I am back to my language CDs, learning European Portuguese, starting over at the beginning because it’s been so long since I have listened. Frankly, I don’t know if it’s possible to learn any language from recordings alone, but I have A PLAN! (If this is your first time here, I always have a PLAN. Unsurprisingly, they often change.)
In all the language courses I have attempted, I get about as far as lesson 8. (In Pimsleur, I believe that’s when I learned how to order wine and at that point, I thought I had everything I needed.) Then I fall off the wagon.
If you have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, you may have the idea in your head that it takes 10,000 hours of practice and learning to master something. But Gladwell was talking about people at the very top of ultra-competitive fields. The 10,000 hour number comes out of studies that looked at how long it takes to become a top expert at something, meaning concert violinist and chess grandmaster level. It takes about 1,000 hours to become professional at something. In my world, good is good. So, if I studied Portuguese for 40 hours a week, I could become proficient in 25 weeks. Six months. Full time.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the time freedom to just study one thing for six months. Then a friend posted a link to Josh Kaufman’s TedxCSU talk on The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything.
Josh (we’re friends now even if he doesn’t know it) dove into researching cognitive psychology—how people learn—and what he discovered was that the early stage of practice is very effective; that people get good at things with a small amount of practice. His research showed that it takes about 20 hours of focused, deliberate practice to become good at something. Not an expert, not a professional, but good.
Here’s his big takeaway (but watch the video anyway—it’s really informative and fun): The main barrier to learning something isn’t intellectual; it’s emotional. When you are learning something new, you feel stupid and no one likes feeling stupid. So we stop. Because we’re not good and we’re aware that we’re not good. BUT… if we put in the 20 hours of focused practice, we can be good. Not great. Not a grandmaster. But good. Good enough that we can see our progress. Good enough to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Which is often enough to keep us going.
I don’t know about you, but I can do 20 hours. If you don’t have a calculator, that’s half an hour a day for 40 days or 45 minutes a day for about a month. Josh has four rules of how to learn something quickly. One is to learn enough so you can self-correct. In European Portuguese, I’m betting it’s getting the nasal sound right. The word “yes” is “sim.” The “m” indicates that it is pronounced with a nasal sound. But it isn’t really pronounced as an “m” sound. It’s more “ngh.” So sim sounds like “seengh.”
My new plan is to commit to 20 hours of Portuguese self-study. That’s it. Twenty hours. Okay, not quite it. After that, I should feel confident enough to take part in group lessons. Which sounds a little weird when you consider I’m living in Portugal and I can just go out and speak it on a daily basis. That’s a confidence thing. (See “no one likes to feel stupid” above.) So, yes, I will use my pigeon Portuguese as I navigate around town, adding words as I can, but I will rely on the crutch of most of the younger Portuguese people speaking English. In The Algarve, they are used to tourists and are infinitely patient. I’ll move to the group lessons when I have a basic working knowledge so I can get more out of the classes. And not feel stupid in a group setting.
What Language Course Should I Buy?
There are over 210 million native Portuguese speakers. The first thing you need to know is that European Portuguese language courses are much harder to find than Brazilian Portuguese. The languages are similar, pronunciations are different, and European Portuguese will KNOW that difference. The biggest difference is in the pronunciation of certain vowels and consonants. For example, the S at the end of a word is pronounced SS in Brazilian and SH in European Portuguese. Vowels are more “open” in Brazilian Portuguese. So yes, different pronunciations, different inflections. Be aware that many of the apps won’t tell you that they are for Brazilian Portuguese; I had to ask. Pro Tip: Many of the programs and apps use the country’s flag to indicate the language so if you see the Brazilian flag, you know it’s Brazilian Portuguese.
For whatever reason, Pimsleur offers five levels of Brazilian Portuguese and only Level 1 of European Portuguese.
I started with Pimsleur recordings back about a year ago. I bought ten lessons of European Portuguese. You can buy the entire set of Level 1 lessons for about $120 or if you’re not sure, buy five lessons at a time for about $22 each. There are 30 lessons in Level 1 so it is, of course, more cost effective to buy the set. But if you want to see if it’s for you, you have that option. (There’s also a free lesson on their website.) Perhaps if I had bought the whole set, I would have gone beyond Lesson 8. But it’s audio only and I’m a visual learner. I couldn’t quite “hear” the words and was frustrated that it referred to a workbook that I didn’t receive.
Pimsleur is based on “Graduated Interval Recall”—a system where you learn a new word and are reminded of it at increasingly longer intervals, which helps the word move from your short term to your long term memory. Pimsleur also deliberately limits the amount you learn in any one lesson so your brain doesn’t become overwhelmed and you don’t get discouraged. It works to give you a core vocabulary and then builds off that. If you’re an auditory learner, you will probably do fine with this method.
I bought a set of Portuguese CDs from a vendor on eBay who has since disappeared. I discovered it is a “hot” copy of the Michel Thomas language course and I LOVE it. Virginia Catmur worked with Michel Thomas and she has a way of teaching that is just… lovely. There’s no other way to put it. She is patient. She is kind. She is encouraging. She uses two students, a man and woman, who are learning the language and has a third, native Portuguese speaker, who repeats the words with a native accent. I like the two students because they screw up a bit and I can totally identify. They also ask clarifying questions which I find helpful. Michel Thomas also offers a free lesson on the site and you can hear what I mean when I say Virginia Catmur is lovely. At least her voice is. We haven’t met.
Michel Thomas offers both foundational and intermediate levels. You can buy them separately at $100 and $90 each or buy the bundle for $152. The foundational course is about eight hours of lessons and what I like is they say you can complete it in 20 to 30 hours. They project that you can progress through the intermediate lessons in 15 to 20 hours. They KNOW you will need to listen more than once to feel comfortable. So, no overselling results which I appreciate.
You can download the lessons or stream them from the site or both. I read a review where the person didn’t like the Michel Thomas method (it seemed like a personal grudge which was kind of weird) and one of the complaints was that there was “too much English.” Well, I appreciate all that English. It makes it more personal and easier for me to understand what’s going on. I also like that the instructor will, from time to time, spell out a word which is tremendously helpful for my untrained ear.
Surprisingly, Rosetta Stone, the 800 pound gorilla in language learning, only offers Brazilian Portuguese. They’ve also started a monthly subscription style service (if you’re interested in learning more than one language) in addition to offering a one-time fee for lifetime access.
And this is something you have to pay attention to as you look at various apps. For example, Babbel, Fluentu, Mondly, and Duolingo all offer Brazilian Portuguese. If that was all you had to choose from, then yeah, you might use them. Memrise is one of the apps that is constantly recommended in the expat groups I am in. They offer both European and Brazilian Portuguese—make sure you choose the correct one.
Many of the apps say you can become fluent in five, ten, or fifteen minutes a day. Personally, I don’t think five or ten minutes a day is enough study time to make the progress you need to keep going. Maybe it is but I need to learn the language faster than that. I would rather put more time up front and get to some level of proficiency than struggle for months.
Private and Group Lessons are available and now that most of the world has been working online for a year, easier to access. If you belong to expat groups on Facebook, you can do a search and easily find a class being offered. Group classes run about €10 a session and are taught by native Portuguese speakers. This is what I am working up to, once I have made it through the recorded lessons.
Find a Study Buddy. If you have a friend who is also learning European Portuguese, study and practice with each other. A friend and I have decided to throw Portuguese words into our English conversation as a way of using the language without having to struggle with complete sentences. I don’t know if this is a good idea or not, but at least it will get me saying the words out loud.
When Worse Comes to Worse…
Google Translate. It’s not a language learning app, but it will save your butt day in and day out. I use the online translator every day, whether it’s to translate messages from my bank or real estate listings or just trying to figure out what a sign says. My correspondence almost always starts out with “Please forgive my Portuguese; I am using Google translate.” It works.
I downloaded the app to my phone and I love having it. I can take a photo of a sign or menu or a food item in the grocery store and Google will translate it for me. The process is a bit clumsy and takes a few seconds, but it’s a whole lot better than not knowing.
You don’t need to speak Portuguese fluently to get along in Portugal. But you miss so much of what is happening and you can’t always find an English speaking person to help you. Learning European Portuguese—at least a bit of the language—will take you a long way and becoming fluent is the key to truly enjoying and experiencing life in Portugal. Give it 20 hours.