How to Understand Brazilians

Before we start I just want to clarify the title of this video/post. I don’t mean ‘understand Brazilians’ in a sociological, cultural way. What I’m going to talk about in this post is How to Understand Brazilians when they speak.

I’ve heard many times students saying – Brazilians talk to fast! – I can’t understand them!I say something to them and when they reply I can’t understand a word!

Do Brazilians speak fast?

Of course, some Brazilians do speak fast. However, most of the time what actually happens is not that they speak fast, it’s that students perceive them to speak fast. And there are many reasons for that: Brazilians often join two or three words together, drop syllables from words, or drop whole words altogether, use a lot of slang, there are different accents, just to mention a few. And all these things that should be a priority of any methodology are often left out of course materials.

Here’s an example:
It’s very common for course books to teach that the Portuguese for I’m well, thank you is

Eu estou bem, obrigado. 

While that is certainly correct, grammatically speaking, I can say that I have never heard a Brazilians speak like that. I certainly never do – what I do say though sounds like

Tô bem, brigado.

Did I speak fast? I don’t think so, but this is what I did: I dropped ‘eu’, estou became tô and obrigado became brigado.


The advantages of authentic materials

So, the problem is that there is a huge gap between recorded dialogues that are made specifically for learners and the reality of everyday, natural speech. Textbooks often show just how one should speak, so learners end up learning this sort of alternative Brazilian Portuguese that completely unrecognizable in real life.

If you find it difficult to understand Brazilians when they speak is probably because you’ve been listening to the wrong type of material. Or, you haven’t been practising your listening skills at all. And how do you get better at listening? By listening to a natural speech, with authentic materials, as much as you can.

What do I mean by authentic materials?  For me, authentic materials are any type of material produced by native speakers specifically to be consumed by native speakers, without any thought about the understanding of such materials by non-native speakers.

In fact, consuming authentic materials in English is how I managed to learn English in Brazil without any regular contact with native English speakers and without having visited any English-speaking countries. But I listened to a LOT of music by American and British artists, and I watched a LOT of English and American films and TV shows. Granted, I did attend English classes, but what I think made a huge difference was the fact that I consumed a vast amount of authentic materials in English. I remember when I was about 7 or 8 I was obsessed with the film Grease (still am!) and I remember that I loved the music so much I used to play the LP and write down the lyrics phonetically so, this bit:

became téumimór, téumimór… 😎😎

I also used to buy a magazine, I don’t know if it still exists, called Letras Traduzidas (Translated Lyrics) which just had a bunch of… yes, you guessed it, translated lyrics! I loved it because I was then able to sing along to the trendy pop songs at the time and know what the lyrics meant as well. Most films in English used to be dubbed (badly) when shown on TV, so I would rent films on VHS (!) and would tape the bottom part of the TV to hide the subtitles so I could focus on the English and practice my listening.

So the moral of the story is: Consume authentic materials in Brazilian Portuguese as much and as often as you can. Yes, they will be difficult at first – but don’t avoid the natural language, actively look ways to be exposed to Brazilians speaking in ‘real life’, with slang, natural speech patterns, grammar ‘mistakes’, speech quirks, different accents, etc.

The more exposure to ‘real’ Brazilian Portuguese you get, in the form of authentic materials, the more familiar it will become and the easier will be to understand Brazilians.

Now, it’s very important to know how to approach authentic materials. You have to be a bit strategic about it, you have to be in learning mode. Otherwise, you take the risk of getting too frustrated and give up after a few tries.

Learning mode strategy

Let’s take a film for example. There are quite a lot of Brazilian films available on Netflix these days (check out this other post 30 Brazilian Films to Watch on Netflix) – not just feature films but also series. Here’s my suggestion on how to watch them strategically in 4 steps:

Stage 1 – Prepare

First of all, choose your film carefully. Make sure that in the settings you have the option to play it with both English and Portuguese captions. Also, make sure it is a genre you like – there’s no point in trying watching a gritty social drama just because it’s Brazilian if your thing is romantic comedies! The choice of film will also have an impact on the type of language you will be exposed to (the type of vocabulary and language style) and the level of difficulty you will have to deal with. Watching Elite Squad…

will be a very different language experience than watching The Way He Looks, for example.

Stage 2 – Enjoy

Now that you’ve chosen your film, sit back and watch it first with English subtitles. This is very important, the point here is to enjoy and get familiarized with the story. If you attempt to watch it without subtitles it will only make you frustrated and angry!

Stage 3 – Connect

A few days later watch it again, this time with subtitles in Portuguese. Here’s when the real learning starts. You already know the story, so you’re not going to be anxious about not knowing what’s happening. Listen to the dialogue, and make a connection between the words you hear and the words you read. Don’t look up words in the dictionary at this stage.  

Stage 4 – Study 

This time you’re not going to watch the whole film.  Pick one scene. This can be a scene you think it has some interesting vocabulary or a scene with not too much dialogue or even a funny scene. It’s up to you. Watch the chosen scene again and write down the whole dialogue, using the pause button. Now is the time to study. Look up words, make notes about the pronunciation (write them phonetically if you need to,  study the structure of the sentences. Watch the scene many times. Try to say the lines out loud with the same pronunciation and intonation as the actors.

By doing this strategy often, you will soon notice that your ability to understand Brazilians when they speak will start improving quite quickly.

You could also follow these same steps with shorter videos. You could repeat the strategy with each episode of a series, for example. At the moment there are three Brazilians series available on Netflix: the sci-fi 3%, the romantic comedy Samantha! and the political drama The Mechanism.


Ant that’s it! You can also try TED talks in Portuguese. They are excellent for listening practice. They are quite short and the speakers tend to talk in an informal, conversational style. I created a playlist on my YouTube channel with about 20 TED talks given by Brazilians, there’s bound to be a talk on a topic you find interesting. Just check the settings of each individual video to see if it comes with both English subtitles and Portuguese captions.

I haven’t even mentioned podcasts, music videos and online Brazilian radio stations. You can approach each one with a different kind of strategy. They will also help you understand Brazilians when they speak.


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