Guide to Learning Portuguese

Written By Lara Silva

Some might confuse it with Spanish, but Portuguese is actually a very relevant language to learn. Over 215 million people around the world speak Portuguese and it is the 6th most spoken language in the world. Portuguese is the official language in 9 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America due to the country’s colonial past. Therefore it’s not that surprising that only 5% of Portuguese speakers live in Portugal. What might surprise you is that it’s the fastest-growing European language in the world after English.

Is Portuguese hard to learn?

This all sounds lovely, right? Well, not so fast. Portuguese is actually quite a difficult language to learn. It is particularly difficult if you just speak English. Portuguese is one of the Romance languages like Italian and French so if you know one of these, it will be a huge advantage.

Either way, if you went to school in Portugal you know that the mention of the word “verbos” (verbs) will drive you crazy. Each verb tense in Portuguese has six different conjugations for a variety of pronouns. In English, the verb “I learn” has two conjugations in the present tense- I/you/we/they run, he/she/it learns. In Portuguese things get messier. It would be the following: eu aprendo, tu aprendes, ele/ela/vocês aprendem, nós aprendemos, vós aprendeis, eles/elas/vocês aprendem. Most Portuguese people even get these wrong.

Portuguese is also a very gendered language. Things like a house or a car are gendered.  This can take some getting used to. The language also has some tough pronunciation, particularly the infamous nasal sounds like não and joão.

Don’t be too scared, though. If you are motivated to learn the language you will get there. Supposedly, it only takes a native English speaker around 600 hours or 6 months of study to become fluent in Portuguese. Just think how much easier it will be next time you visit. No more “I don’t speak Portuguese” and a lot more “uma cerveja, por favor” (a beer, please).

What’s the difference between Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese from Portugal?

Keep in mind that Portuguese from Brazil is quite different from Portuguese from Portugal. If you are going to learn the language, stick to one of them to avoid confusion. However, you’ll be able to communicate wherever you go with either. The main difference between the two is in the use of the second-person pronoun “you”. In Portugal, tu is used, while in Brazil, people use the pronouns você and vocês. In Portugal, você is only used when you are speaking formally, perhaps to someone older. Você is used in most social situations in Brazil unless you are visiting a few particular regions that use tu. It’s sort of like the difference between American English and British English, but a bit more different.

The first step is then definitely to pick one or the other. If you’ve figured that out, you are ready to start learning.

Where to Learn Portuguese

1. Online

You don’t necessarily need to put a dent in your wallet to learn Portuguese. You can learn straight from your couch online. This gives you so much flexibility. You can learn as often as you would like and fit it around your schedule without time constraints. You’ll never be late for class! There are many language applications online that will help you on your journey to sound like a local.

Let’s start with our two favorite applications for learning Portuguese that are completely free! Ba Ba Dum helps you learn Portuguese through games and vocabulary quizzes that keep you entertained. They even teach you some funny expressions that only a native would know.

With Duolingo, you can learn Portuguese in just 5 minutes a day. However, they only offer Brazilian Portuguese if that’s what you are looking for. The app and the website are free! You can pay for a premium feature if you need extra help.

Here are other platforms to learn Portuguese online:

2. Visiting Portugal

You can always opt to immerse yourself in Portuguese (or Brazilian) culture. There’s no better way to learn a language than learning from the locals. You will need to spend at least a month in Portugal if you want to learn Portuguese. It would take you at least 6 months to become fluent, so consider investing in some classes.

If you are staying in Lisbon there are several courses you can take. Language Lisboa is a great option. This school has group classes with a maximum of 7 people so you can be given the help you need. They have a 4-week course with 3 lessons a day for €520. They also offer 2 and 3-week courses for cheaper prices.

Photo by Veronika Jorjobert (Unsplash)

If you decide to visit Porto instead, Oficina de Português School is a small Portuguese school in the center that also offers weekly activities in Porto like wine tastings and cinema events. The best part, the price includes accommodation! You can learn Portuguese here for €250 a week with 20 lessons per week.

Tips for Learning Portuguese

Whether you are taking classes online or learning with a local, you’re gonna need some tips to power through this language. If you are truly motivated, learning Portuguese should be something you take into your daily life. From listening to Portuguese music to practicing your pronunciation throughout the day. We have selected our 4 top tips for learning Portuguese.

1. Speak often

They say it takes 21 days to build a habit. Repetition is key to learning a language. Try to speak as often as you can, preferably daily. Talk to your partner in Portuguese and practice common phrases before you go to bed. A quick trick is to place sticky notes on your house furniture and products. Place one on your bed that says cama, for example. When you see it, say it out loud. Try to use the word in a sentence. You will slowly start memorizing what things mean without even realizing it. Don’t forget to practice your pronunciation. Reading the language won’t be enough if you want to sound fluent.

2. Build your vocabulary

Start by learning the most common words and expressions. The ones you’ll need to use when you visit such as verbs, nouns, adjectives, and pronouns. Don’t forget to learn please and thank you! Write all these words down in a journal or make flashcards. Make it like your own little Portuguese dictionary.

3. Use your senses: listen to music and watch shows

Learning a language doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, if you want to succeed at learning Portuguese, you better make it enjoyable. Did you know a great way to learn a language is through your senses? We usually just use sight and sound to learn a language, but you can find ways to incorporate all 5 if you are feeling creative.

For sight, read, read, read! Start easy. Read some Portuguese children’s books as these will be more suitable for your level. Try O Principezinho (The Little Prince) or maybe a book you already know the storyline.

For sound, listen to some Portuguese music. A good idea would be to have the lyrics in front of you so you can sing along and practice pronunciation. Fado is a great option as it is usually slow and the lyrics are clear.

Combine sight and sound! Watch Portuguese television shows and listen closely to the way they pronounce words. Start with subtitles in your native language and later on move on to Portuguese subtitles. You’ll be quoting Portuguese actors in no time. We recommend watching Glória, the first ever Portuguese Netflix original!

You can also have some fun with smell and taste, by cooking a typical Portuguese meal like a bitoque (thin steak). It will be the perfect reward after a day of learning!

4. Remember why you are learning Portuguese in the first place

It might be that you are learning your partner’s language to surprise them with your wedding vows. Maybe you are planning to visit Portugal and want to be able to understand the locals. Or maybe you just want to add another language to your list of skills. Whatever the reason, make sure to remind yourself why you are learning Portuguese in the first place. This is sure to keep you motivated and give you a sense of purpose when those tricky verbs are knocking you down.

Final thoughts

In no time you’ll be one of the 215 million people around the world who speak Portuguese! Your visit to Portugal will be a totally different experience. You’ll be able to ask the locals for the secret spots they won’t share with tourists and the best restaurants to try. More importantly, they will really appreciate it. The Portuguese know how hard it is to learn their language. Even if you are not fluent, a simple bom dia (good morning), will put a smile on an old lady’s face.

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