learners can understand much more Portuguese than they can speak, which may feel frustrating. Does this resonate with you?
See, speaking in Portuguese is way more demanding than it is reading a book or following along with a tv show. There’s a lot going on in our brains and bodies when we attempt to speak in our target language.
We struggle to recall words on the fly all the while we feel insecure about the way we sound. Our brains get pushed to the limit as we translate thoughts from one language to spoken words in the other and grammar-check everything.
This brain overload bogs us down and jeopardizes our flow and ability to express ourselves.
So, let’s acknowledge it. It is not so strange that our speaking skills tend to lag behind our listening and reading comprehension. That gap is, after all, understandable. At the same time, it’s easy to fall into complacency and do little to counteract it.
Here’s a question. How big must that gap be? And more importantly, what can we do to shorten it? How can we effectively tackle and overcome those speaking hurdles?
I am about to suggest a 3-pillar strategy that will bring your speaking skills up to speed more quickly. It’s actually simple. Make sure you work consistently and in parallel on each of these fronts: (1) in-context input, (2) pronunciation, and (3) speaking practice.
These pillars are intertwined and your work on each of them reinforces one another. Ultimately, this strategy will help you speak Portuguese with clarity, confidence, and freedom. Read on.
! It goes without saying that becoming fluent in any language requires time and effort. Consistency, perseverance, and daily practice are not an option but a basic prerequisite to any serious language learning approach.
1. Listen and Read in Portuguese
You need massive input in Portuguese to be able to speak it fluently. Input comes in the form of either listening or reading. The bottom line is, no input, no output.
X is a function of Y
Even if, by default, your speaking skills lag behind your listening and reading comprehension abilities, the former is still a function of the latter.
Think of your speaking skills as the plant and your reading and listening comprehension as the soil it feeds upon. Easy, right? The richer the soil is, the better the plant will grow and thrive.
So, read Portuguese books and magazines, listen to Portuguese audiobooks and radio shows, and watch Portuguese movies and series*.
Pick materials that are preferably a notch or two above your comfort zone – it must feel challenging for it to be fruitful.
* Here’re a few suggestions concerning resources you can use to work on your listening and reading skills:
• StoryLift → Short Stories for Language Learners
• 22 Online Portuguese TV Shows with Subtitles to Boost Your Language Learning
• Improve Your Portuguese Listening Skills: Best Practices
Let the Power of Stories Lift Your Portuguese.
Engaging with authentic, compelling listening and reading materials does two critical things for you and your language learning: (1) it turns your practice meaningful keeping you motivated all along; (2) you learn new words and expressions in context.
It is a well-established fact that in-context language learning favors long-term memory retention of new vocabulary.
And we are not only talking about mere, isolated words here.
See, through in-context reading and listening practice you will be effectively increasing your repertoire of idiomatic expressions, that is, expressions that are more than the sum of the single words they are made of – that’s how you get a solid idiomatic feel for Portuguese.
Acquiring the grammar (without actually studying it)
There’s more. Through extensive in-context listening and reading, you’ll be automatically absorbing implicit syntactic structures. In other words, you’ll be internalizing Portuguese grammar.
This is much more profound and powerful than studying grammar through textbooks.
Here’s the thing, understanding the set of rules governing Portuguese alone is no guarantee that you will be able to effortlessly apply them when speaking. As a matter of fact, too much focus on grammar can make you self-conscious and stunt your speaking abilities.
Conversely, for you to speak Portuguese with freedom and be grammatically sound, all those linguistic structures need to sink into deeper layers of your subconsciousness – in-context listening and reading practice plays a vital role in achieving just that.
2. Learn the Sounds of Portuguese
Getting to grips with Portuguese pronunciation is imperative if you want to speak it effortlessly with clarity and confidence.
Speaking with clarity and confidence, you will be willing to engage in conversation more often, thereby consolidating your communication skills. It is a virtuous circle.
Avoid pernicious assumptions
There is a common mindset among language learners you should avoid at all costs – it just won’t serve you.
Assuming that their pronunciation will automatically improve over time, language learners often prioritize grammar and vocabulary over pronunciation. Well, that’s not a clever assumption.
Here’s the thing. If you have difficulties with your pronunciation, and if you don’t intentionally work on it, you’ll make little to no progress over time. If anything, bad habits get ever more entrenched.
So, do make sure that you actively work on your pronunciation skills right from the start of your learning journey.
Tackle the building blocks
Start by learning Portuguese’s basic sounds. Chances are that some of them might be non-existent in your first language and, that being the case, you’ll have to make an effort to tune your ear into those “alien” frequencies.
This is important because if you can’t hear them, you won’t be able to make them either.
Next, you want to train your tongue, lips, throat, and jaw to reproduce the sounds you’re already able to acknowledge.
Note! Your ear-affinity to Portuguese sounds and your ability to reproduce them are inseparable and co-evolving. If you do the work, you will not only speak with more clarity but also improve your listening comprehension skills.
Here’s a Portuguese guide you can lean into to start exploring Portuguese phonology: European Portuguese Pronunciation: A Helpful Guide to Its Elemental Sounds.
Now, to own these sounds, you have to repeat them over and over again until you build enough muscle memory to reproduce them effortlessly – drill sounds, words, phrases, and sentences until you nail them.
Recording yourself is an indispensable tool to work on your pronunciation skills. It doesn’t take more than your mobile phone to do it.
See, you may be pronouncing words far off the mark without even being aware of it – our own perception of how we sound is often misleading.
Listening back to our utterances coming from a speaker sheds light on the way we actually sound when we speak. It can be shocking at times!
Ideally, you want to record words and short sentences to then compare them to the native standard and to subsequently work your way towards it.
Speech-to-text drills are another great way to test your pronunciation skills and hold them in check. Again, all you need is your mobile phone*.
You know that you have work still to do when the transcript you get back doesn’t match the intended spoken words. Work on those mismatches until you get it right.
* Do a quick Google search on “speech-text-dictation” and you will find a host of applications to choose from, either to download to your smartphone or to use on your browser.
Own your accent
I am not suggesting that you ought to sound like a native speaker. In fact, I don’t recommend that you set the bar that high.
Speaking without a foreign accent is super hard to achieve and having it as a goal is likely to do you more harm than good. Obsessing with it often leads to frustration, an inferiority complex, and lack of confidence.
You are most likely to keep a foreign accent and there’s nothing wrong with it. On the contrary, it’s part of your identity and your personal history. Own it.
I am only advocating that you should strive to speak Portuguese as clearly as possible – it will make your learning journey smoother, faster, and more enjoyable. Who wouldn’t want that?
So, let me make this point clear: speaking with clarity is not the same as speaking without a foreign accent. Your goal is to improve the clarity of your speech and not to sound like natives do – better is superior to perfect.
Get your pronunciation right.
3. Drill Your Speaking
There’s no doubt that the in-context input and pronunciation skills discussed above are essential to make you a competent speaker of Portuguese. However, that alone won’t cut it, at least for most of us.
You won’t go far speaking Portuguese if you don’t purposely start doing it yourself – you’ve got to push it through.
Fluency lies beyond knowledge
No one learns how to ride a bike by reading practical tips in a book alone. Sure, it can help and shorten the learning process, but you’ve got to actually do the thing yourself.
You will fall off your bike time and again in the beginning. Then you’ll start performing wobbly riding long enough until it becomes stable and steady.
The same goes when it comes to learning to speak a new language – you need to push it through beyond knowledge. Only with abundant practice will you start speaking with more freedom.
You see, fluency is a collection of speaking habits. When we speak, we tend to sound and combine words in certain ways according to the existent patterns and structures of the language in question.
It is one thing to know those patterns in theory and to recognize them when you see or hear them; it’s another thing to live up to them when you’re actively using the language.
The earlier you start practicing speaking, the earlier you’ll start to pick up those patterns, making them your own. Even processing your thoughts in Portuguese will gradually become more accessible.
In sum, the more you practice speaking in Portuguese – in parallel with being well fed by your listening and reading – the faster you will break into fluency.
Solo speaking drills
You can practice speaking Portuguese daily even if you don’t live in a Portuguese native-speaking country, or you don’t have native-speaker acquaintances around to practice with.
Great if you have it! But not having it shouldn’t prevent you from taking real action on this front – you can do it on your own.
And here’s the thing, solo speaking practice gives you full control of the level of complexity of your speaking drills. This means that you can, as a beginner, keep it simple enough to start practicing speaking from day one.
Starting drilling your speaking from day one is vital to shorten the time needed for you to break into fluency.
Here’re a few suggestions for solo speaking drills.
Reading out loud
When you’re reading in Portuguese – whether it’s a book, a magazine, or the news – read it out loud (assuming it’s appropriate).
By doing so, you’re killing two birds with one stone – not only are you working on your listening and reading comprehension, but also on your pronunciation and speaking skills.
Speak out your train of thought
Take some moments during your day – maybe when you’re at home or walking the streets – and let Portuguese take over your brain while you voice out your thoughts.
Even if, for some reason, you can’t be loud, keep your train of thought running in Portuguese. This is very powerful because you’re training yourself to think in your target language.
Adjust the complexity of your thoughts to your current language skills. It can be as simple as, Agora vou tomar um duche, or, Hoje está um dia muito bonito.
You can even emulate dialogues by having honest conversations with yourself. If you have people around you and if you worry about them thinking you are nuts, put your earplugs in as if you are talking on the phone.
Shadow what comes into your ears
Another great way to work on your pronunciation and speaking skills, in general, is to shadow podcasts, audiobooks, radio shows, or whatever you may be listening to.
Shadowing, or echoing, is listening and repeating it at the same time (there’s always a split-second lagging between the two). Ideally, you don’t want to pause your listening or go back if you missed something – go with the flow and let go of any impulse of control.
Beyond solo practice
As you improve your speaking skills with solo practice, you also want to start practicing with “real” people. Nowadays, there are a few reliable online tutoring platforms where you can easily find Portuguese language tutors – Italki and Verbling being two of them.
Now, not all tutors are made equal. You want to make sure you get one that is experienced and competent*, even if that means paying a little extra.
*What’s a competent language tutor, anyway? To learn more about my take on this topic, read this one: Find a Competent Portuguese Language Tutor to Get Good at It.
By using these apps, you will easily find a native Portuguese speaker who happens to be learning your mother tongue (or any other language you are fluent in). Once you connect, you can start supporting each other’s language practice through chatting, texting, etc.
Conversational coaching for intermediate students and upwards
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)
• Improve Your Portuguese – Quick Tips
Get right on track towards fluency
Stay tuned for upcoming online courses and other learning materials.