As I’ve mentioned, I’ve now been learning Portuguese for about two years. It is difficult learning a new language, although I still think my progress is going well. But, here are some of my initial observations from when I started learning.
The best way that I’ve found to learn Portuguese is on the Duolingo app for your phone. The lessons are short (15 questions), and there is significant gameification to make it enjoyable, and it slowly builds upon itself. Don’t bother with Duolingo Plus, it is a waste of money. The main benefit of it is the offline mode, but, honestly, how often don’t you have internet connection? Regular Duolingo just requires you to start the lesson when you have internet, you can go offline during the lesson without any issues, so, even an intermittent internet connection is good enough.
From the start, it’s important to acknowledge that learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t expect to learn useful phrases right away, for those you should look for a tourism phrase book. Learning a language is a lengthy process which takes dedication and commitment. Duolingo will teach you unusual phrases, and these actually help you remember the words better, but gives you very little useful knowledge at the beginning. It takes time before it all starts to click together.
You will learn a lot of pronouns, which are useful, but you will almost never hear them used by native Portuguese speakers. Portuguese tends to just use the conjugation of verbs in place of its pronouns. Learning the pronouns will help you to learn how to conjugate words, and will help when you are speaking. They will allow others to understand you even through the (doubtless) grammatical errors of a newbie to language.
Add don’t get upset if your initial progress slows down. Portuguese is very similar to Spanish and French, languages which many North Americans have a fair amount of exposure. This helps a lot in learning the language, as you’ll already have some basics, but you will quickly exhaust those stores of knowledge. You might think that you’ve plateaued, and that can be disheartening, but its actually that you are now at a normal learning pace. Keep going through it, and you’ll eventually hit other milestones as the rules and phrases start to click.
I was once asked what did I view as the biggest challenge in my relationship with Minha Namorada (My Girlfriend), and my answer was that I do not speak Portuguese. That is still my answer today. Luckily, Minha Namorada speaks English quite well, and that has allowed our relationship to flourish. However, it is still very important to me that I learn Portuguese. There are many reasons but one of the most important reasons is culture.
Culture helps define who we are, it tells us where we came from, where we are going, and it binds a community together. While Minha Namorada and myself are building a life together now, and while A Familia Dela (her family) always do so much to make me feel welcome, I still always feel a bit excluded from her Brazilian Culture, simply because I don’t speak enough Portuguese to participate fully. Unless there is an English translation out there, I can’t understand the shows Minha Namorada watches in Portuguese, I can’t read the books she’s read. But, even translations tend to lose much of the raw emotion and feel of the originals
As well, at the best times when families are just laughing and joking, and everyone forgets themselves, it becomes that much harder for me to follow the conversation – I am inadvertently excluded at the time when everyone is attempting to make me feel most welcome. I am never offended by this, and in fact am very touched that they are so welcoming towards me, but it does bother me that I can’t follow along with everyone.
After two years, I can generally read news articles in Portuguese without too much difficulty, and I’ve learned enough Portuguese to be understood one on one. Minha Namorada’s friends and family are always impressed with how much Portuguese I’ve learned since we first met, but I still have much to go. It is a slow process, as I expected, but one which reaps many rewards. And not just in my relationship, but also in my ability to broaden my horizons. Being able to read non-english sourced newspapers gives me new perspectives on world events that I would not have known if not for those newspapers. Only about 1/7 of the population speak English, so learning languages helps me learn about the other 6/7ths of the world.
So, let’s start a conversation about tips/tricks, and other observations about learning (and hopefully eventually mastering) Portuguese.
Day six in Brazil, Minha Namorada (My girlfriend) and I had to go to Recife for Meu Cunhado (My brother in law) to attend a Concurso.
Now, as a first thing, Minha Namorada and I are not yet married (although we are engaged, so sometimes you will see me refer to her as Minha Noiva – my fiancee). So, it may seem a bit odd for me to refer to her brother as Meu Cunhado. However, it is common in Brazilian Culture to refer to the significant other of a family member, even if not married, as if they were married. Accordingly, Minha Namorada’s parents refer to me as Genro, and I refer to them as Sogro (father in law), Sogra (mother in law), and Cunhado (brother in law). Some Canadians may be a bit scared by this, especially those who are afraid of commitment, but I found it very wonderful – from first meeting them, I had a place in their family. I guess that’s more of a reflection of how I already felt about Minha Namorada than anything else, but it also felt so welcoming.
Now, a Concurso is a public competition for a job. Think of it like any Canadian Federal Government job – usually there is a test involved, and a few interviews, and you are ranked against a number of other candidates with the top candidates getting the job. These also tend to be the best jobs in Brazil, so it was important that Minha Namorada and I support Meu Cunhado in attending his Concurso. This threw a wrench in our plans for the week, but as I told Minha Namorada, this was clearly important, and all I really cared about was spending time together, so I didn’t mind at all.
We drove out early, dropped off Meu Cunhado, and then we decided to spend the day at the mall while we waited to him, not knowing how long it was take. The mall was very pretty, with very similar stores to what you’d find in Yorkdale or any other Canadian Mall). Being tired though, I thought it would be a great time to explore Brazilian Coffee.
The first thing I noticed was that almost no store in the mall served brewed coffee or Americanos. Even dedicated coffee shops almost exclusively served espresso. I found this frustrating, but I realized it does make sense. In a hot climate, you don’t want something warm to sip on for awhile – you want something that will get you the same effect but smaller so it won’t warm you up, hence the reason for the espresso.
The other thing I realized is that coffee was surprisingly expensive in the mall. After seeing how inexpensive I could find beer in places, I was surprised at how expensive coffee was relatively speaking.
Eventually I decided that the Canadian in me wouldn’t be satisfied with an espresso, so I elected to go to McDonald’s for a brewed coffee – banking on that McDonald’s is basically the same all around the world. However, this turned into an adventure in itself, as Minha Namorada and I experienced a very hostile employee.
First we were told they didn’t serve coffee, despite it being on the menu. Luckily, the manager was walking behind the employee, overheard, and corrected the employee.
Then we ordered, and the employee wouldn’t take credit card, because he said the internet was down. We didn’t have enough cash, so had to leave and come back (the bank being a 10-15 minute walk to the other side of the mall).
Then when we came back, we tried to order the coffee (along with other breakfast items), and we were told they didn’t have change to give us from the bill. We were paying with a $100 note (about $40 Canadian), for a meal of about $28 (about $10 Canadian), nothing unreasonable.
Afterwards, we decided to directly approach the manager, who was clearly upset at his employee, who then said he had lots of change. We finally got our order (which had two wrong items the manager fixed for us), and left.
Now, I could have very easily been turned off by this experience. The employee gave me many dirty looks, and it was clear he gave us trouble because I wasn’t Brazilian. In fact, he even explained his actions to his manager that Minha Namorada just hadn’t understood him – presumably, not realizing that Minha Namorada is Brazilian. However, this was a complete one-off situation. I met countless other Brazilians on my trip who were excited to practice their English with me, or had large amounts of patience as I attempted to speak to them in Portuguese. I just felt bad that this guy must have had a bad experience some other time by a foreigner to make him dislike me, and it just increased my resolve to show good manners as a guest in Brazil.
Surprisingly, Meu Cunhado finished his concurso shortly after we had our delayed breakfast/lunch, and we headed off to pick him up. We went out to celebrate him finishing the Concurso (it is important to celebrate finishing BEFORE you know the results – so everyone can celebrate, that’s what Chartered Financial Analyst’s do in Canada). I won’t tell you the results of the Concurso, because that is Meu Cunhado’s story to tell, but I will tell you that the restaurant we went made a giant Risotto for us, and between the four of us (Meu Sogro, Meu Cunhado, Minha Namorada and myself), we ate enough “servings” for six, of which I probably ate half. The food is just so good in Brazil.
On my next day in Brazil, Minha Namorada (my girlfriend) and I went to a bunch of tourist locations.
Now, Tourists in Brazil are generally not American, or English speaking. I only met one group of English-speaking people the entire time I was in Brazil, and it was on this day. They overheard Minha Namorada and I speaking, so came over to talk, and upon noticing my hat (at that time, a Toronto Blue Jays baseball cap) they recognized that I must be Canadian (I guess there aren’t that many American fans of Canadian teams). I assume they had the same experience with few English-speakers, otherwise they wouldn’t have struck up a conversation.
In fact, most of the tourists that I saw were from Argentina, which makes sense, as it is a very large Spanish speaking country that borders Brazil. I also found out that day just how similar Portuguese and Spanish are, as Minha Namorada gave directions and spoke briefly with some Argentinians who were lost, and later explained to me that she just spoke Portuguese to them, and they spoke Spanish, and they understood each other. I had previously believed that they were similar in the way that German and English are similar – singular words can often be understood in context, but I didn’t realize they were fairly mutually intelligible. In fact, since then, Minha Namorada has even watched an entire Columbian telenovela (soap opera) in Spanish without any difficulty, so clearly the languages are much more similar than I ever realized.
The architecture of downtown João Pessoa was very fascinating, which I only understood later when I remembered the fact that Northeastern Brazil used to be a dutch colony – which is very much reflected in the buildings. This is a very important part of the culture in Northeastern Brazil, with many Dutch Brazilians and the war helping to shape the country. Much like Canada was shaped by the battles between France and Britain, Brazil was shaped by the old world empires as well.
You can really see the dutch influences in parts of downtown, like Antenor Navarro Square:
We also went to some cultural parks, and a science centre, but they were sadly all closed. It meant we got to walk around for free and see the large permanent exhibits that aren’t removed regularly, but I would have rather seen the full sites.
One important thing I realized though, is even if you are walking on sidewalks in Brazil, you need to wear bug repellent. I got bit by an ant in Brazil, and it actually made me stop walking it hurt so much. It felt like a painful cramp all of a sudden in my leg, and I had to ask Minha Namorada if we could cut the tour short and head back to the car… luckily, it only hurt for about 15-30 minutes, but I’ve never had an ant bite hurt that much before.