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How to Learn (European) Portuguese

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So, you’ve decided to learn European Portuguese? Maybe you’ve decided to move to Portugal, maybe you’ve fallen in love with a Portuguese man or woman, or maybe you’ve just fallen in love with the language.

Regardless of your reasons, congrats! Portuguese is a beautiful and incredibly underrated language, and one that is definitely worth learning.

Most of the articles and resources that you’ll find online cover Brazilian Portuguese, but this article focuses entirely on Portuguese from Portugal. It covers all levels, from absolute beginners right up until the very advanced levels, and it’s designed to simplify the challenge of learning Portuguese as a new language.

How hard is it to learn Portuguese?

A lot of people say that Portuguese is a hard language to learn, and they’re not wrong. The grammar is complex, and even things like pronunciation can be a stumbling block.

That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to learn Portuguese, though. Far from it. While some languages (like Spanish) may be easier to learn than Portuguese, Portuguese is still a romance language. It’s not Chinese or Arabic. It’s not even Hungarian or Polish. You don’t have to learn an entire new alphabet, and there are plenty of words that are similar to English words.

There are several systems that attempt to classify languages by difficulty such as the American Foreign Service Institute (FSI) classification. This classification puts Portuguese in the first category, alongside several other languages like French, Spanish, and Italian.

It may be more difficult than some of the other languages within the same category, sure, but, for native English speakers, it’s still simpler than most other languages. If you already speak another romance language, or at least have studied one, it’ll be even simpler again.

How long will it take?

It’s hard to estimate how long it’ll take to learn a language, Portuguese or otherwise. Firstly, it depends on how good you want to be. Do you want to have enough to get by, do you want to be fairly fluent, or are you going for somewhere in between?

The CEFR scale goes A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2. To use the CEFR grades, A2 is considered the basic level. With an A2-level of Portuguese, you’ll be able to get by in most simple conversations. A2 Portuguese is also the level you need to achieve if you’re applying for Portuguese citizenship.

There is an A1-level, which is the level where you learn to introduce yourself, talk about your hobbies and family, ask for directions, and other basic phrases like that. A1 Portuguese is not usually tested, though, and most of the books cover A1 and A2 together.

B2 is where you start to get into fluency, and that’s a good level to aim for. Once you get into the Cs, then you really start to know your way around the Portuguese language.

How long does all of this take?

It depends on a lot of factors, but the biggest factor is you.

There are people who spend 10 years living in Portugal and would probably fail the A2-level test. Some would even fail the A1-level. Other people come to Portugal, take a really intensive Portuguese course, and get to A2-level within a few weeks.

It depends on how much effort you put in. Learning a language takes a lot of time. Different organisations, like the American Foreign Service Institute (FSI), have tried to estimate how many hours it’ll take to reach a reasonable level of proficiency (B1/B2). Most estimate around 400-600 hours but, depending on the person, it could be double that.

Now, this is just an estimate and it doesn’t take into account a lot of factors. One thing it is good for, though, is showing you that you need to be studying everyday. Taking a class once a week, or even twice a week, isn’t going to be enough.

Let’s say it takes 500 hours. At 1 hour per week, that’s going to take you an incredibly long time: almost 10 years. If you were doing an hour and a half per day, however, you could get there in a year.

This is just an estimate. The only value of this is to show you just how much work is involved in learning a language so that you can decide if you still want to do this. If you do, keep reading.

Where do you even begin?

Starting to learn a new language is incredibly overwhelming, and it can be difficult to know where you should begin.

Basically, you can begin anywhere but it does make sense to take a smart approach to learning Portuguese, and to focus on the words and phrases that you’re most likely to use. You’ll also need to learn how to create sentences, particularly for the verbs you’re most likely to use.

A beginner’s course or a travel Portuguese course is a good place to start as it focuses on topics like going to the restaurant, asking for directions, etc. If you’re in Portugal already, you’ll be able to use all of these words and phrases straight away.

Once you’ve started to nail the basics, you can begin doing other things like practice speaking Portuguese, listen to Portuguese music, and try to read books in Portuguese. And, once you’ve completed the beginner’s course, you can then start taking more advanced courses.

So:

  1. Start with a beginner’s course
  2. Begin immersing yourself in Portuguese newspapers, films, etc.
  3. Progress from beginner to intermediate and so on.

But, before that…

Understand your motivations for learning Portuguese

Learning a language is hard. It doesn’t matter whether you’re learning Portuguese or Mandarin, unless you have a good motivation for learning a language you’ll come up with reasons not to study.

The most common reason to learn Portuguese is to live in Portugal, although a lot of people give up once they realise that they can get by in English. That’s especially true if all of their friends are English speakers. If they have Portuguese speaking friends, however, they’ll feel more of a need to get to a level where they can hold proper conversations in Portuguese.

What are your motivations?

Set a goal

Start by setting a goal. If your main goal is fluency, break it up into little goals otherwise you’re likely to feel too overwhelmed.

A2 is a good starting point, as this is the basic level you need to get by in Portugal, but you could start with a mini goal of A1-level Portuguese. You don’t necessarily have to take an exam, or even complete a course that’s geared around a certain level, but it does give you something to aim for.

Decide how you’ll learn (self-study or classes)

There are two ways to learn a language: you can either teach yourself or you can have someone else teach you (either one-on-one or in classes).

Of course, there’s no such thing as completely self-studying a language. You will need to interact with native speakers so that they can give you feedback, but you can definitely cover a lot of other elements (like grammar and vocabulary) yourself.

You also can’t learn a language simply by attending classes. Learning a language involves memorisation and practice, and that’s not something a teacher can do for you.

Option 1: Learning Portuguese through classes

Although European Portuguese can be a bit of a niche language, it’s definitely still possible to take classes and learn to speak it. If you’re coming to Portugal, there are definitely plenty of courses here especially in Lisbon and Porto. It’s also possible to study Portuguese outside of Portugal and you’ll find classes (or at least private teachers) in most major cities.

Option 2: Learning Portuguese by self-studying

Teaching yourself isn’t for everyone and requires a lot of discipline and motivation. It’ll be easier if you’ve already learnt one other foreign language, but it’s definitely still going to be a challenge.

The good news is that it’s possible to learn Portuguese by yourself. There are plenty of great books and courses that cover European Portuguese or, if you prefer to keep things digital, it’s possible to learn Portuguese entirely online.

Even though you’re studying yourself, don’t neglect to practice speaking Portuguese with native Portuguese speakers. Speaking (and listening) is probably the most important part of learning a language, and you ideally want to start doing this as soon as possible.

Step #1: Start with a beginner’s course

Regardless of whether you’re taking a course or self-studying, start with a beginner’s Portuguese course. Although basic Portuguese courses can be very dry, especially the textbook courses, they do provide a very important foundation that you can build upon.

Some of these courses correspond to a CEFR level (A2 is the standard to aim for initially) and some, like Pimsleur (read review) or Michel Thomas, just classify themselves a beginners, intermediate, and advanced.

Yes, you can watch movies in Portuguese, listen to Portuguese music or Portuguese podcasts, or use apps like Memrise. These are all great but you really do still need to get that foundation, and you only really get that from studying a beginner’s course.

If you’re planning to study Portuguese primarily by taking classes, look out for beginner’s classes nearby. If you’re in Portugal already, you won’t have any problem finding them. There are plenty of language schools in Lisbon, Porto, the Algarve, and throughout the country.

Outside of Portugal, it can be a little trickier. Big cities like London and New York will all have courses, and it’s usually easy enough to find private teachers on classifieds websites (e.g. Craigsist or Gumtree) as well. Smaller locations, however, don’t always have Portuguese courses and you may have to either come to Portugal for an intensive course or start by self-studying.

If you’re self-studying:

Whatever you do, don’t procrastinate trying to find the best course. Some courses are better than others, but doing any course is better than procrastinating while you try to find the best one. There actually aren’t that many to choose from when it comes to European Portuguese, so that makes things a little easier.

Step #2: Start immersing yourself in Portuguese

Below you’ll find resources for speaking Portuguese, writing it, and listening to it. This includes podcasts, Portuguese music and films, newspapers, and much more. These are often much more fun than studying a language course, and you’ll actually feel like you’re using what you’re learning.

Useful resources for learning Portuguese

Now that you have some structure, some kind of course or curriculum that you can follow, it’s time to talk about all the different resources that are out there.

Resources for learning Portuguese vocabulary

Memrise

Memrise, a flashcard app and website that’s similar to Duolingo, has a number of courses that focus on European Portuguese. It’s great for learning vocabulary and some basic phrases, although, on its own, that’s not enough to really learn a language.

Memrise allows you to make your own courses, and is good for recording new words and phrases that you learn from other resources like Portuguese podcasts, books, tv shows, and from your language lessons. The spaced repetition approach means that Memrise will keep testing you on the word until it’s satisfied that you have properly memorised it.

Drops

Drops is similar to Duolingo although, unlike Duolingo, it covers European Portuguese. It’s great for playing when you have 5 minutes free, and it can help to grow your vocabulary.

Drops is available for both iOS (iPhones and iPads) and also Android.

Learn Portuguese Vocabulary – 6,000 Words

A simple app that covers 6,000 of the most useful words in Portuguese. Like Drops and Memrise, it’s good for playing around with when you’ve got a spare 5 minutes. The app is available on iOS and Android.

Other Portuguese vocabulary resources

Resources for speaking Portuguese

Languages are meant to be spoken, and you should be trying to speak Portuguese as soon as possible. If you’re in Portugal, you’ll be able to go to restaurants and cafés and practice simple things like ordering food or asking people for directions on the street. This is good, but you’ll soon find that you cover a lot of the same phrases over and over again. You’ll be ready to move onto something a little more complex.

There are two way main ways to practice speaking Portuguese: a conversational class with a teacher or a tandem exchange.

Conversational Portuguese classes

In a conversational class, you and the teacher simply talk in Portuguese. These classes are quite flexible. In the first class you might talk about yourself but, as you improve, you may want to pick a topic to talk about e.g. something in the news.

You’ll be surprised at how much you’re able to say. At first it’ll feel a little unnatural but, after a couple of lessons, it’ll all start to flow a lot quicker and you’ll feel more at ease at speaking Portuguese.

As you speak, the teacher should also correct your grammar, vocab, and pronunciation mistakes. Then, after the lesson, you can go over those mistakes.

  • Most language schools will offer 1-on-1 conversational lessons, even if you normally study in a group class. Just ask your school.
  • There are also several European Portuguese teachers on Italki that offer conversational classes for as little as €10 per hour. These classes take place over Skype, and you can book a class as and when you need one.
  • If you live in Portugal, or know of a Portuguese teacher in your area, almost all will be happy to offer conversational classes.

Language tandems with native Portuguese speakers

Another way to practice speaking Portuguese is to take part in a language tandem or language exchange. Simply find a native European Portuguese speaker who’s learning English (or your native language), meetup, and take turns to practice speaking in each language.

There are several benefits to language tandems. Firstly, they’re free. Secondly, they can be a good way to meet people.

Unfortunately, they’re not usually as effective as practicing with a professional teacher. Many partners are just too nice, and don’t want to point out all of your mistakes. When you’re learning a language, you want someone who is willing to point out all of your mistakes.

Some places to find a language exchange partner are:

Resources for listening to Portuguese

Podcasts

Podcasts, both those aimed at Portuguese language learners and those aimed at native Portuguese speakers, are a good way to practice your Portuguese listening – as long as you can get a hold of a transcript.

  • Practice Portuguese – A podcast for those learning European Portuguese that has fun stories and then some discussion. You’ll need to pay to get the transcript, but it’s definitely worth it.
  • Say it in Portuguese – A podcast that focuses on Portuguese expressions. The podcast is entirely in Portuguese, and the transcript is available online for free.
  • Portuguese with Carla – A podcast for Portuguese language learners that includes a short dialogue, the transcript, and an explanation of some of the grammar and vocabulary used.

Portuguese music

Listening to Portuguese music is a great way to familiarise yourself with the sounds of Portuguese words, and often you’ll pick up a few new phrases as well. The great thing about music is that it’s often very easy to get a hold of the lyrics, which can’t be said for things like radio, podcasts, and television.

  • Lyrics Training – An app (for web and smartphones) where you listen to songs, see some of the lyrics, and try to fill in the missing words. A lot of the Portuguese songs are from Brazilian artists, but there are a few from Portugal as well.
  • Listen to Portuguese music – Listening to Portuguese music is a great way to immerse yourself in Portuguese. As well as international genres like pop and hip hop, Portuguese music has its own styles like Fado and Pimba that are fun to listen to as well.

Portuguese television

Portugal has plenty of TV shows, and watching these can really help to improve your Portuguese. Most Portuguese TV stations allow you to stream their content online, regardless of whether you’re in Portugal or not.

The main challenge is finding TV shows that have subtitles, but this list of TV shows should get you started.

Portuguese movies

Portugal doesn’t have a huge film industry currently, and getting a hold of Portuguese movies can sometimes be a little challenging. You won’t find many Portuguese movies or TV shows on Netflix, at least not in European Portuguese, and you’ll probably need to order the DVDs from Amazon or go to a shop like Fnac if you’re in Portugal.

Tip: Dictation is a great way to really improve your Portuguese listening skills. All you need is some Portuguese audio that has an accompanying transcript. Simply listen to the Portuguese audio, write down what you think is being said, and then compare your version to the real transcription. You may need to listen to the audio a few times, and it can be very hard, but it’ll really help you improve.

Resources for reading Portuguese

Google Translate

Google Translate is a pretty obvious recommendation for reading Portuguese. Be sure to click the star button to save any words you don’t know, so that you can learn them later.

Note: Google Translate works best to translate from Portuguese to English. If you try to translate the other way around, you run the risk of it translating into very Brazilian Portuguese sounding sentences.

Resources for writing Portuguese

Lang-8

Lang-8 allows you to upload text that you’ve written in Portuguese (or any other language) and have that text corrected by native Portuguese speakers. In return, you’re expected to correct other people’s writing as well.

Hello Talk

Hello Talk is a social networking app for language learners. It allows you to connect with native speakers and message each other. The app’s messaging system has an option to correct the other person’s mistakes, so perfect for improving your written Portuguese. It’s also a good way to see how Portuguese people write when using apps and other forms of social media.

PenPal Websites

Penpal websites like Interpals and Global Penfriends are great for making Portuguese friends that you can write to in Portuguese and, hopefully, have them correct any mistakes you make. In return, you’re expected to do the same for them in English.

Resources for learning Portuguese grammar

Verbix

Verbix is a simple verb conjugation tool that covers European Portuguese. Simply enter a verb (e.g. falar – to speak) and it’ll show you the Portuguese for I speak, you speak, I will speak, etc.

v”ErbuS

v”ErbuS is another verb conjugation tool for European Portuguese, but with the benefit of audio. The audio can be quite crackly, but it’s still better than nothing.

Conjugemos

Conjugemos has several games where you can test your ability to conjugate verbs. It’s much more fun than trying to memorise verb tables!

Step #3: Progress to the next level

A2, as mentioned, is considered to be a good basic user. It’s enough to get by in Portugal, but only really on fairly simple topics. To really hold conversations in Portuguese and with Portuguese people, you’ll want to work towards B2-level Portuguese. Take this step-by-step and, if you really want to progress, keep going until you get all the way to C1 and C2 Portuguese.

  • B1
  • B2
  • C1
  • C2

What about Brazilian Portuguese?

Even if you’re studying Portuguese from Portugal, at some point it’s worth familiaring yourself with Brazilian Portuguese as well. You may not be planning to go to Brazil, but you’ll meet a lot of Brazilians in Portugal and it’s good to get used to the differences.

It’s probably best to wait until you’re pretty familiar with European Portuguese before you begin looking at Brazilian Portuguese. Brazilian Portuguese is pronounced differently, has different words (or the words have a different meaning), and even has different grammar and sentence structure.

Last updated in February 2019.
If you spot a mistake, leave a comment below.

2 thoughts on “How to Learn (European) Portuguese”

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  1. That was a VERY helpful article. Finally some answers on how to learn Portuguese as spoken in Portugal. I’m a 77 year old woman who loves to travel, alone, and am going for a second holiday in Lisbon and Cascais in September. I have friends that I meet in a digital virtual world game that are Portuguese people living in Lisbon. They speak very good English, probably helped by the fact that a large majority of people in the game are English speaking.

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