This is a great moment because I have been waiting to write this for the last 3 months or so. Probably more. Also because I did not know whether I would make it. I believe I know enough Portuguese now to say that I have made it so that’s why I’m writing this now. I have managed to learn Portuguese in 5 months and I am going to tell you how I did it here.
First of all, I should clear some things up. The title is slightly misleading. Although I say that I have learnt it, I am not fluent in Portuguese yet. I still cannot express everything I want to express and I still lack some vocabulary to understand everything I hear or read. However, I can get by just fine in most everyday situations (be it ordering food, a bed, talking to people about things like politics, rabbits or life in general or even reading newspapers). Moreover, I can read books now: I have already read one book in Portuguese and I am reading my second one. I still have some difficulty because there are a lot of words and sometimes even entire sentences I do not understand. However, I usually understand the gist just fine. That’s why I call it “learned” in the title (and “learnt” in the article because it looks cooler but articles still have to have proper titles).
There are other things in the title that are not quite accurate. For example, it’s not 5 months. It’s less. If you count the learning time, it’s way less. However, even if you count the entire time I was under the conditions to learn the language, it still falls a few days short of 5 months.
There are still more things to be revealed that were not said in the title. One of them is that I knew Esperanto and some French already so I had a bit of a head-start and could understand some written Portuguese already. Moreover, here’s the kicker… I was in Portugal.
However, do not assume that I learnt Portuguese automatically because of that. I used to think that you learn a language automatically if you are in the country before I actually tried that. Most people who have ever tried this as well know that it’s not true. I assume it’s not true for most countries anyway and certainly not for Portugal. I know a lot of people who have stayed in Portugal for a lot more than that and still do not know the language. I know some people who have lived in foreign countries for years and do not speak their languages.
The first lesson is that it takes effort to learn the language. Unless you are a child and you get it automatically (well, actually, I just read today that even if you are a child you don’t learn it automatically.) Or you are thrown into conditions where you cannot get away but use the language. These are, however, not the usual conditions and in whatever country you are, you can usually get away with using English or probably even your native language if it’s different from English because you end up spending a lot of time with other people from your country. In almost all cases, you have to give effort to learn another language. That’s what I tried to do.
I’m just going to tell my story of learning Portuguese during my stay in Portugal and highlight some of the lessons I have learnt.
Before arrival to Portugal
First of all, the story begins before going to Portugal. The only thing I did in terms of learning Portuguese before going was to take a half of the Michel Thomas’ Portuguese course. I just took the first half before arriving. I finished the second half in Portugal. I tried to get some audiobooks in Portuguese and tried listening to them but I could not understand anything (the nice thing is that I tried them just a few days ago, after my stay in Portugal, and now I could understand them! – what a gratifying feeling).
I think I should have learnt a bit more before going. I guess I should have at least finished the course and looked into some other courses or tried to follow through with the books or something. I did not and that’s why it took me time to start using the language.
First days: speaking with foreigners
When arrived, I did not really use the language for a week reserve a few exceptions. When in the airport, the first thing I asked a policeman at the exit was “Desculpe, onde é o metro?” which was interesting because albeit I was corrected because I had mispronounced “metro”, I was understood. Then I went and found a place to live and did not use Portuguese for some time: I would just speak English.
After a week, I went to live with foreigners (there wasn’t a single Portuguese among them) who were okay with speaking English as well because just like me, most of them spoke better English than Portuguese. I started speaking some Portuguese slowly. I would say a few sentences in Portuguese and say whatever I did not know in English and expect to be understood and told the proper words in Portuguese although that would not happen very often.
So, as you can imagine, the beginning was really hard… But, wait. Actually, I haven’t told you what I did in Portugal. What I did was a 5-month study. Actually, there were few things to study and most of the studies were in English so school didn’t really help with my Portuguese at all. I just ended up having 5 months free to do things, meet people, explore the country and learn the language.
In any case, let’s get back to the story. After the first few weeks of not using Portuguese much, I decided that I needed to start using it more and I made arrangements with a lot of people I knew to speak it. Even with foreigners. I did not bother to try to speak it with people who weren’t learning it and just kept speaking English with them, though.
I reckon it was a good idea: make a mutual commitment to people to speak the language that you are learning so that you keep doing it even if it sometimes is hard and inconvenient.
So, the next few weeks that I spoke to foreigners in were pretty slow and even though I could feel improvement in my Portuguese, I still could understand very little of what I would hear on streets and it was frustrating. I was worried constantly about learning it well as well. The good thing was I could understand non-Portuguese pretty well (unlike real Portuguese) and it wouldn’t take me much time to catch up to their level because they would speak language that is not very complicated. However, I understood that to learn Portuguese better, I needed native speakers.
After the first month: practice with natives
A month and a half in my study and I realized that I was in a paradoxical situation: I was in a position where I was in Portugal which is a country full of Portuguese and yet I didn’t have any Portuguese to speak to.
As I said, classes didn’t help so much, I didn’t know any Portuguese well, and the conversations I would have in shops or public offices would always be too short to learn anything. This was not the way to go.
I figured I needed to go and find some Portuguese. So I did. Here is a tip for you: try parks. I would just go to calm places like parks and attempt to strike up conversations with people to be able to practice. Looking back from perspective, it was challenging but in the end, an awesome thing to do once you succeed to have a nice conversation. From my experience, most of these end up being just casual conversations about nothing with people that you never meet again but some few times you can really make friends. In the end, I even met a few people that I could later meet regularly once or twice a week to have conversations with and that was perfect for practice.
I wouldn’t do this every day but I would do it a few days a week or so. At first, I could speak very little. I would just speak to somebody and just say a few things and listen a lot. I wouldn’t understand most of what was being said to me but most of the time, unless I was being asked questions, I would just let it go and not worry too much. When it was my turn, I would speak as best as I could with my imperfect language and try to make sense of what I was saying.
I could not understand much at the beginning but in the end, I think that this has been tremendous help to me not only learning the language but also understanding a lot about the country and the culture and good communication practice.
I guess what I am saying is: have the courage to talk to people. I didn’t always have nice conversations and some people didn’t want to talk at all but in the end the experience is worth every single minute of it.
So, I have talked to foreigners, I have talked to some Portuguese. What else have I done?
Well, I tried to be attentive to my surroundings. Read and try to understand. Read signs on the shops. Read warnings on the door. Read the regulations in the subway. Read what’s written on the tickets you buy. Read all the documents that you get in your hands. By being attentive like this, I was able to absorb a lot of the language. I would read it even if I could not understand it and soon enough I could understand it.
Talking about reading, that wasn’t the only reading I would do. I also read newspapers. I tried to. I would always try to get myself of copy of these free newspapers and read at least some of it. I wouldn’t read everything but I would read small articles that I found interesting and that I could at least partially understand. I never used a dictionary. Almost never. I didn’t do this newspaper reading everyday, though, because I could not get the newspaper and sometimes I would just forget.
Before leaving, I got myself some books. I got a Portuguese book for adolescents which had an easy-to-read detective story in the content so reading it worked out great for me. I also had another book which is a translation of an English book. This one is for adults. I am reading this one now and not having many problems comprehending it. Got another book which is complete fiction and I will finally try to read that one as well. Reading is a great way to learn the language as well because there is way less stress for not understanding things and as long as you can follow the story, you have yourself a really interesting experience.
I believe it is impossible for me to tell an accurate story now because my memory is distorted and I probably don’t remember all those minute details and micro-things the entirety of which is what is actually responsible for my Portuguese learning. I will try to name some things that I think I have understood consciously over the time here. Take them cautiously: I might be wrong.
First, talking about details: language learning is all details. There is no magical cure. People often say: “I did [x] to learn [y] and then I stopped doing [x] and started doing [z] and then I learnt [y] thus [z] works and [x] doesn’t work at all.” They don’t only say that about language learning; it gets applied to a lot of areas in life. Usually this is wrong. In reality, people usually do a lot more than [x] and [z]. They do everything. Just because it seems to them that [z] helped most, it doesn’t mean that it’s true. What helped is actually the sum of all things. For example, I couldn’t say that I did a Portuguese course but only speaking helped me learnt Portuguse: that’s not true. The course helped. Reading helped. Speaking helped as well. Everything helped. It’s just the sum of all things and not the miraculous cure [x] that solves everything. It’s easy to fall for that idea but that’s not how it usually works in reality.
Second, speaking helps. I have heard opinions that one should not start speaking until one is confident enough in the language because otherwise one starts speaking badly. For example, one ruins ones pronunciation (native speakers don’t usually correct pronunciation as long as they understand it: I find that to be extremely true) by reinforcing wrong speaking patterns whereas if one had heard more of the language before starting to speak, one would know better to pronounce (that’s a lot of ones in one sentence, isn’t it?). This looks like a sound argument to me. I don’t know, it might still be a good idea as a long-term language learning strategy. However, it’s not what I did and I am glad I didn’t do it. I started speaking early. I noticed that most people who were learning the language and were speaking in it, were able to speak pretty well in the end whereas most people who would hold back from speaking couldn’t speak it in the end as well. So, for the very least, I think speaking is a good short term strategy. At least when you are in the country. Also, when you speak, you get a lot more listening practice because others speak back to you in the language as well.
Third, and this is one of the most important things, have courage. You are not going far without it. You need courage to meet people and you need courage to speak with them. You need courage to be wrong and not to be understood sometimes. Remember that you don’t really have much to lose. In the end it boils down to two simple options: being able to speak the language or not. The first category is for those with courage and the second is for the ones without it. Nothing else really matter. If you want to be in the first category, you have to give what it takes. Simple.
Four, read, listen. Try to listen and read everything you can get your hands on. A lot of times, it is pretty interesting. If not, at least you are learning new vocabulary. This is valid for short things. Don’t read books you don’t like. There are too many interesting books in the world to be spending your time reading the bad ones.
Five, don’t push yourself too hard. That’s the mistake I made. I was worried about my progress and I was often thinking whether I would progress or not and whether I would have enough time. Know this: whatever time you have, just be happy with it and go on. You are naturally making progress. Even it seems like you aren’t, actually you are. There are always more things you could be reading and listening, always more you could be speaking, more you could be practicing. Don’t worry about that. Try to practice some. That’s okay. If you practice some, you will inevitably learn the language in the end. If your time in the country is very limited (like mine): well, at least you will have done what you could have done. If you blame yourself for not speaking too well and keep worrying about learning the language, that will only worsen your mood and overall experience and it won’t do anything good to you anyway. Just go with the flow.
So… I am reading this. How do I learn Portuguese?
You’ll have to do this on your own. I recommend going to the country. If not, get a few books for children and some movies. Better yet, get somebody to speak it with.
But first… if only you want to learn some basics… I am making a Portuguse course in the labs. It’s still young so you might have to wait a bit for new lessons. But, hey, it’s coming. No rush, remember?