Do you really need to learn European Portuguese if you’re coming to Portugal? The short answer is yes. Even if it’s only how to say please and thank you. How far you go beyond that will depend on many factors but if you’re planning to spend any significant amount of time here, it’s worth getting to grips with the language.
Once you get past the stage of having to resort to gestures and feeling as though you have the communicative powers of a drunk chimpanzee, you’ll be able to ask for, and in most cases get, the help or information you need rather than go home frustrated and baffled with your tail between your legs.
It needn’t cost you anything other than time, although see the end of the article for paid resources like Portuguese dictionaries, phrasebooks and home study courses.
Should you learn Brazilian or European Portuguese?
Some Portuguese people may advise you to learn Brazilian Portuguese, claiming that it’s easier. That may be so, but why learn something that sounds very different from the way people speak in Portugal?
I don’t see the point of putting any additional barriers in the way of mutual comprehension. If you’re going to be using Portuguese to communicate in Portugal, it makes far more sense to learn the right grammar and pronunciation from the get go.
The trouble is, a lot of the resources for learning Portuguese are based on the Brazilian version.
That’s why I’ve trawled through them to find free or dirt cheap language learning tools that focus on helping you learn European Portuguese. Use these and you can be confident that your attempts to imitate the native speaker’s pronunciation are at least a step in the right direction.
What level are you at?
If you’ve studied a foreign language in the past 10 years or so, you might be familiar with these letters and numbers: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. If you haven’t a clue what these numbers and letters mean, they are Council of Europe codes designed to standardise the levels that language learners have reached.
In simple terms, A1 = Beginner, A2 = Elementary to Pre-Intermediate, B1 = Intermediate, B2 = Upper Intermediate (i.e. fairly independent language user) while C1 and C2 are Advanced levels.
You can use these codes to help you find courses and language materials that match your current level. This self-assessment grid may help.
How to learn the basics of European Portuguese
There are plenty of free resources to help absolute beginners with greetings, essential vocabulary and useful phrases for travel and shopping.
Simple phrases and vocabulary
Learn Portuguese with Rafa gives you both European and Brazilian pronunciation of Portuguese words and phrases. You can listen and repeat or use his version of phonetics to help you pronounce words. There’s a useful explanation of commonly used expressions such as pois and much more.
If English isn’t your first language, or even if it is, you might want to check out Loecsen’s free online courses. Choose your source language then select a topic from various categories of phrases. You can listen to native speakers while you read the text and watch a simple animation that illustrates the meaning.
Although they start from the basics, the native speakers who model the phrases talk at normal speed so you’ll want to replay and repeat several times before moving on. As you read the accompanying text, think about how the words get smushed together when they’re spoken. Try to identify what individual words sound like in spoken sentences. This will help you cope better in live situations.
The paid version of Loecsen’s courses allows you to download mp3s and PDFs but I haven’t investigated that option.
Free for students, cheap for everyone else
The E-LOCAL online course offered by Coimbra University’s Centre for Social Studies has beginner level language and cultural information. Coimbra University students can register for free otherwise, it’s 20 euros for 1 year’s access. I find it a bit clunky but you can try a demo course to decide if it’s right for you. They cover 6 languages including Portuguese.
Video lessons for beginners
I found a series of videos on YouTube specifically for European Portuguese by native speakers with genuine Portuguese accents. The pace is rather slow but through repetition and building on verb forms, you get helpful drilling practice in conjugating verbs while learning vocabulary groups.
Grammar and vocabulary practice for beginners
Digital Dialects offers simple online games to help you recognise basic words and practice present tense verb conjugations. There’s no pronunciation support but you can get this from other sources.
Conjuguemos is probably my favourite discovery during the research I did for this post. I’m going to be using this one myself as it caters for more advanced verb conjugations as well as the basics. It also helps you study vocabulary in categories with flashcards and word lists. You then play games to test yourself and try to beat your own score. Set the timer for 5 minutes and see how well you can do.
Where to find multi-level materials
The Alto Commissariado Para As Migrações (High Commission for Migrations) has recently launched a learn Portuguese platform. Instructions and welcome video are available in Portuguese, English and Arabic and learning materials cover elementary (Level A) and intermediate (Level B) topics.
You can learn vocabulary and grammar and practice your listening, reading and writing skills with online exercises and tasks. I don’t know if it’s possible to skip straight to the level B materials – I started in Level A to see what it was like and the system won’t let me see Level B until I complete A.
The Camões Institute have some online learning materials which are grouped according to level (beginner, intermediate and advanced) and skill (speaking, listening, reading) plus a few language games. It’s not the most user-friendly site in the world but it provides some challenging practice for higher levels.
And, as mentioned above, Conjuguemos covers a wide range of verb tenses, taking you into intermediate level and beyond.
Learn Portuguese From Portugal offers recordings of short texts so you can listen and read. Certain grammatical and vocabulary items are highlighted and explained and you can choose from easy, intermediate and difficult texts. Bear in mind that ‘easy’ is not for absolute beginners.
Learn European Portuguese the way it’s really used
Practice Portuguese is a great resource for both beginner and intermediate learners. Joel Rendall, a Canadian, has teamed up with a Portuguese guy, Rui Coimbra, to produce regular videos and podcasts which Rui provides subtitles and transcriptions for.
You have to pay a nominal subscription a month to get the transcriptions and full premium features but they are well worth it.
They also provide a glossary of shortened words so you can see and understand what people actually say and practice sounding like a local yourself.
They have also developed a Learning Studio with comprehensive practice materials to help you from beginner level.
Free face-to-face Portuguese classes
Some local councils offer a limited number of free Portuguese classes at various levels to help immigrants integrate better. The courses may be intensives in August or less intensive long-term classes that start in September or October and run until May or June. Classes are usually held in local schools or colleges.
Don’t get your hopes up, or rely on these courses. It’s hard to find out about them in advance of the start date and there aren’t that many in each district. Ask at your local câmara municipal. Or check this page for contact details.
If you’re living in Portugal and can’t find a free class, ask around and you’ll probably find a local private teacher who can come to your house or run small classes at a fairly low cost.
Portuguese food vocabulary
I just came across this very helpful glossary of Portuguese food terms. You’ll have to work out the pronunciation yourself, or with the help of an online dictionary that has audio but it will go a long way towards helping you understand menus in restaurants.
If you enjoy a social drink on your travels, this post will help: How to say Cheers! in 50 different languages
Practice your Portuguese proverbs
Portuguese Sayings is a fun Facebook page which translates traditional Portuguese proverbs into literal English which usually sounds nonsensical. Fortunately, it also explains the real meaning and when you’d use such an expression.
Pit yourself against native speakers
The 1990 Acordo Ortográfico (orthographic agreement) was designed to simplify the spelling of Portuguese and remove redundant letters and accents.
Even the Portuguese are confused about when to use a circumflect (^) and plenty more besides. The national television channel RTP has a regular feature called Bom Português where they stop passers-by and test their knowledge of their own language. It could help you learn the correct spelling of tricky words, too.
Watch Portuguese television online
Even if you’re not living in Portugal or hooked up to the national channels, you can still watch programmes on demand on your PC or mobile devices via RTP Play and other stations, including SIC and TVI.
The best Portuguese radio station for listening practice
I made a concerted effort last year to listen to Portuguese radio when taking the dog for a walk. The best station for this, i.e. the one with more speaking than music, is TSF, which you can also listen to online.
It’s a bit like listening to the more serious BBC radio stations which makes it easier to understand as there’s less slang and chit chat and more journalistic news reporting.
Podcasts in Portuguese for advanced learners
Thanks to a reader suggestion (thanks, Nick), I have discovered the joys of Portugueses no Mundo (Portuguese in the World). This is a fairly regular feature on RTP1 and is available to download as a podcast. Not for beginners, this is unabridged Portuguese and may be tricky to understand at times but offers insights into the experiences of Portuguese people living, studying and working in other countries.
Portuguese dictionaries, phrase books, grammar books and home study courses (not free)
Michel Thomas home study courses
Several people have recommended the Michel Thomas Portuguese course to me so I tried it out. It’s an interesting method of teaching Portuguese which is especially good for people who learn best through listening.
You’re not allowed to write anything down but they do spell words out to help visual learners cope. There’s lots of pronunication work and helpful memory hooks to help the vocabulary and grammar stick in your mind.
The courses aren’t free but they don’t cost the earth, either. This is the beginner level Michel Thomas programme but there are more advanced packs, too.
Portuguese phrase books
If all you need is a little backup to help you out when you’re actually in Portugal and trying to get around, a pocket phrasebook may come in handy.
Of course,there are many Portuguese-English dictionaries to choose from.Collins Portuguese Dictionary and Grammarisn’t bad for general use at lower levels and it includes a grammar reference section, too:
After rediscovering my stepdaughter’s Disney picture dictionary, I can see the value in a grown-up’s version. This Portuguese-English Visual Bilingual Dictionary (DK Bilingual Dictionaries) is worth a look.
Portuguese grammar books
If you want to go beyond the grammar tips in the above-mentioned dictionary, Portuguese Verbs & Essentials of Grammar is a very useful book which explains usage in an easily digestible manner.
That’s all I have for you at the moment but please let me know if you know of any other free or nearly free resources to add to the list.
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