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portuguese learning tips

It’s not hard, it just takes time.

I had to have private lessons as I was living in Berlin and of course, group classes would be taught in German, and I didn’t really want to learn two languages at once.

And what a blessing that was. I could learn how it suited me, at my own pace. I could shape the lessons to my needs; learning building vocabulary for example, or if I needed to write an email to someone in Portugal, that could become the lesson. One-on-one, it was difficult to lie about why I hadn’t done my homework. It was personal.

With five lessons a week, two hours each, I learnt the entire school curriculum of grammar in six months. I’m not a genius, but I am a committed student. I did at least one hour of homework every day.

I was lucky with the teacher I found: a 25 year old Brazilian with some teaching experience but no formal training. She’s smart, beautiful, funny and has HUGE amounts of patience. Sometimes I would get really shitty and have a tantrum and tell her SHE WAS GOING TOO FAST and HOW THE HELL WAS I SUPPOSED TO UNDERSTAND THAT and WHAT SORT OF STUPID LANGUAGE IS THIS?!? All she would say is ‘Calma, Emma, Calma’. We had school excursions – trips to bars to meet her Brazilian friends, or I’d take her to fight with the Vaca da Embaixada (see visas). We became friends, and she was my rock during a pretty stressful time. Obrigadissima minha professora brasileira!

Here are the tips:

1. You have to figure out how YOU learn a language. Maybe you’re an aural person and you can copy speech after hearing it. Maybe you’re a visual learner; you need to see it on the page. Do you need to know the structure of the language; the grammar and the way it works? Maybe you respond to learning from the vocabulary, starting with picture cards of cat and dog and chair? If you find the method that you like and it helps you to remember what you’re being taught, it will be so much easier.

2. Learn what is relevant to you. Learn words you need to know, learn stuff you want to know. Try to link learning the language with your other interests. If you read the sport section, find it in Portuguese instead. Catarina gave me Brazilian news magazines to take home for homework, not some boring textbook. (I remember in my final year of school learning French, the dick teacher had us read Kafka’s Le Mur, a completely grim existentialist rave about a guy waiting to be executed. Such fun! It took us weeks and weeks and weeks so that we were all suffering the character’s agonising psychological torture. I failed French. And it’s also the only thing I learnt at school that was of any use later on. Ironique, n’est-ce pas?)

3. Go Full Immersion. It’s a bit of a brain spin, but you have to stuff as much in there as you can. And then you have to get it out and use it, and use it again and again before you forget it. The more exposure you can get to the language the more you’ll absorb passively. Watch movies, listen to the radio, read newspapers and books and magazines. Surf the net. Even you if understand nothing at all at first, at least you’ll be getting familiar with the sound and the pace of the language.

4. Keep at it. You might feel like you’re learning nothing for a long time, but then you will have a breakthrough and realise you’ve learnt a lot. It happens gradually and it happens in waves. It takes time…be patient!

5. Watch TV. The pictures really help! I learnt so much from watching the game show Millionaire in Portuguese. Also cartoons are good – they tend to speak clearly using fairly basic language with lots of inflexion. News is also good. You might find subtitled shows useful too, if only to see how sloppy the translations are…

6. (i) Love your teacher. If you don’t like them you won’t like learning. They say the best way to learn a language is to get a lover. I thought it just meant that the first words you learned were dirty. The truth is, it does help if you enjoy spending time with them, and you don’t mind them talking a lot, you think it’s cute when they correct you constantly, and you spend all your free time with them.

6 (ii). Get a Brazilian. They are so funny and cute! No really, some people find spoken Brazilian Portuguese easier to understand than “European” Portuguese. It’s prettier, more melodic and they don’t leave off half the syllables! Have a listen and see if you like it. Beware that at some stage you’re going to have to make the switch.


  1. tricia June 29, 2015 1:11 am Reply

    Hi Emma,

    I am moving to Portugal this summer to teach English in an international school. Would you have any recommendations for a good language school? Thanks much!

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: July 19th, 2015 at 10:58 pm

    @tricia, emma sherrat, portuguese language lessons…

    [Reply to comment]

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