New Mission - Learn Portuguese In 10 Weeks03 January 2017
Happy new year! If all goes according to plan, I’ll be spending a good chunk of 2017 in Brazil, so it’s time to announce my next mission: learn Portuguese.
More specifically, my goal is to become conversationally fluent in Brazilian Portuguese by March 14th, 2017 - 10 weeks from the publication of this post. “Conversationally fluent” is an inexact goal, and it’s hard to measure these things objectively, but if we go by the CEFR scale of language ability, I’m shooting for a B2 in my spoken Portuguese:
(Able to) interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
Note that this by itself won’t make my Portuguese a ‘real’ B2, because CEFR measures your ability to read and write a language, not just speak it. However, while I obviously don’t want to be completely illiterate while I’m in Brazil, I’m learning the language because I want to make friends there and have a life, not attend university or immerse myself in Brazilian literature. I want to learn to interact with people first, books second, and literacy just isn’t a priority for now.
I’ll be happy if my spoken Portuguese reaches roughly the same level as my spoken Spanish, which I’d rate as a comfortable B2, maybe a C1. (If you missed it, see here for a full description of what terms like B2 and C1 mean.) The caveat is that it took me at least a year to get my Spanish to its current level, and this time I’m giving myself less than 3 months, so there’s an obvious objection:
You can’t learn a language to fluency in 10 weeks!!! Get real!
Maybe, but I have a confession: I’m not starting from scratch. I already speak a little bit of Portuguese, mainly thanks to my girlfriend, who is from São Paulo (and, as you might guess, is the main reason I’m going to Brazil in the first place.) Right now we mainly communicate in English (or German), but I’m hoping that will change soon!
With that being said, I’ve never made any active effort to study Portuguese, nor have I been to Brazil before (although when I was 18 I did spend a week in Albufeira, Portugal, during which time I did nothing but drink, and didn’t learn a single Portuguese word except obrigado). All I’ve managed to do so far is scrape by with some basic Portuguese words and phrases, and fill in the many gaps with guesswork (i.e. speak Spanish with a Brazilian accent and hope for the best.)
Here’s a quick video I recorded yesterday which I think is a fairly accurate representation of my current Portuguese level. In March I’ll record another one, and the world can judge how far I’ve come:
How Long Does Fluency Take Anyway?
Hold on… even if I was starting from scratch, is 10 weeks really such a pitiful amount of time? I question that assumption. I managed to learn semi-decent German in just six months of living in Berlin, and I wasn’t studying the language anything close to full time - and that was a couple of years ago, when I didn’t know half as much about language learning as I do now. And the Internet is full of examples of people who have achieved far more impressive language-learning feats than me: like my friends Connor Grooms (who learned conversational Spanish in a month last year) and Idahosa Ness (who seems to download languages directly into his brain like he’s Neo in the Matrix).
People like Connor and Idahosa obviously have natural talent (not to mention are smart and work very hard) but I don’t think their achievements are completely unobtainable for the average person. They’ve just proven what should be obvious: that languages can be learned much faster than you think, and the reason you learned next to nothing from those language lessons you had in school was because of the lessons, not because of languages.
I’ve been interested in foreign languages for my entire life and have at one point or another dabbled in at least 7 different ones (note: that doesn’t mean I speak 7 foreign languages fluently, just that I’ve learned at least a little bit of that many), and I think that humanity is on the cusp of a major revolution in how we approach language learning (and, perhaps, learning in general). I hope I can prove that it’s easier than you think to learn languages fast and enjoyably, and encourage more people to give it a go.
And besides, I’m impatient. I don’t know how long I’m going to spend in Brazil, but it can’t be too long (I have commitments bringing me back to the UK in October, maybe sooner), and I want to spend my time there actually living, not sitting at home studying vocabulary flashcards or talking in broken Portuñol to a teacher over Skype. Plus I have a zillion other things that I want to do this year that matter far more to me than adding yet another language to my repertoire. Let’s get this whole ‘learn Portuguese’ thing out of the way as quickly as possible, then I can get on with the rest of my life.
How Much Does Spanish Help You When You Want To Learn Portuguese?
Spanish and Portuguese are both Romance languages, meaning they’re descended from the dialects of Latin that people spoke in the former Roman Empire 2000 years ago. They’re definitely distinct and separate languages, but there are a LOT of similarities, and I have no doubt that my knowledge of Spanish will knock dozens if not hundreds of hours off of my journey to fluency in Portuguese.
(Interestingly, Spanish people have told me that they find Brazilian Portuguese easier to understand than European Portuguese, even though the latter is much closer to them geographically.)
I’ll probably write a longer post about this when I’ve learned more, but for now I’ll just make a couple of observations:
- Written Portuguese and Spanish look very similar, and once you’ve learned a few general rules (such as that words which end in ‘-oy’ or ‘-ión’ in Spanish tend to become ‘-ou’ and ‘-ão’ respectively in Portuguese), you can often guess Portuguese vocabulary with reasonable accuracy (e.g. ‘estoy’ becomes ‘estou’ and ‘diversión’ becomes ‘diversão’.)
- However, while much of the core vocabulary is similar, the ‘guess based on Spanish’ approach can only get you so far. The more Portuguese I learn, the more I realise just how different the two languages are, in terms of vocabulary and much else - not to mention the countless false friends, such as ‘pronto’, which means ‘soon’ in Spanish but ‘ready’ in Portuguese, and that’s just one of many examples. Spanish is a shortcut to Portuguese fluency but it’s not the whole journey.
- Portuguese grammar and sentence structure are very similar to Spansh, and this is probably where I’ll see the biggest time savings. For example, Portuguese has two different words for ‘to be’ (ser and estar), used in different contexts, and this no doubt causes much confusion for English speakers… but I get to skip all of that, because Spanish has the same distinction and I’ve already learned it. Likewise with the subjunctive mood, bane of native-English-speaking language learners everywhere. I’m sure my Spanish will save me a lot of work here, although it’s not the full story, because Portuguese subjunctive is a little more complicated than the Spanish one. (Portuguese has three subjunctive tenses and Spanish only has two.)
- On top of all that, the two languages might look similar but they sound very different, and often a Portuguese word will be spelled identically to its Spanish counterpart but pronounced nothing like it: for example difícil is “dee-FEE-theel” in Spanish but ‘jee-FEE-see-oo’ in Portuguese.
This article has the best summary of the differences that I’ve found, and it’s a great starting point.
Portuguese is also, in my opinion, an absolutely beautiful language to listen to, at least in its Brazilian form. Definitely my favourite-sounding language of all the ones I’m familiar with.
Although, predictably, learning basic Portuguese has wreaked havoc on my brain’s ability to speak comfortable Spanish. Whatever work is saved by learning two similar languages, it’s at least partially offset by all the extra work you have to do to keep the two languages separate in your head. But I don’t foresee much need to speak Spanish in the next six months, so I’ll worry about that later.
Which Brazilian accent should I learn?
Easy: since I’ll be spending most of my time in São Paulo, that’s the accent I’ll be targeting. As I understand it, the paulista accent can be divided further into two main categories: the paulistano accent found in São Paulo city, and the caipira (countryside) accent that’s associated with the wider area of São Paulo state. I need to pick one, so I’m going for caipira, since when it comes to learning that accent, I have an unfair advantage (I just saw her yesterday.)
With that being said, I still barely understand what the differences between different Brazilian accents actually are. Hopefully I’ll figure it out over the next 10 weeks. I’ll write more about this one later too if I feel like I have enough to say on the topic.
Today is January 3rd, and right now I’m in Hamburg, Germany, but I’ll be heading home to the UK on the 15th. At the end of February (still don’t know the exact date), I’ll be catching a flight to the one and only Rio de Janeiro, just in time for Carnaval, the world’s biggest party. Can’t wait! Then at some point in March, I’ll set up shop in São Paulo, by which point my 10 week deadline will have passed, and I’ll report back on how well things have gone. Along the way I’ll be documenting my progress and sharing any insights I have on Portuguese, Brazil, or the language learning process in general, and I hope people find it interesting.
Wish me luck!