A Portuguese self-study plan

A potential course of study for learning Portuguese on your own.

This page allows me to suggest a lesson plan to guide you through your studies of Portuguese, from beginning learner to advanced. In sum, this is how I would study Portuguese if I were to do it all over again.

I will mention two caveats before I give you this language learning plan. First, this plan draws on my experience and opinions – it is not a recommended course of study tailored to your personal goals and needs. Second, this plan assumes that there is no limit to the number of resources/products I am allowed to recommend, and that there is no price limit for these products. Your unique budget and schedule will mean that you have to adjust this plan to your individual needs.

I’ve thoroughly perused and reviewed many Portuguese language learning products on this site, and I recommend that you read through specific reviews (use the right sidebar to browse categories, tags, or to search). Other overviews on this site include my summary of books & products for learning grammar, pronunciation, conversation & writing and a selection of recommended resources for travelers headed to Portugal or Brazil.

Now, on to the study plan…

0. Preparing to learn Portuguese

First, prepare yourself. Read a bit about Portuguese. Maybe try to extract whatever you can from Wikipedia’s writeup about the Portuguese language. Purchase a standard notebook and writing supplies. Buy another notebook, a small one, where you will write down your language questions/issues and vocabulary while you learn (a place to keep your on-the-go thoughts).

Decide which dialect of Portuguese you’re going to study. Brazilian and European Portuguese require two different paths of study, considering the difference in materials available.

Time:
40-60 minutes across 1 or 2 days.

1. Exposure to basic conversational Portuguese

Begin with Pimsleur Comprehensive Brazilian Portuguese. Even though it’s pricey, the comprehensive (NOT basic or conversational) Pimsleur package will get your course of studies started like few other programs. Purchase and complete at least the 32 lessons of Comprehensive Portuguese I. Move on to the followup lessons if you can afford the down payment and you love the method.

Pimsleur doesn’t seem to have a complete Continental/European Portuguese course. You can still try their Conversational version, or go with Total Portuguese.

Living Language Brazilian Portuguese offers a book plus audio approach for less, but with a whole lot less pacing and handholding on the listening comprehension front.

If you’re a visual learner or like learning with a PC program, I am also happy to recommend Rosetta Stone Portuguese. The DVD/video series called Semantica Brazilian Portuguese also offers a good jumping-off point.

Tips:

  • Listen to each lesson more than once, and be sure to do the audio exercises (prompted by the narrator).
  • Be careful to imitate the pronunciation of any native speakers you hear in the recordings.
  • Do NOT get caught up in the details at this point – write & speak in ways that help you learn without hindering your progress.
  • Use your notebook to write down troublesome words & phrases, but do not worry about spelling.

Time:
30-60 mins/day
5-6 days/week
5-8 weeks

2. The fundamentals of spoken and written Portuguese

You’ve been exposed to a range of Portuguese conversations, but it’s time to solidify your grasp of and move beyond the basics.

At this point, you need a course with structure to provide a foundation for your study of the language. This is among the toughest decisions you’ll make as you learn the language. Unfortunately, this is also the stage where learners run up against the poorest selection (in quantity and quality) of Portuguese language learning materials. Sigh.

Although it has drawbacks, I recommend anchoring your studies in Complete Portuguese (formerly Teach Yourself Portuguese). Although Teach Yourself Portuguese moves quickly and tries to juggle both European and Brazilian Portuguese (with a bit of an emphasis on the former), it covers a wide range of fundamental grammar, writing, vocabulary and conversation, and includes pronunciation and verb tables. Ponto de Encontro: Portuguese as a World Language (2nd Edition) is a rich introduction to Portuguese grammar and conversation as heard on both sides of the Atlantic, and is the kind of course book you would use in college class (make sure to buy the CD/DVD alongside this program). FSI Portuguese offers a good course if you’re learning Brazilian Portuguese. FSI spends time making sure you can sound out and build words, phrases and sentences, but it can prove repetitious for some learners, and skips certain essential grammar topics. Everything Learning Brazilian Portuguese tackles the language from the perspective of grammar, covering the fundamentals using explanations and examples. Each of those three program has an audio CD component that complements the course.

On the plus side, you already have some exposure to Portuguese behind you, so you’ll get a lot more out of any of these courses than fresh beginners.

Tips:

  • Track your pace. Don’t go all out one or two days a week, only to leave your book on the shelf the rest of the time. Tenacity is crucial for a language learner at this stage.
  • Keep noting your uncertainties and new things you learn on-the-go in that smaller notebook.
  • When you learn a new grammatical feature, don’t just jot down what you’re told. Instead, think of and write down examples not found in the audio recording or the text. Your memory will thank you!
  • Reread and redo tough sections. Return to earlier lessons, both to review at random and to track your progress. Ideally, do this in addition to continuing through lesson by lesson.
  • You’re probably ready for a good dictionary. We’re getting there, so keep reading.

Time:
40-90 mins/day
4-6 days/week
8-10 months

3. Backup reference materials and language resources

You’re entrenched in your main lessons course from #2, but there are times when you need to get some perspective. Reference books and materials home in on one specific aspect of the Portuguese language, which permits you to grow your understanding in that area (like grammar, vocabulary, language use, and so on). Stop to assess your common problems and linguistic Achilles’ heel, then search for resources that strengthen your skills in those areas.

A dictionary is crucial at this stage. You need a strong yet portable translating dictionary to use whenever you ask “How do I say this in Portuguese?” or “How do I translate that into English?”. Unfortunately, Portuguese language dictionaries don’t have the same depth as dictionaries for more popular European languages. Try out the Larousse Pocket Portuguese Dictionary. This dictionary won’t cover every word you’ll ever need to look up, but it more than meets your needs as a beginner & intermediate student.

If you really need a big, top-notch reference dictionary for your shelf, your options are incredibly limited. Portuguese hasn’t received the kind of attention paid to some of its Romance siblings. You can shell out the cash to import the hefty Porto Editora dictionaries, or get a digital version of them. Between the two volumes, you’ll have access to well over 2,000 pages of entries. In that case, you’re set as far as your word search needs.

Keeping Portuguese grammar straight is quite a juggling act for you at this point. The clearest recommendation I can make to most students is 501 Portuguese Verbs, a very handy companion that handles the toughest aspect of Portuguese grammar admirably.

Verbs are a big concern, but it might help to have resources that back up a broader understanding of grammar topics. Essential Portuguese Grammar is a dense, inexpensive little handbook that packs most of elementary and intermediate Portuguese grammar into fewer than 100 pages. Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar: offers well-organized examples without foregoing explanations. Adding either of these to your reference shelf will help you boost your understanding of grammar.

Tips:

  • If you’ve been using those notebooks, they’re showing some wear. Replace the larger one if necessary.
  • Use these resources side-by-side with the main lesson course in #2.
  • Avoid anything impractical or esoteric at this point.
  • Feel free to read through sections of these books, but keep them as backup firepower and don’t defocus from your main course in #2.
  • Take stock of the questions and troubles you’ve been noting in your small notebook. This will help you spot the kinds of resources you need.
  • Look for and use any and all opportunities to read and speak Portuguese (with an emphasis on speaking Portuguese). Native speakers are your best resource for learning to speak a language! Keep this in mind from here on out.
  • Learn to use free online resources to accent your studies. I have some suggestions when it comes to internet resources.

Time:
(Use alongside steps #2 and #4.)

4. Advancing

When you get to this point, you should have about a year of study behind you, and a decent command Portuguese. It’s time to expand your knowledge of the language and put it to use, but you should also continue to review the basics and fill in any blanks.

I find it tougher to make general recommendations at this level, since your needs are becoming more specific and individualized as you advance.

One of the best continuing courses is Para a Frente!, a textbook that aims at advancing students of both Brazilian and Continental European Portuguese. Linguistically inclined learners capable of understanding the terminology (think “anaphora” and “NPs”) and handling data from multiple varieties of Brazilian Portuguese will love Modern Portuguese: A Reference Grammar.

Using Portuguese will expand your understanding of Portuguese conversation and grammar.

Don’t underestimate the value of Portuguese grammars and dictionaries in #3. You can turn to them in times of need, when few other resources do the trick. Consider any of those that you didn’t purchase at the time.

Tips:

  • This stage is a good time to plan your first language exposure trip to Brazil or Portugal.
  • Start doing some of the things you normally do in English in Portuguese instead. “Convert” or “translate” daily tasks by speaking, reading and writing Portuguese. Read newspapers & magazines, watch television & movies, play games, write stories, chat, and more.
  • Don’t replace all of your studies with exposure. Keep pursuing your study of the language. Still, as a general trend, you will use the language more and formally study it less.
  • Replace one or both of your notebooks as needed.
  • Come back and share your own recommendations with us!

Time:
Incorporated into everyday reading, writing & speaking, but also:
30-60 mins/day
4-5 days/week
6-8 months
(& ongoing…)

Total time and outcome

Total time required: about 1 1/2 – 2 years’ worth of study
Level achieved: Ability to read, write and speak Portuguese successfully at an advanced level.

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