Tips on learning Portuguese and understanding Brazil


When my husband Tony was invited to play professional water polo for two months in his hometown of Rio de Janeiro, I was ecstatic.  I love the fact that we get to live somewhere different overseas every year, but we always happen to be somewhere freezing and rainy during the winter, and this was our chance to be in Brazil during its summer (our winter). I know by experience that it's much more pleasant to live in a country when you speak at least a little of the language, so I set off to see if I could learn Portuguese.  I am not the type of person that learns well with programs like Rosetta Stone, so I wanted to find a different approach.

After a lot of research and several failed attempts, I finally put together a really good program that combined several different learning techniques from various sources.  I also started by reading a book in English called A Death In Brazil by Peter Robb, in order to gain a little perspective on Brazilian culture and history.  

A Death in Brazil is an absolutely fascinating tale of the author's travels across the country and back into time--"from the days of slavery to modern-day political intrigue and murder".  He writes sensuously about Brazil's food, music literature and landscape.  I learned so much by reading the book and found myself constantly involved in conversations about it when I was down in Brazil.  I highly recommend it as a prelude to any trip.

Probably the single best source I found is an online program called Semantica Portuguese.  They offer a series of video lessons that you can download as single episodes or in a group (there are two groups-- one for complete beginners and one for more intermediate/advanced students).  The individual lessons cost between 99 cents and $2.50 and the whole series can be bought for $59.95.  The great thing about this method is that when you download each video, you also get a PDF file with the complete written dialog, a section of terms and definitions and some kind of verb conjugation and explanation.

The videos are all very relatable and use phrases and dialog that you would really use on a trip to Brazil.  My favorite episode is of a guy getting a private samba lesson from a girl when his wife walks in and basically tells him he is not allowed to take samba classes anymore-- she is going to teach him herself.

When I first watched the videos they were very difficult or even impossible for me to understand.  But as I studied the written dialogs and kept watching over and over, I soon began to grasp individual words and phrases and then eventually I could understand everything.  I think this series really contributed to my ability to learn the language in a very short time period.

My second method for studying was a book called Viajando Atraves do Alfabeto (Traveling through the Alphabet).  It is based on a book by Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar and divided into 26 units (one for each letter of the alphabet), each one a different story or chronicle.  There are also pre-reading exercises to get you thinking, post reading activities, and a grammar and vocabulary review.  The stories are all excellent and I ended up re-reading many of them simply because I liked them so much.

My third favorite material is a book called Cinema for Portuguese Conversation.  It's essentially a textbook on the intermediate level that uses film as the basis for teaching vocabulary, strengthening  oral and written skills, and presenting Brazilian culture.  The book is divided into five sections reflecting major themes in Brazilian, Portuguese and Lusophone African cinema: the sertao (backlands), urban violence, political transitions, women, and the mythological legend of Orpheus.  The movies come from different cinematic periods from 1959 until 2003 and most can easily be found online.

Each chapter starts with a description of the film, a list of vocabulary terms/definitions, colloquial expressions from the movie, the historical context of the film and questions to think about before watching.  After you watch the film, you complete the rest of the chapter which includes activities like matching the characters to their descriptions, putting events in chronological order, discussing the relationships between characters and many, many more.

This book not only helped me to substantially improve my Portuguese skills on all levels (listening, expressing myself etc.), it also gave me a real understanding of Brazil as a country and her incredible history.  The first film I watched was Vidas Secas, and although it was extremely slow with very little dialog, it painted a stark picture of the sertao or desert region of Northeastern Brazil, and the hard life the inhabitants of this area have historically dealt with.

The last book that rounded out my studying routine is titled: Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar (Workbook).  Although the title makes it sound incredibly dreary, it is an excellent resource for really getting at the core of any language: grammar and everyday usage.  The book is divided into two sections: exercises based on essential grammatical structures and practice of everyday functions (making social contact, asking questions and expressing needs).  This is the workbook part of a textbook/workbook combination, but I was able to use it without the text just as a practice tool.

Then of course the best way to learn any language is to immerse yourself in the country that speaks it and start talking.  I made a huge effort to speak Portuguese from day 1 in Brazil and it paid off-- I now feel comfortable with the language and continue to practice by reading books in Portuguese on my Kindle.