To learn Portuguese from absolute zero… Where would you even start?
As a Portuguese teacher, this is one of the things I am asked the most by beginners, who feel completely lost.
Should I get a textbook?
Which is the best one?
Should I start with grammar?
How do I practice listening?
When do I start to speak?
I know how confusing this can be! But don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. My name is Liz and I help people who are moving to Portugal build their confidence and conversation skills in European Portuguese so they can live Portugal at its best.
If you are just starting your journey, you are SO LUCKY, because there are so many options available now that are a LOT more fun and effective than a textbook. I’ve been studying Portuguese for over 15 years, way before YouTube even existed. So if I was starting to learn Portuguese from scratch today, I’d do things differently!
In this article, I’m sharing the five steps that I would take if I were starting to learn Portuguese from absolute zero. Ready to find out? Let’s begin.
1. Set intentions and goals
Before we even think about picking up a book or even starting a course, you’ve got to be really clear about WHY you are learning. This is a long and difficult journey to go on, and taking time for this step is going to massively increase your chances of success. Ask yourself the following:
Why do I want to speak Portuguese?
What difference is it going to make to my life?
What is success going to look and feel like?
You need to think about this and write it down so you can go back to it, whenever you start to struggle.
Complete these sentences with me.
I’m learning Portuguese so I can _______________. I will feel _______________ when I can _______________.
This might sound like this:
“I’m learning Portuguese so I can make connections in my new city. I will feel confident and at ease when I can speak to locals in practical situations.”
So you have a Why, you have how it will feel and you have some kind of tangible goal. So, a word on goal setting really quick – make it realistic. I say this because usually when we talk about languages people name “fluency” as their goal. If you are starting from scratch and you are not a master linguist already, do not think about that right now. Anyone telling you can be fluent in a matter of months is lying to you and it’s only going to make you feel bad. Instead, set smaller, more tangible goals like “I want to be able to hold my own when I’m out and about” or “I want to understand what my mother-in-law is saying to me”.
So take that template sentence and write yours out, whatever is specific and important to you, and stick it where you can see it.
2. Start with the sounds
Step two is to start with the sounds! Yes, you knew I wasn’t going to say grammar, didn’t you?
This is the biggest mistake people make, they head straight for the grammar books and forget that the most important thing is speaking! You can’t speak correctly and be understood unless you can master the individual sounds in the language you are learning. It’s also a dead giveaway that you are a beginner if you have bad pronunciation. Because pronunciation is the FIRST thing I cover with my students, a lot of them are very quickly mistaken for more advanced speakers because of how well they can pronounce the difficult sounds of Portuguese. Like the nasal sound in “sim” and “não”, or the RR in “carro”.
I have a free pronunciation guide you can use to get started that will help you master the 7 most difficult sounds in European Portuguese, you can download it here.
This is exactly how I started: at the beginning of my Portuguese lessons we did pronunciation drills for MONTHS, repeating difficult words over and over again until the sounds became second nature.
3. Focus on frequency
Step three is to focus on the most frequent words and phrases that you are going to need, based on your personal goals.
If you want to be able to handle practical situations in the cafe, restaurant, or supermarket, start by building short vocabulary lists based on those situations. When I say short I mean learn the 2-3 things you like to order, NOT the whole menu.
One of the biggest mistakes I see people making again and again, which I mention in this article about the 7 Deadly Mistakes Beginners Make, is overwhelming themselves with too much vocabulary they are not going to need on a day-to-day basis. Our active vocabulary, the words we use regularly, is actually pretty small. In English, you only need to know about 800 words to be able to understand 75% of what is spoken in everyday life. As well as practical vocabulary this is going to be simple words like “posso” – may I? And “queria” – I would like.
You don’t need to learn all conjugations for verbs right away, focus on what you will be using the most frequently. You need words like “se faz favor”, “obrigada”, “prazer”… the list goes on and you can make your own, based on what you say the most. Why not make your list into a pack of flashcards using the app Quizlet? Or use Post-Its to label the things in your house?
You can also grab my list of 100 frequent words in Portuguese, with audio, that I made on Quizlet for my students!
4. Getting to grips with grammar
So here comes the big one, learning grammar. Now, I am not one of those teachers who believes you don’t need to focus on grammar, but I’m not one of those who will drown you in it either. I believe in balancing your study between Pronunciation, Real Life Vocabulary and ONLY the essential grammar – the stuff you really need to know to build a solid foundation in how the language works.
There are many avenues for this like getting an online tutor or joining a course in your local area – just make sure grammar isn’t your ONLY focus in those lessons. I don’t really have a favourite textbook that I recommend, but Gramatica Ativa and Portugues XXI are still the most popular. My main advice here is to keep it bitesize and use it, or you will lose it! This means putting what you are learning into PRACTICE which is covered in step five.
5. Form daily habits
So, none of the above is going to mean a thing if you aren’t immersing yourself in study and practice, DAILY.
“But wait, I don’t live in Portugal!”
“I don’t have Portuguese friends!”
It’s OK. You can do a ton of “immersion” anyway.
Sit down and work out when you are going to fit Portuguese practice into your day. Maybe it’s first thing in the morning, maybe it’s after work, but set aside at LEAST 30 minutes a day, 1 hour is ideal.
You want to make sure that during the week you are covering speaking, listening, reading and writing. So come up with a list of habits for each! Here are some of my favourites:
Listening to music: Use the app Lyrics Training to follow the words, listen carefully to the pronunciation and copy it by singing along! Try some Disney, it will definitely cheer you up!
Watching TV: You can use a VPN to access Portuguese shows on Netflix or you can get the RTP app abroad – this is the Portuguese national broadcaster and you’ll be able to access all types of content including kids’ shows, which is where I recommend starting so you are not too overwhelmed. Check out my ‘learning with TV’ videos on my YouTube channel to get started!
Following social media accounts: Whichever social media app you spend the most time on, start following accounts from Portugal! This means by default you’ll be reading Portuguese every day when you are scrolling. I find TikTok lots of fun and since lots of the videos have captions, I’m always coming across new words. You can even change the language of your phone, so you can get used to seeing the menu of your phone itself in Portuguese.
Getting a language learning partner: Weekly speaking practice, especially if you are not living in Portugal, is going to be invaluable. Not only will you keep yourself tuned into the language, but you’ll make a new friend and learn tons about the culture as well. I also have a whole video on this on my Youtube channel so go check that out after.
And the list goes on! You can check out my daily habits videos as well where I give you even more ideas and examples.
The last piece of advice I want to give you is to fall in love with the habit instead of being obsessed with the results. If you are enjoying the study plan you’ve put together, if you look forward to it, if it’s your ‘me time’, and if it’s FUN, you are just naturally going to stick with it. And if you stick to it consistently over a long period of time, that is when results will naturally follow.
And there you have it, 5 steps that I would take if I were starting to learn Portuguese from absolute zero!
If you’re ready to dive deep into the Portuguese language, then you should also come and join me for a free 60-minute lesson to get you started with the absolute basics – I would LOVE to see you there.