So you’ve decided to learn Portuguese and specifically European Portuguese (as opposed to Brazilian 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 an incredibly beautiful language, and Portuguese from Portugal is very underrated as a world language.
The following are some tips that will help you master it.
Start By Setting A Goal
Learning a new language can be incredibly overwhelming, particularly if you set vague goals like ‘I want to learn to speak Portuguese.’ Instead, decide what you actually want to achieve.
The following are examples of some good, concrete goals:
- I want to learn enough Portuguese to get Portuguese citizenship or permanent residency (A2 level)
- I just want to know the basics like being able to order coffee or speak to someone at the supermarket (probably an A2 level but possibly just an A1)
- I want a decent day-to-day level of Portuguese (probably B2 or even C1 level)
- I want to be able to comfortably hold conversations with native speakers without having them switch to English (probably C1 or even C2 level)
(Tip: if your goal is to pass an exam, such as the A2, book the exam for a few months in advance so you really have something to work towards.)
Work With A course or Textbook
While you might be tempted to start watching Portuguese movies, read a children’s book in Portuguese, or immediately trying to hold a conversation, a good place to build a foundation in your language knowledge is with a structured course. This could be through group classes or by using a textbook or using one of the many wonderful self-study resources out there.
$399 + Tax (approx)
A1 – B2
Mimics classroom style. Very good on grammar.
€12.75 per month
A1 – B2
Very affordable, interactive, and particularly great for audio.
€25 per month
A1 – B2
In-depth and immersive.
A great approach for learning how to construct sentences (rather than just memorising phrases). Very interactive.
$20.95 per month
Ideal for learning Portuguese on the go (e.g. while walking or at the gym or in the car).
$35 per month or $350 per year
A1 – B2
Lots of great content.
On a budget? Practice Portuguese is probably the best value for money, and there are lots of free resources for learning European Portuguese as well. Michel Thomas Portuguese is also very well-liked and you can sometimes find old CDs at your local library or second-hand on Amazon or eBay.
These days, most people prefer to learn through an online course or app, but if you prefer old-fashioned textbooks, there are quite a few of these as well.
Learn the Useful Words & Phrases First
Resources like Michel Thomas are great for learning how to structure sentences rather than regurgitate memorised phrases, but there’s definitely a lot of value in learning these common words and phrases — particularly in the beginning.
A tourist phrasebook will give you all of the words and phrases that you’re likely to need in day-to-day situations, such as at a hotel or at the supermarket. 50 Languages offers as much content as the phrasebooks produces like big companies like The Lonely Planet or Rough Guides and it’s free.
Put A Big Emphasis on Listening
European Portuguese can be very difficult to understand, at least initially, as the Portuguese famously “swallow” their vowels. This basically means that people seem to pronounce words without saying the vowels and clip the endings off words so that each word runs into the next.
It can be very difficult to understand what’s being said, but you can improve your comprehension by:
- Studying how words are pronounced so you can hear better (and speak better Portuguese)
- Listening to a lot of European Portuguese spoken by native speakers
A good place to begin your understanding of European Portuguese pronunciation is with this video that covers the open and closed vowels in European Portuguese.
For general listening, some helpful resources include:
- Practice Portuguese – Has a lot of audio content, especially the ‘shorties.’
- Portuguese Podcasts – There are some useful podcasts aimed at language learners that include a transcription.
- Portuguese TV shows – There are a handful of Portuguese TV shows that have subtitles in Portuguese.
Accept that It’ll Take Time
Learning a language is hard, despite all of the language courses that promise to teach you a new language in 30 days. And, unfortunately, you won’t learn Portuguese with an app – although there are some apps that can complement your language learning.
Joel Rendall, who co-runs Practice Portuguese, says students typically take anywhere from a few months to a few years to reach an A2-level of Portuguese. This is the upper-beginner level, and also the required level if you’re planning to apply for Portuguese citizenship.
Achieving something closer to fluency will take a bit longer, unfortunately. Portugalist reader, Jonah Salita, was able to reach roughly a C1-level of Portuguese (which is essentially fluency) in 18 months, but this was with him studying for around 3 hours every day.
Get Lots of Speaking Practice
When you have a reasonable amount of Portuguese under your belt, it’s time to practice speaking Portuguese.
One thing many people don’t realise is how little speaking opportunities they’ll get by living in Portugal. This is because:
- Many Portuguese people speak excellent English and prefer to speak in English if you can’t speak Portuguese.
- Most expats aren’t surrounded by Portuguese people (e.g. through work or school) and are more likely to be surrounded by English speakers and English-language content instead.
- You typically end up using the same words and phrases in the same situation (e.g. at the supermarket or at the café) so if these are your only interactions in Portuguese, you will struggle to progress beyond this.
Practicing speaking is important in any language but it’s particularly important in European Portuguese because of how key pronunciation is.
The best way to get speaking practice is either with a language tutor or with a language exchange partner. In theory, a tutor is the better option as they’ll be better equipped to give you feedback and tell you where you’re going wrong but it’s actually quite difficult to find a European Portuguese tutor who gives good feedback. You may have to try out a few different tutors and perhaps combine this with a language exchange partner as well.
- Italki (or similar sites like Preply and Verbling) are great for finding affordable tutors that work over Skype
- HelloTalk is a useful resource for finding native speakers who want to do a language exchange. Similar sites include Tandem.net and MyLanguageExchange.com.
Don’t Avoid Brazilian Portuguese Completely
You’ll want to avoid materials that teach Brazilian Portuguese so you don’t get confused with the grammar and pronunciation — this includes Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, Babbel, and Mondly — but you should familiarise yourself with Brazilian Portuguese (even if you won’t aim to speak like a Brazilian). There are so many Brazilians in Portugal that it’s likely you’ll have several Brazilian friends. You may even end up speaking to Brazilians more than you do local Portuguese people.
The following are some resources that can help familiarise you with the sounds of Brazilian Portuguese:
- iTalki – Find native teachers and speakers in Brazil that you can practice speaking with or take classes from.
- BrazilPodclass – A podcast with hundreds and hundreds of lessons that cover everything from asking for directions to getting your car washed, ordering office supplies, and the Mediterranean diet. Everything basically.
- Netflix – Netflix has quite a bit of content in Brazil, and you can also change the language to PT-BR on many Portuguese shows and watch the shows with both Portuguese and English subtitles.
- Pimsleur Brazilian Portuguese – A very accessible, but quite basic beginner’s course.
- PortuguesePod101 – One of the most popular Brazilian courses, which goes right up to C1 level.
- Semantica Portuguese – Video-based learning that aims to imitate real-life situations.
Don’t forget about the Grammar
As well as a course that has a good focus on grammar, the following tools will help you learn Portuguese grammar.
- Linguno [Link] – A fun app that tests you on several things including grammar. [Read Reviews]
- Clozemaster [link] – Another fun app with a strong focus on grammar. Note: this app is more skewed towards Portuguese from Brazil.
- Conjugemos [Link] – Has several games where you can test your ability to conjugate verbs. It’s much more fun than trying to memorise verb tables!
- Verbix [Link] – 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 in European Portuguese.
Don’t Forget to Have fun!
As well as taking a beginner’s course and learning essential phrases, it’s important that you actually get to use your Portuguese and have a little fun (otherwise what’s the point!). Learning a language is hard work, and if you don’t enjoy it you’ll quickly give up or just end up resenting it.
Here are some fun things you can do that’ll help your Portuguese:
- Watch films and TV shows in Portuguese.
- Listen to Portuguese music.
- Find a tandem partner or penpal (that you actually connect with) and make a new friend.
- Go to Portugal or Brazil (or Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Macau, Cape Verde, or São Tomé and Príncipe).
- Date a Portuguese or Brazilian (if you’re single, of course!).
- Practice speaking with a native speaker using iTalki as soon as you feel comfortable (and even before).
- Chat with natives via text using HelloTalk to build up your confidence before you chat to them over Skype using iTalki.
- Join a community of other people who are self-studying Portuguese. Practice Portuguese have their forums and many other courses, like Portuguese Master Course, have private Facebook groups.
Should I learn Brazilian Portuguese or European Portuguese?
If you’re going to be living in Portugal, it makes sense to learn Portuguese as it’s spoken in Portugal. Brazilian Portuguese might be more melodic or easier (even the Portuguese say this) but, even if you learn to speak Portuguese with a Brazilian accent, you’ll still need to be able to understand when Portuguese people are speaking to you.
Should I self study or take a class?
Whichever works best for you! If you’re motivated, self-study can be much more effective than group learning. It can also be cheaper and, without having to commute to a class, less time-consuming as well.
However, the benefit of committing to a class is that you (hopefully) turn up. Sometimes it can also provide you with a social group as well.
How much should you expect to pay to learn Portuguese by yourself?
Initially the cost of the course (~$150 or so per level), but as you start to grow you’ll probably want to add additional resources like Practice Portuguese (great for listening) and iTalki (great for weekly conversation practice).
Don’t worry: there are lots of free resources for learning Portuguese as well!
What do all the levels mean?
While most of us refer to ourselves as being beginner, intermediate, advanced, or maybe having “conversational Portuguese,” that’s a bit vague for language schools and for professional qualifications.
The chart below explains what the different levels on both the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) and the Portuguese version, CAPLE. Generally, most people just use the CEFR scale, though.
Good, but basic level
Getting by with relative ease
The explanations are my own and summarise how the CEFR describes each level.
What level do I need to obtain Portuguese citizenship?
A2, which is lower than many other European countries like Germany and France which require B1-Level.