From Russia to Portugal: How Tatiana Bogomazova Mastered the Portuguese Language

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Last updated on June 4, 2024 | Est. Reading Time: 9 minutes

Tatiana Bogomazova grew up in Siberia in Russia, but a chance Erasmus trip led her to the Algarve and then onto Lisbon. Discovering a passion for the Portuguese language, she soon mastered the language, eventually sitting the C2 exam and then becoming a Portuguese language tutor.

James: What made you decide to move to Portugal?

Tatiana: I moved to Portugal somewhat by chance. My first acquaintance with the country was when I received a scholarship for a year-long study through the Erasmus student exchange program, starting in the Algarve.

After visiting Lisbon once, I thought it might be somewhere I would like to live, and I wanted to know if it would be as nice to live there as to visit as a tourist. So, I came to Lisbon on a “reconnaissance mission” to live and work, and then I didn’t want to leave anymore.

James: What was it like being a student at the Universidade do Algarve in Faro?

Tatiana: Being a student in Faro was an unforgettable adventure in terms of experience. Speaking of academic benefits, my university had a rather undemanding curriculum (Ciências de Comunicação), possibly because it’s not the most crucial specialty in this university.

What surprised me was the long lunch breaks, about one and a half to two hours. The faculty’s kind attitude towards students stood out; they highly value the mere attempt to accomplish something and don’t scold much for mistakes.

I also enjoyed that there were many field trips during the study period, making it feel like a summer camp.

Of course, exchange students rarely go abroad solely for academic reasons, so there were plenty of parties, festivities, and group visits to bars. I’m somewhat of a nerd, therefore I quickly got tired of partying, so in my free time, I tried to learn more about the country and its language.

James: Lisbon has changed considerably since then. What are some of the main changes you’ve noticed?

Tatiana: I fell in love with Lisbon in 2012, and although it has changed significantly, I still love it now. When I first arrived here, there were many more abandoned buildings. I also encountered prostitutes standing in the evening at Martim Moniz square and addicts on Rua de Anjos. Fortunately, that’s not the case anymore, and the areas where I used to live have blossomed with hipster cafes and interesting spots.

It seems to me that previously, in the very center, there were more “locals’ spots,” like the famous “Bar Anos 60” in Mouraria. Of course, many of these have now closed, replaced by something more profitable, catering to tourism. And I think this is a normal development for the city.

Tatiana crossing the street

James: You speak Portuguese to a C2-level, which is incredible. How much work did it take to get to this stage?

Tatiana: When it comes to language learning, it’s crucial to understand how many hours were dedicated to studying. During my time in Algarve, I dedicated 4-5 hours a day to the Portuguese language with constant practice, and this went on for a whole year.

I enjoyed the whole process so much that I didn’t even notice I was learning the language; it felt more like a game to me. After a year of working on the language, my Portuguese allowed me to work with Portuguese people and feel quite confident in the country. 

In terms of timing, I started learning the language around October 2012. After that I worked in the event planning sector and later as a translator and interpreter, so I had a lot of varied practice and exposure to the Portuguese language. 

I first passed the DAPLE (C1) exam in 2019 with a “bom” grade (speaking part – 96%). But I think I had already reached that level a couple of years before that. Then, I took the DUPLE (C2) exam in 2020, also with a “bom” grade (speaking part 96% as well).

James: A lot of people make it to the intermediate level (somewhere around B2) but rarely make it into the C1, and almost never into the C2 range. What does it take to get from intermediate to near fluency?

I believe that reaching the B2 level is quite sufficient unless you plan to make the language your job or for some reason want to “blend in with the crowd” and fully immerse yourself in Portuguese culture. To reach the C1 or C2 levels, all you need is a strong interest in the language and clear motivation, even if it’s just to test your own limits—asking yourself, “Can I do this?”

I learned the language without focusing on the level I would reach; I simply wanted to understand everything. I constantly consumed Portuguese content and tried to understand the “whys” and “what does this mean.” You could say I had a kind of investigative interest. And of course, when Portuguese speakers on the phone can’t tell they’re speaking with a foreigner, it flatters your vanity and makes you want to learn even more.

The most important thing to understand is that you can only know a language at a high level if you have a genuine interest in the country and culture. Knowing a language at such a level indicates that you have a good grasp of the local context. And if you don’t have this interest, learning will feel like a real torment.

And, of course, it’s crucial to understand how exams are structured and to meet the requirements of the exam itself.

James: A lot of English speakers compare Portuguese to Russian in terms of sound. Does it sound similar to you? 

Tatiana: Yes, indeed, some sounds are common to both Russian and Portuguese, such as the beloved “sh,” “zh,” and the hard “r” sounds. However, the languages only seem similar at a superficial glance. Without effort, Slavic speakers will naturally have a harsh “Eastern accent” and intonation in Portuguese. Russian lacks several sounds that are popular in Portuguese, such as nasal or guttural R sounds. So, the external similarity in sound doesn’t particularly help us learn Portuguese any faster than, for example, English speakers.

James: What Are Some of the Main Cultural Differences Between Russia and Portugal? Do you think there are similarities?

Tatiana: There are many differences and similarities. I’ll just list what comes to mind immediately.

Among the differences: the approach to one’s word. If a Russian person says they will do something or promises something, it’s virtually non-negotiable, and you can relax and be sure it will be done. Portuguese people have a different approach to promises; they might say something just because it’s “polite” at the moment but don’t actually mean it.

By the way, when you only speak a little Portuguese, this can drive you insane. But as you advance in Portuguese, you start to notice “clue markers” that indicate how serious a Portuguese person is about their intentions and whether it’s a promise or just a polite phrase. After all, the Portuguese themselves don’t suffer from unmet expectations.

Another point is related to behaviour in society. Russians are very straightforward, and this is perceived as normal in our society. But to Portuguese, we sound very rude. For example, if you call a Portuguese person about a matter and immediately state the reason for the call, it would be considered impolite, too direct. Portuguese people need to chat about unrelated topics first, ask about the family, and only then, having established a pleasant mood, talk business. Russians are very bad at “small talk.”

Of course, comparing countries is very challenging, not least because the size of the country also plays a role. Despite the differences, we have a lot in common: we value family and kinship ties, love hosting guests at home with a full table of food. Both cultures are quite conservative regarding culture, food, and their traditions. Additionally, Portuguese have a very similar sense of humour.

James: If you had to start learning Portuguese again from scratch and only had a short timeframe, what would you focus on? 

Tatiana: I would do exactly the same as in my first year in the country. First and foremost, I would focus on what surrounds you: signs, product names, basic phrases and expressions, of course.

Beyond that—and most importantly—practice a lot from the very beginning. Talk as much as possible with locals, ask them to help you learn the language, and watch a lot of content in Portuguese. Of course, your brain might feel like it’s going to explode from such immersion after a while, but the effect will be evident.

James: You teach Portuguese professionally. What are some of the main mistakes you see people making?

Tatiana: Everyone makes mistakes, and they vary from person to person. I could list the main mistakes that Slavic speakers make, but this would be irrelevant for English speakers, for example, because mistakes often stem from the specifics of one’s native language.

However, the main mistake people make when learning a language is not practicing from the very beginning. People think, “I’ll finish this course or cover a certain amount of material, and then I’ll start speaking with Portuguese speakers.” Then they’re met with huge disappointment because the gap between what they know in theory and what they can apply in practice only widens. And this can really affect their self-esteem.

The second mistake is listening to those who promise to teach the language “quickly” and “easily.” I would run from such schools and “professionals” because it leads to nothing but disappointment.

Yes, you can see initial progress in the language relatively quickly if you study intensively and consistently. But learning easily often doesn’t happen; it’s a misconception.

After all, we all have work, duties, other affairs, and to intensively learn a language and see the first results, you need to dedicate time and mental energy to it. And this can be very difficult, although it can become an engaging and absorbing process with the right approach to learning.

So, when you start learning a language, prepare for a marathon, not a sprint. Try to enjoy the process because that’s the most effective way to learn. Enjoyment not only makes the journey more pleasant but also enhances your ability to retain what you learn. Embrace the challenges and celebrate your progress, no matter how small.

This mindset will keep you motivated and make the learning experience much more fulfilling.

Tatiana leaning against a door, smiling
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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.

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