Learning Brazilian Portuguese

As a teacher I’m always interested in how people view the process of learning Brazilian Portuguese, the reasons why they’re learning it and what they find easy or difficult about it. Recently I came across a Blog called Brazil-Compass, written by business consultant, Berta Papp. It’s a great Blog, about not just doing business in Brazil, but also Brazilian culture in general, with many interesting posts such as “7 Ways Brazilians Work Differently than Americans“. I asked her to tell us a bit about her experience learning the language when she moved to Brazil in 2009, from learning the basics to the realisation of how fond Brazilians are of “gírias”! Here’s her story:
“My first experience learning Portuguese was when I was traveling to Rio for the Carnaval in 2009 and in preparation, I signed up to a Basic Portuguese course. It was organized by the University of London, where I learned how to count to ten and say hi and thank you in the appropriate way. The teacher was so cool I could not imagine she was from Rio. For some reason I thought of Brazil as a developing country, as any Latin American country and I didn’t know many things about this part of the word. I knew the Brazilians spoke Portuguese and not Spanish, but that was about it, really.
I didn’t know that a couple of months later I will be moving to Sao Paulo to work there! I moved to Brazil without speaking any Portuguese but I got on well with my work as everyone I met spoke English well. Of course, if you don’t speak fluent Portuguese dealing with people in everyday situations or in the public sector in Brazil will be tricky because no one at the Federal Police speaks English or understands broken Portuguese. This is a country where expats are still quite rare so many people hear their language spoken by foreigners in the first time in their lives when I speak with them. Judging by their reaction I think most of them are not mentally prepared to make sense of what I am trying to say and are surprised to see that there are people in this world who don’t speak fluent Portuguese! They are trying to help, but it can be incredibly hard for them sometimes. Can you remember the first time you have heard your own language spoken broken by a foreigner? I was so shocked when I saw a little Chinese girl talk Hungarian on the bus in Budapest!
So in the first year I didn’t even have a Portuguese teacher because I thought it was incredibly expensive and I didn’t even need to use the language – what I picked up on the way to get by in the shops I managed. I was also overwhelmed by the cultural change and speaking English was offering a comfortable refuge – at least something I was familiar with!
As I became more used to spoken Portuguese, I realized that it is easy to be under the impression that you understand the language because Brazilians are very expressive and will try to use their hands and gestures to make sure you try to understand them. Also because of the latin roots, lots of words make sense if you already speak Spanish, Italian, French but also English. So probably you will get to understanding phase very fast but it will be more difficult to speak back and get your head around talking with people and having interesting conversations.
When you realize that you don’t understand a word whats going on around you, I think you have reached the next level. Now you understand that Brazilians use ‘girias’ or little jokes all the time even to ask the time and if you don’t or can’t reply back in the same flippant way, of course you are not from here. Then there are people from other parts of Brazil who speak Portuguese like it was a different language. According to my experience, people in and around Sao Paulo speak in a way that is easy to understand, they generally articulate and don’t rush their words too much. People in Rio speak with a ‘carioca’ accent, using a harsh ‘s’ sound and joking around ALL the time. It is very hard to understand the carioca slang. In the north of Brazil, people have a different accent, and they use completely different idiomatic expressions and words that are only used in their regions and will not even be known by people outside the region let alone foreigners.
When we go to visit my husband’s family in Recife, where he is from, I often think that there people don’t even speak Portuguese. It’s a local language, which, between insiders is spoken with almost no articulation and many tricks as to saying funny things.”

4 thoughts on “Learning Brazilian Portuguese”

  1. Despite always hearing about how close Portuguese is to Spanish,Portuguese is giving me a fit with the pronunciation. It does resemble Spanish in it’s written form, but that’s where it stops. It doesn’t sound like Spanish and it’s not easy to understand…at least for me. To hear how difficult it is to learn Portuguese even coming from someone who lives in Brazil is a downer 🙁 I don’t live in the country, don’t come into contact with any Brazilians, and it’s just not useful in the U.S. like Spanish is.

    I guess what matters is if you have a passion for the language and is it fun learning it. I don’t know if I’ll continue to try and learn Portuguese. It’s more frustrating than fun at the moment.

    1. Hi Dominic,
      Thank you for your comment. I do understand your frustration. A lot of my students have reached an intermediate/advanced level but they still find it difficult to understand when they hear native Brazilian speakers. Part of this problem is generated by course books showing how the language “should” be spoken, but not the reality of how it is actually spoken in day-to-day conversation. For example, in the sentence: “Eu vou para o Brasil em dezembro” (I’m going to Brazil in December), the preposition “para” and the article “o” are merged and become “pro” in conversation. The changes are you will never hear a Brazilian saying “para o”! So, this kind of thing generates confusion amongst learners, making listening a bit more difficult to grasp. That’s why I always show students, from the very beginning, authentic materials like scenes from soap operas, songs, videos, etc. Don’t give up, try and get exposed to as many materials as you can. There are lots of things you can do, even if you don’t live in Brazil. One thing that I really recommend to people who don’t live in Brazil or who don’t know any Brazilians is to try one of the Online Language Communities. The other post worth reading is “17 Ways to Improve your Portuguese“, there are lots of practical tips there. Boa sorte!

  2. Wow… knowing that little bit of info makes a big difference in understanding how to really start to listen to a language. I don’t know why most language teachers and courses don’t realize this. I do want to learn Portuguese because I loooove the music, Brazilian jiu jitsu, and the mix of people. Maybe I’ll take a new approach by finding a good tutor (hint hint) I’ll check out the other links also. Muito Obrigado Fernando!


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