Diary of learning a language: Portuguese 

Learning levels

  1. Infant – you understand nothing. You get on a bus to a new destination at your own peril. Everything is stress and you learn to use pointing and pictures to get yourself understood
  2. Great listener – you can finally distinguish one word from the next and it no longer sounds like blusjsbaissutnwoau.
  3. Conversation Killer – You learn eu nao faloPortuguese (I don’t speak Portuguese) because you can speak a little, but you’re never going to understand what someone is trying to say to you. Generally this kills conversations dead, its no good for learning, great for getting on with your day
  4. I Have a Sentence! – You learn some more and are proud to learn the phrase eu falo um pouco Portuguese (I speak a little Portuguese). Now people don’t just stop talking when they realise you don’t fully understand them. They will sometimes try to repeat themselves a few times till you understand.
  5. Try Hard – you hate ever having to use the phrase eu nao falo Portuguese because it kills conversations in their tracks and limits what you can learn when speaking to locals. You would rather listen to someone speaking for a few minutes, not having a clue what they are saying, than stop them mid-sentence to tell them you have no idea what is happening. You can get by on public transport and restuarants, you can have basic conversations with people about work, travel, likes and dislikes
  6. What was that word? – You are confident to approach locals and you make sure that when they say something, you repeat their sentence(showing you know mostof it), but you mention the word that you didn’t understand and try to get them to explain it. That way they know that you understood most of what they were saying, but they need to explain that one word, because you have no idea what the sentence meant otherwise
  7. Conversation leader – you can lead a lengthy chat with someone but it only continues if you ask the questions because then you are only going to be saying things you understand. As soon as the other person starts to try to lead there becomes a high possibility of a stoppage in the conversation
  8. Wannabe Eve’s-dropper – you’re nearly at the point where you can listen to people’s random conversations. You pick up the odd word which you didn’t know before and you can nearly understand them based on the words you can pick out
  9. Getter Byer – you can get by with confidence in all the situations you find yourself in regularly. New social situations are still difficult though when you do not know the conversation subject
  10. Understand everything (not)- In familiar situations you know what is being said and can have a conversation. In unfamiliar situations you often get lucky and understand one word which allows you to figure out what is being said and answer correctly. Phew.  
  11. Conversational – I prefer to distinguish between conversational and fluent. I have spent a day with a guy who is conversational in English but the conversation can only go to a certain point. If you start discussing something really technical then you can tell they are getting confused because they stop answering..or maybe I just bored him
  12. Fluent – you can talk about any topic, in depth, as any native speaker could
  13. Level Master – You are fluent and can go to any part of the country and understand anyone. I met someone who had lived in London for 5 years (Swedish) and she gave me the idea for the master level as she almost sounded English, and she knew the alternative meaning of the word “crank”. So really, a master is able to use words/slang/phrases that maybe even a native speaker wouldn’t know

General notes

  1. Get used to looking like an idiot. Maybe dance at the bus stop by  yourself because you need to be able to feel stupid when you start trying to make small talk in another language. 
  2. The first thing you will probably learn is ‘eu nao fala Portuguese’ and when you have learned a few phrases it will be something you want to forget as it kills conversations in their tracks
  3. If you’re awkward at home (as i am) you’re gonna be even more awkward speaking a new language so get over it 
  4. Learning in the right country is good because you can always go listen to people chat if you fancy a bit of free learning (its not wierd if you don’t really actually know what they are talking about, as long as you don’t actually look like you are trying to listen to them)
  5. If you are speaking to someone in Portuguese who also speaks english, and they don’t understand you the first time you say something, don’t revert back to english, say it in Portuguese till they understand 

THE DIARY

June 7

I arrived in Brazil on 28th of April not knowing a word of Portuguese. I thought I would be able to get by having learned Spanish for two months with the Rosetta Stone App but I was wrong. Although I can read pretty much anything in Portuguese that I can read in Spanish, the pronunciation is so different that the Spanish was basically no use. I actually tried the free part of the Portuguese section on Rosetta Stone before I came here but after it had said the first words (um menino) I couldnt handle it. The language is unbelievably nasal and I switched off the App immediately. It was like listening to Ed Milliband speak Spanish.

I still find the language a pain in the ass to learn. The sentence structure is wierd, its really nasal, and loads of words are commonly blurred. Now I am nearly at the same stage with Spanish and Portguese though, I feel that any other European language is going to be a lot easier to learn.

I had only planned to be in Brazil a couple of months so for the first two weeks that I was here, I carried on learning Latin American Spanish (the architect I was living with during that time was Mexican so it worked out ok). However after accepting a place on a volunteer program, I will be here for five months and want to be conversational to fluent by the time I leave.

Writing this post, I am now just over a month and a week in to my Brazil leg, and have been actively learning Portuguese for about 3 weeks I think. For the first week or so I was using DuoLingo but the voice used is electronic so the pronunciations are all out. It is good for getting a few words under my belt though. It got boring fast.

I then started using Brazilian Podclass. This Podcast was really good actually but I found it too easy to switch off and loose concentration/fall asleep listening to it etc, so it was never going to last for me. Eventually after multiple emails and shit customer service, Apple let me buy the Portuguese version of Rosetta Stone and I was away. I have been using Rosetta Stone for about 2 weeks now I think and it is going really well. It is easy to do hours and hours each day and not get bored and the words stick. I have a detailed break down of the different learning resources used at the bottom of the post.

Practicing on Locals

I can understand when people say that using your new skills on locals is the best practice. But it is scary so those people who can do it; well done, go pat yourself on the head with a hammer. We went to a locals house last night and it was Portuguese all night. I mustered up the courage to ask one question at one point, which consisted of 4 words, two of which I got wrong. She didn’t understand but luckily the lovely Brazilian lady I am living with whispered the final two correct words to me, I repeated them, and I got my question across, I can’t remember if I got an answer or not. For me it would take a really long time to learn if I was relying on practicing with locals.

I have however partnered with a local on the eco build we are doing. He wants to learn English and we are at similar respective levels. So each day we alternate between English and Portuguese. It is interesting because he only uses DuoLingo at home and he seems to have a good vocab, and can translate lots of random words when I need them, but his sentences and understanding of things above single words is limited. It is invaluable having someone who is also low in skill as a learning partner so hopefully he stays on the project for the full five months.

The extent of my Portguese thus far

(the spelling will most likely be all wrong but here goes) Nos estamos construniamos uma casa ecologica para um homem hollandaise. A casa ésta em seima uma montana no Cardinot. Cardinot és a proxima cidade de Nova Friburgo é ésta nort de cidade Rio de Janeiro. Eu seu apprendir Portuguese com um homem locaís. Tudo dias nos trocamos linguas de Portuguese á Ingles. Depois trabalhar eu usar Rosetta Stone para apprendir a noite é a dias eu apprendir com meu amigo. A fin semanas eu vo a Rio Cidade para enconocer minha amiga. Eu ja fui a Rio something something the end.

June 8

Today I was talking to the owner of the Eco project and he gave me some good advice. I was saying I lacked the confidence to practice my Portuguese on locals. He said that was a problem for him when he first started learning languages but after a while he just thought fuck it and stopped caring about being embarrassed because after all ‘they may be laughing at your mistakes but they can only speak one language’.

He also said that using your new language in the real world is the best way to improve and not doing so will slow you down massively. So I practiced on the next local I met, fucked it up, but fuck it, I didn’t care so much any more.

June 13

Last night I had my first proper conversation in portuguese (I think). This weekend I came to Rio with the boss and his family to paint his language school. We are staying with his friends and the wife is Spanish. I just had a full conversation with her in ‘Portañol’ which is Portuguese and Spanish. I think she was just speaking Spanish and I was just speaking Portuguese, probably with a bit of Spanish, and we were talking for a while. All be it very slowly, but I did it. Parabéns cadella. It was lucky that the lady I was talking to asked me lots of questions  though or it may not have lasted so long. We talked about where I had been and for how long, where I was going and about her work where she used to live, we covered everything we wanted to talk about and the only limit was the speed I could think of the words.

Another thing that happened was that the wife of the boss started speaking more english, maybe because she saw how basic my Portuguese was and it gave he a bit of confidence to use limited English on me, I’m not sure. I know that seeing her piece together sentences in broken English gave me more confidence as it was like watching myself struggle and it helped me understand what I look like when I speak portiguese. (What it looks like is that your making an effort to talk to someone on their terms)

Oh and we also went out and got drunk and I chatted up a Brazilian girl using my Portuguese. SHABBAAAAA

June 17

Someone just asked me directions. Luckily we happened to be 100 meters away from where he wanted to go and I happened to live in the place he wanted to go so after I asked him “onde que?” (where what?). He repeated himself and I just caught the name of our place so I pointed to the car parked outside the driveway and said something along the lines of over there, by the beetle. I have no idea why I asked him to repeat where he was going as I only know one place in this whole village and that is the place that I live. Unfortunately I didn’t use all the words I knew or I would have said (whilst pointing) ésta la, vire derecha, átras a fuscha (it is there turn right, behind the beetle)

June 21

I didn’t think this would happen but my confidence has really shot up. I was looking round shops in town yesterday and asking for stuff, albeit using really simplistic phrases, and I went and talked to the guy who lives next door to me when ho was killing ducks for a BBQ. He then gave me some bread and coffee and I watched him kill ducks and chickens. We exchanged a few sentences but I noticed his Portuguese was a little bit more difficult to understand, maybe because we are right out in the countryside. People from very rural places in the UK can be very hard to understand after all.

The evening brought some more conversation, of sorts. I had fallen asleep early after a big bbq and woken up at about 9pm. So I went to the toilet and planned to return promptly to my room and get to bed. As I turned to lock the toilet door (outside toilet) I noticed that the kitchen light was on next to my room, and someone was standing behind the frosted glass at the window, presumably cooking (I occupy a single room leading to the outside, and must walk across a courtyard to get to the toilet. My room is attached to the outside of someone’s house).

I knew immediately I may not get back to my room without an encounter of the Portuguese kind. Anyway I went for a pee and got back to my room uninterrupted. Unfortunately 30 seconds later I heard the door opposite mine open and I prepared myself for a knock, which came shortly.

The man standing there was technically my landlord, a local police chief and as I had witnessed today at the bbq, a serious drinker. He was still drunk. He invited me to the kitchen and showed me some food he was cooking. I tried to say I needed to sleep, which was true, but he insisted on feeding me. I have heard this is a Brazilian thing:

‘here have some food’

‘no thanks’

‘No really, have some food I made it’

‘No no I am full from a day of eating thank you’

‘But I have food here, eat it’

‘No thanks you’re drunk and have only fried that chicken for a few minutes, and you’re not even eating it yourself to share the food poisoning you cretin’

Anyway I eventually sat down and he offered me a beer. Never one to say no to a beer I obliged and sat and ate some rice, a deep fried egg and a little bit of the thinnest pieces of chicken. I wasn’t sure which bit to take, whether to go for the fatter bits and hope the heat hadn’t reached far enough to create food poisoning (he was reheating it I should add), or just go for the thin scraps. I went for the thin.
Anyway I am not sure if he was speaking English or Portuguese or a made up language, as I say, he was really drunk. I did learn one word though: ‘pegar’. I had learned this from ‘pegar o onibus’ – ‘take the bus’ and he was saying take this, take that, eat food. In that moment I learned that you can use the same word for taking the bus and taking some food.
The drunkness really broke the ice though and I had no problem trying to speak to him in Portuguese, the only problem was that he seemed to have no idea what I was saying even when I knew I was definitely speaking correctly.

Half way through this encounter I realised something. This guy could want to kill me. I’m not sure what sparked this revelation but I thought to myself ‘he is a police chief and if he wanted to he could do me and get away with it’. So I made a note of the nearest weapons (a knife to my left, and a rolling pin just behind me) and made sure I never had my back to him when he was close enough to attack. He started showing me how to skin a garlic at one point, I still don’t know why, but that was right behind me and got me a little bit nervous. But I am still alive to tell the tale so no worries anyway.

In the end I said I needed to sleep but he offered me another beer. He clearly knew my weakness. I decided I could use him for more language practice so I took the beer and we talked about the local sugar cane spirit ‘cashasa’ (not sure if that’s how it was spelled). To be honest I just wanted him to give me some so when he poured himself a glass I asked about it. But it didn’t work so I just carried on with my beer.
I asked him if he made it and we spent the rest of the beer trying to decipher a word he mentioned in his answer. It was literally one word that I didn’t get but it seemed integral to the sentence. So integral in fact that he felt the need to get up and walk round his kitchen picking up random objects and naming them in an attempt to explain this word. Or maybe we were both in completely different conversations by this point. I guess I will never know.
So anyway now I am back safely in my room (locked) and full to bursting point. I know for a fact I’m gonna have to get up at some point in the night to pee because of those beers, and in the morning I await sickness and shits from the chicken. All to learn an alternative use of the word ‘pegar’.
Note to self. Don’t learn language with drunk people.

July 7

I am at one month and three weeks in to my learning of Portuguese and I would confidently say I am at a basic conversational level, and can read a fair amount.

(Translated)

Eu estou uma mês e três semanas no aprendendo Portuguese e eu posso falar com confidente eu estou na uma simplesmente conversação nível e posso ler alguns.

So that wasn’t an exact translation but I feel someone would understand all the same.

I can have basic conversations with people and am usually confident to be able to answer and understand people’s questions when I know we are on the same page already.
I also tried reading a science magazine yesterday and was able to almost fully understand two of the three articles I read, and learn a load of new words in the process.

August 3

I have been quite lazy with practicing over the last few weeks and I think I know why. In most of the situations I find myself in, I am able to get by with the vocab that I have. I can talk about most things to do with the eco-build and can get by fine in restaurants, shops and public transport etc. So I think I got lazy. I am still not able to join in a lot of social conversations unless it is foreigners speaking Portuguese so at this point, after about three months learning, I need to really make the effort to keep learning in order to be able to speak in any situation. My position at the eco project (in a place where none of the locals speak English..but all the volunteers do) has pretty much been secured for the next three months so as long as I dont get deported (visa expired a few days ago) then I have good time to become almost fluent.

August 12

I have become an eavesdropper. Whenever there is Portuguese conversations at the building site I will do my best to gravitate towards them, loiter and listen. I found out today that whenever there is work related Portuguese conversations going on I can understand everything, and will stand there translating them in my head. As soon as it goes off topic though I start to struggle. My Rosetta Stone has also just got to a tools and measurements unit as well which is AWESOME 

August 18

I think I’ve written this before but I’ve hit a bit of a wall. I can get by in all the situations that I find myself in on a daily basis so I am adding words here and there. But there are so many new situations where I get stuck, and that happens pretty much all the time. I can have conversations with people with confidence, and alcohol makes me even better at speaking

I think I need to start speaking people about random stuff which will 100% be a problem because I often struggle to do that in English.

August 23

I have pretty much finished Rosetta Stone now, and with that I would say I am at a basic conversational level and I can easily ‘get by’ in day to day situations. I think that is a pretty good level considering the app was just £100. I have not really used many other learning resources however I have been learning by being here in Brazil so I wouldn’t be at this level if I was learning in England. 

An American guy on the counter course, who is fluent, recommended I use a program he has, which teaches more though conversations. So I have moved back to the podcasts now and have been listening to them a lot over the last few days. Each podcast has a short conversations which is broken down and translated so I feel that is the next logical step for study practice at least. 

August 24

I can say today that I am at a conversational level with Portuguese, after about 14 weeks of learning. I spent the afternoon chatting to my Brazilian friend at the building site and we talked about all sorts of random stuff. I could have conversations with him before but only when I asked all the questions and knew what the subjects would be. 

I feel that you could be at a conversational level at many points as the definition is not clear, but today really cemented in my mind that I am there. I want to be at a confident conversational level in two months, I would define this as being able to answer anything that is asked to you, and have a conversation with anyone…basically fluent but not boss man big dog holla bitch fluent. In order to do this I will be listening to more podcasts each day as they are more conversation based. I have a renewed desire (which feels like when you have ‘the fear’ to get something done, but I’m not scared I’m excited) to increase my language as I’ll be moving to Rio city to work in a couple of months and I want to be able to talk to anyone when I’m out, and also to be able to get a Portuguese speaking job as that would be bang bang sick brup.

Also, as of recently I can translate my favourite phrase in my ‘essential foreign swear words book’ which my friends bought me. It only translates to Spanish French and German so I haven’t used it yet but: colocar um assento do privado na sua cabeça e sentar lá enquanto eu cagar sobre você…..so I just told that to my Portuguese housemate and she said it sounded like a 9 year old speaking 

August 28

I am getting more and more confident speaking Portuguese with the people around me. English is the best common language for all the volunteers so it is illogical to speak Portuguese with each other and it can feel like you are acting a stage show when you try and speak Portuguese to someone when you know the conversation would be smooth and easy in English. 

The local builders are the only ones who it really makes sense to speak to in Portuguese but now they know that I understand a lot of what they are saying they have started to ask me questions about myself which is really nice. 

I have started speaking more Portuguese to the paulista in our group as well and she is generally patient with me. I am able to have a wider variety of conversations each day and am feeling more confident about moving to rio in a couple of months and getting work there 

August 31

I have reached a funny point in my language learning. When I know the situation I can generally understand and respond etc, but when its something unexpected I often get lucky and can pick out just one or two words which allow me to understand and respond. For example, today I was chatting all afternoon with the Portuguese girl on the site no problem, but then when I was walking home from the local shop a guy drove past who lives nearby and said ‘bla bla rah rah comigo (with me)’ and because I heard ‘comigo’ I realised he was PROABABLY saying ‘hey you could have got a lift with me’. Anyway hearing one word and figuring out their intention happens fairly frequently so I think this is a good step. 

September 1

I got the TV to work! Finally Brazilian TV to learn from. I’m sitting in front of this in all of my free time from now on until I understand everything. I found podcasts spoke very clearly and they were not representative of real conversation so this is much better. Also the new girl here from Portuguese prefers to speak Portuguese so it is easy to speak with her in Portuguese. 

September 16

My level of conversation is getting better every time I have the opportunity to speak with someone. I have spent the afternoon chatting with the Portuguese girl at the project. Her accent is getting easier to understand now and we chatted about all sorts of things. I feel maybe that there are different levels of conversational. One being a one on one chat with someone you know and a huge step up would be following a chat with a group of people. 

September 18

I feel my confidence is reaching a peak, I have no problem talking to anyone in Portuguese. At the moment there is only really one person and that is the owner of the volunteer project. I think it is because we have spoken English from the start and he does not know the extent of my Portuguese past what people tell him. 

On a different point, there is a local gardener who comes to talk to me at home because he likes my dog. I barely get what he is saying most of the time but I get enough to have chats with him. Today he asked me if my dog was ill because she had been donked by a man dog. I had no idea even when he made a circle with one hand, and inserted a finger from his other hand through the hole. It wasn’t until he lifted her up by her tail and had a check of her vagingo and then looked at me and said ‘nao’ that I realised he was asking if she had done the deed. Unfortunately I didn’t even hear what word he used when he was using words rather than actions so I didn’t learn a new word. 

On note number three, I now get why music is important for learning. I feel like it helps re wire your brain so that you can start differentiating words when people talk normally. Also you may hear a word over and over, and be able to repeat the word from memory, but not know what it means, but when you do learn the meaning it sticks. Normally when you ask the translation for a certain word, it takes about 5 times hearing the word to get it to stick. 

September 26

I had another high and low for Portuguese today. I am in Rio and was sitting alone at a bar, a guy came up to me who seemed to be promoting something, all I heard out of what he said was ‘Rock in Rio’ which is an event that is happening right now. I had no idea what he was asking so after a few seconds of thought I replied ‘….não’. Fail, but oh well. He didn’t look offended or confused by my blunt answer so I guess I got something right. 

Luckily the afternoon brought two wins. I needed to buy food and medicine for my dog so I went to a pet shop. I was able to respond and understand all the questions the guy was asking. Luckily he was very helpful so he was asking all sorts of questions and describing the products so it was good practice and I understood it all. Until I needed the medicine and I didn’t know the name, after some back and forth he gave up and asked where I was from. Unfortunately he spoke better English than my Portuguese so we finished the exchange in English. On a plus side though he wasn’t able to help me more in English so actually my Portuguese had been sufficient for what I needed. 

September 30

Finished Rosetta Stone today. I was really hoping there would be some sort of ‘well done you did it’ but it just skipped back to a lesson I had missed so no gold star for me. I think that podcasts, grammar books and talking to people are the thing I need to do now to keep adding little bits. I’ll be doing a language course in November I expect which I feel should set me up to be fluent very shortly after. I feel like I wanna get on a new language on Rosetta Stone now, maybe it’s time for some Swedish 

11 October 

I have set myself a goal. I want to be fluent by the end of December this year (after about 8 months learning). In November I will be doing a language course for the month, and then in December I will really have to make sure I am constantly in situations where I will be using my Portuguese. Maybe get a bar job or something that requires me to speak Portuguese each day. I will also try to only listen to Brazilian music, and when I move to Rio next week, get a load of Brazilian films to watch over and over till I know what’s happening. 

Learning Resources Used

DuoLingo

Not great, but it is free and improved my vocab before I had found other ways of learning the language

Podcast

The podcast is good for occasionally listening to real conversations, but it is difficult to remember things as you have nothing visual to go by. It is good once you know what you are listening to as well as it gives you confidence when you hear native speakers having conversations and you can follow along

Rosetta Stone

Without a doubt, Rosetta Stone is the best Language learning tool I have come across. Not only can you do hours a time, and pick it up multiple times each evening after a long days work, but everything sticks.

Music

Learning with music is fun. You start out not knowing what the hell they’re are on about but as you learn words through other sources, you start picking up the occasional word/phrase here and there. It is easy to switch off though so it is only really good for me as a supplement to active learning. It is nice to know that even on your down time you are learning. My favourite artist is Criolo as he makes really cool hip-hop and I can differentiate between the words easily.

Locals

If you have the confidence to constantly look like a twat in front of people you don’t know then this is a great way to practice speaking and listening. Generally in life I am not good at this though so it’s not too good for me right now. I need to be drunk to dance in public. That is something I would like to change about myself though so forcing myself to practice on locals is good. People are generally nice as well, no one has got annoyed, even when I didn’t speak any Portuguese at all.

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