Learn Portuguese: 4 Tips for Success

aerial view of city near body of water

To learn Portuguese is a more unique experience than other languages.

Portuguese is spoken in a wide variety of countries as a native language, spanning several continents. The most notorious countries being Portugal and Brazil.

Despite being spoken by over 250+ million people globally it’s not thought of as a language with a lot of utility.

Moreover, it doesn’t seem to always be widely known that it’s spoken in Brazil, the country with by far the most native speakers.

While living in Brazil I was working as a tutor on italki online. One of the most common reactions I got from people when I told them that I was in Brazil was “Oh, do you speak Spanish?”.

I got this reaction from people in Germany, China, countries all over the world. Maybe there’s simply a large knowledge gap on the Portuguese language in general.

Portuguese has a rich linguistic diversity. One thing about the language that fascinated me was the wide range of accents that you can hear in Brazil.

The soft sounds of the accent in Rio de Janeiro, for instance, with it’s soft -sh sound in the letter s, like in the word idiomas – languages, is somewhat reminiscent of the soft sounds in French.

Before you learn this beautiful language, you’ll need to put some things into focus to help you find success. I came up with 4 essential tips to help you succeed learning Portuguese.

statue of christ in rio de janeiro
Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by Rafael Cerqueira on Pexels.com
brown concrete building near body of water
Torre de Belém in Lisbon, Portugual. Photo by Thu Trang on Pexels.com

1. Pick A Country to Learn Portuguese: Brazil or Portugal?

The first question to ask yourself before learning Portuguese is which country’s dialect will you focus on?

I ask Brazil or Portugal because these are without a doubt the two most popular countries from which people learn Portuguese, but there are others.

The Portuguese empire was one of the most widespread during the colonial period. The Portuguese language spans several continents, being spoken in Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea Bissau, Macau, Mozambique, Portugal, plus São Tomé and Príncipe.

You can also hear the language spoken to a lesser extent in places like the United States within Portuguese speaking immigrant communities.

The country with the highest number of speakers is by far Brazil comprising more than 200 million of the more than 250 million Lusophones – speakers of Portuguese.

Brazilian Portuguese: The Best Option?

Brazil was my country of choice to learn Portuguese. I knew I would be spending time in the country and my interest in Brazilian culture had been growing for some time as I had tutored a lot of Brazilians in English on italki for several months.

What makes Brazil intriguing is its hidden position in the world. Despite being one of largest countries in the world by territory and population, it historically hasn’t had a very global presence.

Its culture might strike some people as being exotic. The first thing that comes to mind when people think Brazil is likely to be the Amazon rainforest, Samba, Christ the Redeemer or maybe Rio de Janeiro in general.

Nonetheless, it’s a country with a lot of depth, some of it good and some of it bad.

In the case that you do choose Brazil you’ll need to identify a more local accent you want to learn.

I learned to speak with a Carioca accent – Carioca is used to describe people from Rio de Janeiro. I spent a year of my life in Rio and naturally fell into this accent.

Those that are reading this article from Europe may find it more useful to learn Portuguese from Portugal.

Portugal is a member of the European Union. It may be a desired place to live for someone from an EU country or generally relevant to someone’s work.

Portuguese from Portugal is distinct enough from Brazilian Portuguese that I recommend learning one or the other if you’re learning for any reason other than a casual hobby.

This resource seems a bit outdated but captures some interesting facts about the Portuguese language: https://louisville.edu/anthropology/portuguesestudies/the-portuguese-language

2. Determine Your Goals for Learning Portuguese

Once you’ve determined what country you want to focus on to learn Portuguese, it’s time to focus in on your goals.

Motivation can be incredibly important when learning a foreign language. This is especially true when learning your first.

You need to know why you want to learn Portuguese. Is it because your wife or husband is from Portugal? Do you think it could lead to a promotion at work? Maybe your company is opening a new office in São Paulo, Brazil.

Whatever the reason, make sure that it gives you purpose. Learning a language is a never ending, ideally daily, challenge.

After your motivation is clear, determine some incremental goals.  How fast do you want to progress in the language?

As an American English native speaker, it took me roughly a year to become conversationally fluent in Portuguese. By conversationally fluent I mean that I could have typical conversations with groups of native speakers in the language.

It’s important that you set practical goals for your progression in Portuguese. I became conversationally fluent in a little over a year but with a lot of study hours.

On average I took more or less 2 hours of italki conversation classes with a tutor per week during the first year. More importantly, I spent between 15 and 30 minutes almost every day studying Portuguese on LingQ.

Additionally, I studied on Duolingo, completing daily app goals for roughly the first 6 months, but I don’t necessarily recommend this. Only do this if you don’t already speak a romance language and cut it down to the first 3 months.

Read more about how I use Duolingo and LingQ:

Duolingo and an Example of How to Use It Effectively

LingQ: The Best Language Learning App?

It’s more important to create goals based on actions rather than your level of proficiency. This matters for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s difficult to concretely measure someone’s proficiency level.

Secondly, the amount of time you spend studying and how you study will directly impact your progression of proficiency.

For example, don’t make reaching an A2 level in Portuguese in 3 months a goal. Instead, make it a goal to try having a conversation class on italki with a native speaker in 3 months. Create actionable goals.

Learn more about general methods for learning a language: What is the Best Way to Learn a Language?

3. Find Your Resources to Learn Portuguese

Resources to learn Portuguese are not as abundant as they are for languages like Spanish and English. Portuguese in general is a lesser studied language. This makes it somewhat difficult to find great resources for study.

At the same, to learn Portuguese isn’t necessarily something rare either.

Most major platforms offer language learning services or tools for Portuguese.

In order to make your learning experience as seamless as possible, it’s important to find a go-to resource. You want a tool whether it’s a book, app, etc. that you can immediately go to when it’s time to study.

For example, my go-to tool is LingQ when I’m proactively learning a language.

When I go to study each language on any given day, I open up LingQ and study for 15 to 30 minutes, maybe more.

My primary daily goal is to reach 13 LingQs on the app. I might spend more time finishing the content that I’m going over. It depends on what’s happening in my life that day.

I also make a priority to talk to native speakers on italki. Brazilian people in particular are easy to get along with. Two of my tutors have become good friends of mine.

Read my recommendations for when you should start speaking Portuguese in my article: When Should You Start Speaking a Foreign Language?

One resource that I found uniquely useful for studying Portuguese was YouTube. A few months into learning the language I discovered channels with Americans speaking Portuguese. This was incredible useful when I first started.

The YouTuber TimExplica talks about Brazilian culture and gives short explanations of Brazilian slang, etc. He spoke with an American accent that was easier for me to understand.

The intent of his channel is to teach English. However, it’s inadvertently a great resource for studying Brazilian Portuguese as well.

There were other great channels that simply have content I loved watching.

I watched Aero por Trás da Aviação out of my interest for aviation. I couldn’t find a channel with the same uniqueness of content in English.

Learn more about how I used YouTube to study in my article Passive Method for Language Learning with YouTube.

Whatever resources you choose be sure that you’re practicing includes both a form of input and after some time, output.

Make sure that you’re practicing language skills relevant to your goals. For instance, if you want to be able to be good at conversation, then practice listening and speaking.

It’s also important to adjust your language learning tools for your level.

You want to be learning from content that’s challenging but not so much so that it’s discouraging. And vice versa, you don’t want to be studying content that’s so easy that it’s boring.

4. Embrace the Culture

One great thing about learning a new language is the opportunity to engage in a new culture. As already mentioned, outside of Latin America, Brazilian culture is very foreign to the world.

The most interesting part about learning Portuguese was learning about Brazilian culture.

Make sure that you take advantage of all the opportunities to learn about the history of Brazil or Portugal. Learn about how these countries are different from each other.

Even in Brazil itself there’s a wide variety of differences between people and culture across the country.

You can learn about the rivalry between Cariocas, people from Rio, and Paulistas, people from São Paulo. How Cariocas greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks and Paulistas only one cheek.

I traveled to a city in the north of Brazil called Belém in the state of Pará. It’s roughly 4 hours by plane from Rio and you could feel the distance. The people, atmosphere, food among many other things were different.

In order to truly understand the culture within the language, you need to travel to countries where it’s spoken. Travel to Brazil or Portugal, the country of whichever dialect you’ve chosen to study. Try to engage with locals.

Brazilians are some of the most social people that I’ve ever met, you’ll hardly ever get a cold reaction from someone.

Closing Comments on Learning Portuguese

Are you ready to learn Portuguese? I hope that my 4 tips have you feeling prepared for the challenge.

Portuguese can be a language learning adventure unique from other languages. It’s a lesser studied language compared to the more popular ones like Spanish and English.

It’s likely to intrigue people when you say that you speak Portuguese compared to other languages.

When I was in Brazil, Brazilians didn’t expect me to speak their language.

In Ecuador, people don’t necessarily assume that I do or don’t speak Spanish. It’s not unusual for foreigners from the United States to know at least a little Spanish.  

Summary of Tips to Learn Portuguese

As you begin your journey with Portuguese, remember my tips.

Choose a country to focus on during your studies.

There’s nothing wrong with learning a little bit about each Lusophone country and their Portuguese. However, it could take you longer to develop some skills in the language if you don’t concentrate on one particular dialect.

Developing good listening skills will be particularly more difficult if you’re constantly using content with different dialects, especially if they’re from different countries.

Know your goals for learning Portuguese. It’s important to understand your motivation because it will push you towards that unobtainable language learning finish line if you have an objective purpose for learning.

Try out some resources and find your favorites. You want to make learning Portuguese as seamless as possible. It’s best not to spend more time learning how to learn rather than learning itself.

Also make sure your resources are appropriate for your skill level. You may have to adjust them with time.

Lastly, embrace the culture of the Portuguese speaking country of which you’ve chosen to study. Travel to the country if you have the means. Much of learning a language is learning the culture of which it’s a part.

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