How to Learn Portuguese

This site is dedicated to reviews of specific Portuguese language learning materials. But the questions I’m asked most often are general ones: “How do I learn Portuguese?” or “Where should I start?”

Let me give you a small introduction to the Portuguese language learning landscape. I’ll break it down into the following chunks: pronunciation, grammar, writing and conversation.

Portuguese Grammar
Learning how to put words and sentences together is the backbone of your Portuguese language-learning experience. English words tend to have very few forms. In Portuguese, you’ll need to learn many different endings on words, particularly when it comes to verbs. On top of that, you’ll need to learn how words agree, relate to each other, and what word order to use.

The traditional way to learn Portuguese grammar involves a lot of memorization. Memorize long lists of regular verb endings, memorize the rules for noun and adjective gender (masculine and feminine) and number (singular and plural), learn how verbs relate to nouns and pronouns, memorize irregular verbs, nouns and pronouns on a case-by-case basis.

Some straightforward grammar references give you all the tables and examples you’ll need to learn grammar the traditional way, like the Essential Portuguese Grammar for beginners. On the verb front, 501 Portuguese Verbs helps ease the pain of dealing with all those pesky verb forms. It can sit by your side throughout your studies.

Practice may not make perfect, but it provides a path to linguistic success. Repetition (speaking and writing) is possible with any audio or book course. But some grammar/conversation lessons offer you more thoughtful exercises that focus on grammar-building, like the affordable Teach Yourself Portuguese by Manuela Cook.

Many other courses incorporate some training in grammar, but as a complement to a conversation-driven approach. On this front, Ultimate Portuguese and Linguaphone’s audio Portuguese PDQ Course both deliver for their cost.

Pronouncing Portuguese
Portuguese pronunciation isn’t as straightforward as it first appears. The written language hides many tricks of the tongue in both dialects that even beginning learners must face. Accents, nasal vowels and consonants like s & z (or t & d in Brazil) are just the beginning.

One solution is to start speaking and add writing once you’re a bit more confident. Pimsleur in particular recommends this. Other courses treat writing, speaking and conversing hand-in-hand. See the section on “Conversational Skills” below for more.

There are many pronunciation guides that focus on how to speak and read Portuguese. Most of them are only a few pages long, found at the beginning of various lesson books. Teach Yourself Portuguese has one of the better ones, with detailed IPA (phonetic representation) of every word, and audio pronunciation of each word by native speakers (both Brazilian and European).

Keep in mind that repetition and practice will improve accuracy more than memorizing pronunciation rules. Since that’s the case, why not try one of the conversation courses mentioned below?

Conversation Skills
Conversation skills in any language involve putting grammar and pronunciation into practice. Ideally this is done in a way that mimics real-life, useful conversations for learners like you. Memorizing all the grammar and sound rules in the Portuguese world won’t get you through the streets of Rio or Lisbon.

To hone your practical speaking knowledge (and comfort), it helps to expose yourself to lots of speech and to use the language yourself. Many courses combine conversation skills with reading, writing and grammar skills, such as the Teach Yourself and Living Language courses above. Absolute beginners looking for “just the basics” can grab something like Portuguese in 10 Minutes a Day.

Many students, especially auditory learners, find that audio-intensive courses are an even better way to bolster their speaking skills. After all, listening and speaking training should involve lots of listening and speaking, right? Pimsleur markets a lesson-by-lesson audio approach that scales in difficulty. Their CDs prompt you to listen, speak and interact until you get it. Students and instructors swear by the approach, and I have to admit that I rated it rather highly.

Pimsleur offers a Basic, a Conversational and a Comprehensive Portuguese course. (These are for Brazilian – there are also European versions!) The only difference is the number of lessons included. I recommended the Conversational or Comprehensive version unless you’re just looking for an extremely basic tourist understanding of Portuguese.

Linguaphone PDQ Portuguese Course also offers an audio-heavy course. Those lessons cover much material but really don’t ramp up in difficulty as smoothly.

Software and multimedia courses focus heavily on vocabulary and conversation skills. Visual learners have had more or less success with Rosetta Stone Portuguese. I also recommended it rather highly, but with a few caveats.

If you’re scared of the price tags on those superstar conversational courses, some cheaper but generally less-effective audio courses are available. Ultimate Portuguese can be found at a reasonable price. Even cheaper, Portuguese Conversation offers a quick and basic overview of conversation topics. But if you really want short and speedy, Traveler’s Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese Language/30 offer traveler-friendly packages with the bare essentials you’ll need to survive. I like to learn more of the local tongue than these offer, but be my guest if you’re not much of a linguistics nerd.

As a late beginner or intermediate learner, you might find that you’re missing that crucial arsenal of real Portuguese – things like everyday grammar and vocabulary, including slang. Dirty Portuguese and Party Brazil Phrasebook will give you some laughs while delivering on the basics. If you really want to dig into the structure of real-life Brazilian, pick up Talking Brazilian and Modern Portuguese.

Written Portuguese

While Portuguese has a few strange marks on a few letters (like ç ã à á â etc.), the alphabet on the whole is the same as in English.

The written language may seem close to the spoken language, so conversational skills will help your writing. Still, there are quite a few tricks to learn. Conversational courses often teach you a straightforward, standardized Portuguese anyway, you might find yourself lacking skills in the street language more than the formal written language. Several courses offer practice in writing Portuguese, usually in combination with conversation and grammar exercises. See the sections on “Portuguese Grammar” and, especially, “Conversation Skills” above.

The Basics: Phrases for Tourists, Travelers & Curious Learners
Perhaps you’re not necessarily looking to speak Portuguese fluently, but you’d like to learn basic phrases. In that case, you’re probably best off with a resource that organizes phrases by topic. Travel phrasebooks often do just that. Such books may offer extras like a simple pronunciation guide, notes about culture and social practices, rudimentary grammar, and a vocabulary glossary (typically touted as a “dictionary”) in the back.

Lonely Planet Brazilian Portuguese Phrasebook introduces something of the structure of the language, while also offering a slew of useful phrases and a limited “dictionary”. If you’re traveling to – or just more interested in – Portugal, check out Lonely Planet Portuguese Phrasebook or Berlitz Portuguese, which comes with an organized, handy and stylish phrasebook and an audio CD to help your pronunciation.

Portuguese Language/30 includes just the survival basics in a rough and, at times, clumsy format.

If you want to stand a fighting – or speaking – chance in Lusophonia for any extended length of time, you’ll need a good Portuguese dictionary.

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