When I first came to Brazil, I knew about two words in Portuguese, but now, after a year of living here, I’ve came a long way.
This means that I can keep a basic conversation for as long as possible, watch TV and understand about 75-80% of dialogue w/o subtitles and about 90% w/subtitles.
Of course, my particular living situation can be different than someone else’s. I work from home, and do not live with Portuguese native speakers. Furthermore, Portuguese is not really the language of the house; English is.
Having said that, here’s some of the ways in which I attacked learning Portuguese:
Build a base
You can’t build a house without a solid foundation underneath it. For instance, you need to be able to read/write/speak letters in the language in order to even start learning basic impressions. Being an English speaker, I already knew the Latin alphabet, so this is not really a problem. Of course, with a language like Chinese or Arabic this would take more time. Upon my arrival I began speaking Spanish and hoping the similarities would be enough to get by. Unfortunately, as I learned quickly, not only are Portuguese words completely different, the pronunciation is also completely different. Soon, I quickly learned the basic phrases such as: Hello, Good Bye, How are you? etc.
Surround yourself with people who speak the language
To pickup a language quickly and efficiently you need to be constantly immersed in it. There’s active learning such as studying it in school and taking tests, and then there’s passive learning where the subconscious picks up phrases with events without you being aware. I actually believe I learned alot of it passively which would be next to impossible without being in the country and interacting with people. In addition to living in the country, it’s important to join groups and do various activities as well, however since I work from home and don’t live with Portuguese-speaking people, I had to venture out. I started taking Brazilian Jiu Jitsu which forced me to use more and more Portuguese, since few people knew English well. That accelerated my progress to a conversational level, with a funny side effect: I learned nouns such as body parts and verbs that reflect movements of body parts such as pull, push, throw, hit, get hurt, etc. At this point I started to like Portuguese a lot and taking it more seriously. My motivation was increasing. I also started seeing a Brazilian girlfriend which allowed me to constantly speak Portuguese, have my Portuguese corrected in Portuguese and create a different set of vocabulary apart from jiu jitsu.
Change your daily habits to incorporate the language
I set my browser homepage to a Brazilian newspaper so that I forced myself to read it and pick up new words. I started to watch Brazilian movies with Portuguese subtitles. I also watched non-Brazilian movies with Portuguese subtitles. I began to change my habits of doing English searches to including Portuguese searches in Google. For example, my Google search is set to Brazilian Portuguese so alot of search results are Brazilian Portuguese pages. This allowed me to enhance my so called “knowledge zones” by reading Portuguese forums with regards to computer programming and such. My “knowledge zones” became Jiu Jitsu knowledge, personal relationship and what I was looking for in google.
Develop a good discovery/learning mechanism
I felt my motivation reached a “tipping point” in a sense that I wanted to become very, very fluent in Portuguese and not just conversationally fluent. I wanted to be very close to a native speaker. I started to talk Portuguese with my friends with whom I previously spoke English, and then when I didn’t know how to explain something I would write it down and ask a native Portuguese speaker later. I did the same with various expressions in movies as well.I bought my first Portuguese book and began to circle every word I didn’t understand and looking it up in the dictionary. Or if it was a phrase, I would ask a native speaker the next day.
Work on the pronunciation
Some languages are easier to speak than others. For instance Spanish is very phonetic, while English is much less so. Portuguese is deceiving because initially I thought it’s actually like Spanish with not alot of prononciation variation but I was wrong. That’s when I realized my spoken Portuguese sucks because I was not pronouncing the vowels correctly. While I eventually got the nasalation down through repeated practice, I learned that Portuguese also has open and closed vowels which differentiate the words. There’re different rules for constantant pronounciation that I studied as well, and started paying more attention to how people pronounce various words. Patterns became to appear and things started to make more sense.
Initially forget grammar and correctness of the language. Learn how babies learn it: by mimicking other adults i.e., their parents. I learn fast because I mimick other people’s expressions and sentences and worry about the grammatical constructs later. So if some book says you need to say something a certain way, but everyone I meet says it another way, chances are the second way is something that would be understood better by most people.
Initially your progress will be swift to basic conversational level. Then you might hit plateau, and things might pickup again. The typical 80/20 rule applies: It takes 20% of the effort to learn 80% of the language, and 80% of the effort for the remaining 20%. So after the initial few years, things will improve slower.
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