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, either.
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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 Brazlian 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?
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 they mean, they are Council of Europe codes designed to standardise the levels that language learners reach.
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.
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
The BBC website has a Portuguese language section which offers short videos, pronunciation practice, 10 facts about Portuguese and cultural and grammatical notes. Explanations and translations are, of course, in English. You can download some mp3s to practice offline, too.
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 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.
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.
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.
Otherwise, you could check the list of Portuguese for Foreigners courses run by various universities in Portugal but they usually involve a substantial time and financial commitment.
Learn European Portuguese the way it’s really used
Practice Portuguese is a great resource for 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.
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.
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. The result? 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.
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.
Dictionaries and CD courses (not free)
Several people have recommended the Michel Thomas 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 programme but there are more advanced packs, too.
Of course,there are many Portuguese-English dictionaries to choose from. This one isn’t bad for general use at lower levels and it includes a grammar reference section, too: Collins Portuguese Dictionary and Grammar (Collins Dictionary and Grammar)
I haven’t actually tried this but after rediscovering my stepdaughter’s Disney picture dictionary, I can see the value in a grown-up’s version. It’s had good reviews on Amazon: Portuguese-English Visual Bilingual Dictionary (DK Bilingual Dictionaries)
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.
Otherwise, feel free to share your Portuguese language learning successes and frustrations in the comments.
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