From Cruise Ship Musician to Practice Portuguese Co-Founder – An Interview with Joel Rendall

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Written by: | Last updated on December 7, 2023 | Est. Reading Time: 22 minutes
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Practice Portuguese is one of the most comprehensive (and most popular) tools for learning European Portuguese. It’s something many people living in Portugal will be familiar with, but most people probably don’t know the story of how it came to be. 

In this interview, I chat to Joel Rendall about how he came to live in Portugal, the difference between life here and life in Canada, and his personal tips for learning Portuguese. 

Also worth mentioning: Practice Portuguese normally costs €15 per month, but Joel and Rui have kindly given Portugalist readers 15% off their normal rate. Find out more about Practice Portuguese here, and to get the special rate: click here.

You can read a more in-depth writeup of Practice Portuguese here.

JC: Where do we begin this story? 

JR: So, I moved to Lisbon in 2012. At that point, I was actually working on cruise ships as a musician. I was playing drums in a jazz trio on ships for at least a couple of years. 

Then I was going on vacation in different places in between contracts because we would get a 2-3 month break between our 5-6 month contracts. I didn’t really have any roots yet because I was fresh out of college and I was pretty much up for going anywhere. Friends from the cruise ship would recommend places for me to stay, so I stayed in lots of different cities during that time. I stayed in Buenos Aires in Argentina, West Palm Beach in the US, Costa Rica, and then on my last break I ended up staying in Lisbon. 

And, of course, I met my future husband, Rui Coimbra, who became my partner for Practice Portuguese. I ended up doing one more 6-month ship contract, while Rui and I stayed in touch. He even came and visited me in Venice a few times throughout the contract. 

So that’s what brought me to Lisbon: the desire to wrap up this crazy cruise ship lifestyle and settle down with an amazing partner. It ended up pretty well! 

JC: Most successful moves to another country seem to start with a romance. 

JR: It’s true. 

JC: So, did you start learning Portuguese right away? 

JR: I did. At the beginning of that last contract I already knew that I was going to come back to Lisbon to see where things would go with Rui, so I decided to dedicate myself to learning Portuguese on my own during my free time. 

On the ship there weren’t really any Portuguese people that I could practice with, except for a few Brazilians. I’m sure I could have asked them for some help, although as you know, there’s a big difference between the two dialects. 

JC: There is. How far did you get with the self-studying? 

JR: I basically studied the entire A1 and A2 level myself while I was on the ship. At that point I could communicate the basics and make myself understood. Understanding Portuguese people was another matter, though. 

JC: I think that’s definitely a common experience. What kind of material were you using to study?

JR: This was before Practice Portuguese was even a thought. And at that time, I don’t think there were really any decent learning websites apart from some very outdated ones. I didn’t have great access to the internet anyway as the internet on cruise ships was slow and expensive. 

I had one book that I had gotten from Amazon. It was a big, thick one about the size of a dictionary called “Complete Portuguese: A Teach Yourself Guide”. I liked that it was half European Portuguese and half Brazilian Portuguese which, even if you aren’t going to learn Brazilian Portuguese, is still useful to be able to spot the differences. 

That was pretty much all that was available on Amazon and I think one of the first times Rui came to meet me he brought me a few books from the Aprender Português series, which happened to be the same series I later studied with at the Faculdade de Letras at Lisbon University. One of the authors actually ended up being my teacher which was a strange coincidence.

JC: What do you think are the unique challenges to learning European Portuguese?

JR: The pronunciation and the closed vowels for sure. 

In Spanish, for example, there are fewer vowel sounds which are mostly open, and some are similar to sounds we have in English. In European Portuguese, however, there are a lot of medium and closed vowel sounds that don’t exist in English, so we have to spend extra time tuning our ears to them. 

In 2016, we created a video about vowels and a chart that shows the open, medium, and closed vowel sounds for the different letters. Now my ears can hear the difference between say a closed “a” and an open “a.” 

I think focusing on those vowel sounds early on would give someone a huge advantage to not only pronunciation but also comprehension – If you can’t produce the sounds yourself, you won’t be able to recognize them when others speak to you either. 

I was 6 months in that B1 class, but the teacher didn’t really focus on these open and closed vowel sounds. I really think if you focus on this, it’ll make a big difference to your learning. 

JC: That’s a great tip. 

JR: Also, Rui was really good because he encouraged me right upon arriving in Lisbon to enroll in a course to continue learning the language. He was absolutely right, because the longer you’re in a place, the less urgency there is to learn a language. In the beginning, you haven’t adapted to your new life yet, so you have an increased sense of urgency and therefore motivation to learn. 

When I went to the Faculdade de Letras in Lisbon, I was placed in the B1 course. Naturally, I had a lot of gaps in my knowledge to clean up from having learnt on my own. Rui also helped me a lot with pronunciation which made a huge difference. In group classes, the teachers aren’t able to spend as much time on pronunciation subtleties because they’re more concerned with just getting everyone’s pronunciation to be good enough, (but not great), in order to cover as much of the other material as possible.

JC: That’s another great point about urgency. 

JR: I made friends with this German expat saxophone player, and she made a really good effort to practice speaking Portuguese. Within a few months she was speaking way better Portuguese than some other expat friends I have who have been here for several years. It’s very easy to get settled after a few months and give up almost entirely on learning the language as other life priorities take over.

I think those first few months of urgency, fear, and not being adapted to daily life are vital and, if you don’t take advantage of them, it’s really hard to get it back. It’s not impossible though – we have a lot of members who were able to find that motivation and overcome long-term plateaus.

My advice to anyone thinking of moving to Portugal would be to carve out at least six months to focus on the language as much as you can. When I came to Portugal, I knew that I was going to focus on language as much as possible so I was delaying my web design client projects and just doing the bare minimum to keep my freelance work afloat. I couldn’t imagine doing a full day’s work and then trying to learn the language on the side. 

After four hours at the university, my brain was fried and I was cranky and stressed. I barely found the energy to continue practising the language with Rui. Even though a Portuguese course can be exhausting, it’s just as important to put in the time getting speaking experience outside of classes.

Overall, I think it’s more challenging to learn a language little-by-little as a side project. I think you really have to go intense once you first get here, and then you can start tapering down once you’ve already reached a point where you can have real-life conversations without much stress or miscommunication. At that point, you’ll find yourself in situations where you’re more likely to be able to actually grow your vocabulary as you need it.

JC: Where are you at with Portuguese now?

JR: I consider myself pretty fluent because I can go about my life and be understood – somewhere at the mid-C1 level. I can understand and be understood in any phone call I need to make, which was one of the more challenging milestones. But although I’ve reached a good level of fluency, I still often make grammar mistakes and lack vocabulary, especially in more specialized situations.

Fluency isn’t as much of a destination as it is a moving target. Learning a language as adults, we can’t expect to reach the same level of vocabulary and especially pronunciation as a native, so you have to really determine what “fluent” means to you, and be realistic about how much time and focus you want to put into your learning in the long-term.

I think a lot of people make the mistake of trying to study every single piece of vocabulary that comes their way. I don’t have all the vocabulary I need for every situation, especially for more specialised areas, for example, doctor’s appointments, the mechanic’s, bureaucracy, or any other time extra formal vocabulary is needed.

I always say that as a foreigner, we’re always going to continue to make errors and misunderstand something. We just need to brush ourselves off, overcome the mild embarrassment of that moment, and work to reduce the frequency at which it happens. It’s better to have that attitude than expect perfection from ourselves, and end up never really speaking the language. 

JC: Were there any other challenges? 

JR: When I was in Argentina or Costa Rica, I was trying to learn Spanish and it was way easier to get speaking experience because people wouldn’t switch to English all the time. That’s probably because the general public’s level of English isn’t as high as in Portugal. 

One thing that a lot of people experience here is that you try to speak Portuguese and then they switch to English, either because they want to be accommodating or to show that they can speak English. 

That’s definitely hard because no matter how much study you do at home, there comes a point where you have to get those words out of your mouth. Unless you’re lucky enough to live with a Portuguese partner who is very patient and willing to help you out a lot, a lot of people have a hard time breaking through this plateau. 

It is often uncomfortable, but when first interacting with someone new, it helps to say something like, “I’m learning Portuguese, and need to practise”. A humble smile goes a long way too, towards winning over someone’s patience and sparking their curiosity to suffer through the inevitably slower conversation. Usually they are thrilled that you’re learning their language, showing that you are taking a genuine interest in their culture, as opposed to just passing through for a few days as a tourist. 

JC: Besides learning Portuguese, what was it like integrating into Portuguese life? 

JR: It’s challenging adapting to any new country, so many of my challenges might not be specific to adapting specifically to Portugal. And, of course, there are so many factors affecting how my adaptation period went, that it’s hard to generalize. For example, not having a Portuguese partner there to help me along the way probably would have really changed how I experienced the country as a whole in those first few months.

That said, one thing that stands out is social etiquette. In Canada, for example, if I’m standing in line somewhere, it’s very common for complete strangers to strike up a conversation and soon start asking personal questions about my life as soon as something sparks their interest. I think that that’s a fair stereotype about North America, that strangers are more chatty, which could either be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on your personality.

JC: I’m not sure that would happen anywhere in Europe, to be honest. We aren’t quite as forward here. 

JR: Yeah, in Portugal, I find that people really mind their own business. On one hand, I like that I can go about my day without having to make the effort to make as much small talk, especially if I’m in a hurry or inside my own head. On the other hand, if I’m feeling more extroverted, it can be hard to get people to open up and people can come across a bit colder. 

If I’m walking down the street and exchange a glance with someone, it’s still a habit for me to greet someone that’s looking at me. After saying “olá”, or “tudo bem?”, I’m often just ignored and end up feeling like an idiot, thinking, “pff, you jerk. How dare you not respond to my greeting!”

Maybe it’s because I’m a young(ish) guy walking down the street, or perhaps it’s something about the politics of the past that still has the personality of the country in a shell in some ways. Either way, it’s common for Portuguese strangers to come across as shy or even suspicious.

JC: And what about meeting new people?

JR: Meeting new people was also pretty challenging. As a musician, I was trying to meet other musicians when I arrived, but it was hard. Part of that has to do with the nightlife, which begins very late here. I think it also has to do with me already being an adult that hasn’t really been part of any kind of any of the major social institutions where we often automatically meet friends (school, the workplace, clubs etc). I think a quick way to meet new people is to try to put yourself in one of these situations, but I didn’t really take the time early on, so it has been a slower process.

Frankly, I keep a pretty small social circle and should be better about making time for the friends I already have, so meeting new friends hasn’t really been a huge priority for me so far. Of course, having a Portuguese partner also comes along with an automatic social circle, for better or for worse!

JC: When did Practice Portuguese come about?

JR: Right from the start, it was clear at the time that there was a gap in the European Portuguese learning market, especially internationally and online. Back when I was trying to learn Spanish, I enjoyed using podcasts like “Coffee Break Spanish”, and “News in Slow Spanish”. Also, while I was studying Portuguese, I would go through all the audio exercises that came on the CD of whatever book I was using, and really craved more Portuguese audio, (especially conversational), with accompanying transcription. As my B1 course wrapped up, Rui expressed interested in tackling this problem with me, just to see where it would go.

Rui has always been so patient and helpful. It’s really not an easy skill for a native speaker to be able to help you deconstruct their own language in a way that makes sense to a foreigner, and he was always a natural at it.

We decided start a podcast, just to see where it would go, calling it Practice Portuguese. Even though I was a web designer, we just used the default “twentytwelve” WordPress website template, installed a simple membership plugin to allow us to sell the transcripts, and kept the site pretty similar for at least a couple years.

I had experience of trying to start online businesses in the past, and had learned it was easy to spend weeks or months on the technical and design aspects, and get burnt out by the time you start making any meaningful content.

Our first logo was from a hilarious site called something like “Crappy $5 logos”, where you would pay the money, and the guy would draw up a logo for you based on little or no provided details… NO REFUNDS! We kept that logo for a few years, and our current logo actually still uses his original hand-drawn lettering.

As the podcast started to catch on, especially in Facebook groups, I finally did a proper job on redesigning the site to be more customized, but I am really glad we took this approach of putting the content first.

As we continued launching podcast episodes alongside our “real jobs”, we could see there was still a lot of untapped potential in this field. All of the major software companies weren’t doing something for European Portuguese and I felt like this market needs something like Rosetta Stone or Duolingo. We have always taken a very personal approach to customer support, which helps us stay focussed on what our members need us to do next.

Since I was still building websites for Canadian clients at the time, it was all we could do just to get the podcast out and keep up with customer support. Even though we had ideas, we didn’t have a lot of time to grow it into a more interactive online platform, but it was becoming more and more clear that we had to do something.

Around 2015, I started trying to build a simple learning platform using some quiz plugins, and customizing them with my pretty rudimentary programming skills. 

Meanwhile Rui was working on the content and his mom was even helping us on a regular basis! The more Practice Portuguese started to grow, the more I wanted to devote time to getting our new platform off the ground. I began to resent the time I was spending on web design client work, and started seeing this project as my way out of that cycle of chasing one-off freelance jobs. 

We called the platform “The Learning Studio”. Since we weren’t sure how it would be received, we launched it as a separate membership alongside the podcast membership. Once we saw that most of our new members would go for the full package, we phased out “Podcast Plus” (except to existing members), and now just offer the one membership tier where they get access to everything. 

Since this change, we’ve continued to integrate the two elements, since a learner really needs to be using both: a) A sequential approach to building their vocabulary and grammar right from the basics, and b) Using audio or video with transcriptions to practice the language within the context of how natives actually speak. 

JC: Big changes. 

JR: Yes. In 2016, I decided to take the “leap of faith” by finally letting go of my web design freelance clients. It wasn’t easy because I really felt like I was burning bridges, and I really liked most of them.

(Of course, it was also a relief since one big client that provided 60% of my income also caused 90% of my stress. I don’t miss waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of panicked message notifications in all-caps about how an image was misaligned 3 pixels to the left on mobile screens). 

So at that moment, I was excited to be able to finally move the platform forward, but also a bit terrified to have put all my eggs in one basket. But it became very clear that it was the right decision, since our membership grew significantly from that point on.

JC: Do you think European Portuguese has grown in popularity since you started?

JR: I think so. Since we started, competitors have started popping up in the European Portuguese space. It is starting to feel a lot less like a niche compared to before, and I’m glad we got started early. We’re just glad that there is more content available to learners, whether from us or from others that have their own unique style.

I think the world has really been made more aware of Portugal these last few years and it seems tourism has been exploding (at least, up until COVID-19). 

More people are moving to Portugal, which may have to do with more people feeling unsettled in the United States, and the United Kingdom’s Brexit situation…

We feel lucky to be able to help members from these countries and many others, because not only will their experience in the country be much better by learning the language, but they will also be better received by the Portuguese community by adapting to the native language, instead of expecting Portugal to adapt to them.

JC: And has Practice Portuguese been well-received within Portugal?

JR: We do get comments on YouTube from people who stumble upon our videos and are excited to see people promoting Portuguese from Portugal. Actually, there will often even be a Portuguese native sparking arguments about how Portugal speaks “real Portuguese”, and not “Brazilian”! 

Since early on, the headline on our site has been “Desculpem Brasileiros, Queremos Português Europeu!” (Sorry Brazilians, we want European Portuguese!) We don’t really have a dog in this fight though – any dialect of a language is just as legit as another if it’s spoken by a population – we just use that cheeky headline to communicate our selling point as being the answer to those who have been searching for a European Portuguese resource after stumbling across Brazilian Portuguese as the common default.

Sometimes natives will also chime in about their opinion on the Novo Acordo, a language reform from years ago that changed some spelling rules of the language. Although we follow the new rules, there are many (including schools) that choose not to.

So, yeah, we do get a lot of excited Portuguese commenters, but it’s often them commenting on the language or Portugal in general, as opposed to them raving about how amazing we are. (That’s the job of our members! :))

JC: You’re making Portugal proud. 

JR: Aw shucks. I should also mention that although not much has changed about our messaging and the way we talk to members, one major change is that it’s no longer just Rui and I running the show, especially now that we have a 5-month-old baby girl.

We’ve been launching a new Shorty (bite-sized audio dialogues) every day or so, and we have a team of helpers writing and recording those.  

Molly is an American who was living here for a while and became a good friend. She has been essential to keeping us afloat from behind-the-scenes, from helping with pretty much everything from support to managing the production of the Shorties, reporting bugs, and just generally making sure everything stays on schedule with our content production.

Luckily for our members, I’m not doing any programming anymore. We have an awesome programmer, Alex, who really cares about our long-term vision. He is good about challenging me on the technical ideas and implementation I bring to him, which is always way better than someone just blindly implementing a half-baked idea. 

Our site is still built on WordPress, but it’s been so expanded and customized that it’s all mostly custom code on the front-end at this point.

We also have Joseph, who is Portuguese, and has been helping for years with support, transcriptions, writing, and other miscellaneous Portuguese-related projects. You’ll see him the most in our forum and episode comment threads, patiently responding to the intricate questions our members come up with!

It’s common for a 1-2 sentence question to basically turn into a full-blown article from Joseph, carefully-researched and explained with examples. A lot of these discussions become new “Learning Notes” or other types of content on the platform.

We’ve also got Eduardo helping us with building out new Units, João and Mário writing Shorties, as well as our recording talent: Pedro, Eliana, Fernanda, Natascha… as well as several other guests, including Rui’s avó Odete and his parents, Ana & Rui Sr., who have been our biggest supporters over the years.

Sorry, I know it’s not an awards show but I don’t want to leave people thinking that it’s still just Rui and I doing everything from scratch like superheroes! We have a really great team that helps us, and are essential to us continuing to grow. At any one time, there are probably around 10 people collaborating with us, ranging from part to full-time.

JC: And, you definitely need that help at the moment as new parents! Finally, would you say you’re settled in Portugal?

JR: Yes, she’s almost 6 months old now, our little COVID baby. I feel well-integrated into the culture, and don’t see us going anywhere any time soon. I’m incredibly proud to be Canadian, and very privileged to be able to live in Portugal!

Rui and Joel at Practice Portuguese stand
Joel and Rui promoting Practice Portuguese at the BLIP Expo in Portimão
Written by

James Cave is the founder of Portugalist and the author of the bestselling book, Moving to Portugal Made Simple. He has visited just about every part of Portugal, including Madeira and all nine islands of the Azores, and lived in several parts of Portugal including Lisbon, the Algarve, and Northern Portugal.