Commentary on Learning Brazilian Portuguese

I am beginning my fourth month of self-studying Portuguese, and have learned a lot about picking up a new language from the ground up.  Though I consider myself fluent in German, I received exposure to the language for a long time ranging from living near Augsburg as a small child to receiving German lessons from Herr Glitcher at West View and then Herr Moore at Dorman.  This provided a very solid basis for my studies with Dr. Krick-Aigner and Dr. Brunow at Wofford College, as well as traveling abroad to Germany.  I am incredibly grateful for all the language teachers (Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!) I have had over the years, and even more so now that I have chosen to learn a new language on my own.

With this post, I hope to discuss the interesting things I’ve discovered about the Portuguese language, the challenges I have faced, and some language learning tips as well.

First, some basic background information:

Portuguese is a Romance language linked to the likes of Spanish, French, and Italian to name a few.  It is the official language of Portugal and Brazil, but can also be found all around the world–in Africa (Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde), for example.  Portuguese has over 200 million speakers and is the sixth most spoken language in the world.

Why I wanted to learn Portuguese:

After delving into German, I realized that I had a passion for learning languages.  Initially I was focused on learning Korean (thus, my Interim trip to Seoul last January), but after learning that I would spend this semester in South America, I realized I needed to change gears.  Though my time abroad is almost equally divided between Portuguese and Spanish, I liked the idea of starting Portuguese, and so I decided to dive right in.  I started learning the language about the time I arrived in South Dakota for my internship in Bioenergy, and continued to study the language in my free time while I was there.  For those of you looking for a quiet place free of distraction to learn a language, Brookings, South Dakota might be the best idea ever.

The first thing you will notice about Portuguese is the pronunciation.  I probably spent a solid month and a half figuring out what that ç or “cedilha” was, along with the nasal sounds produced by ão, and other letter combinations.  The specter of terrible pronunciation still lingers in the back of my head every time I encounter a new word, and this has been the main reason why I’m still incredibly timid to speak to people over here.  Though I might have a fairly solid vocabulary base, it’s almost conversationally useless when dealing with Brazilian Portuguese’s informal manner of speaking and pronunciation rules.

On false friends

False friends or false cognates are words that look like English words, but in fact have different meanings.  When reading in a foreign language as a beginner, it’s kind of like falling down a mountain a lá Chris Farley in Black Sheep.  You’re trying to slow yourself down by grabbing onto any familiar word that crosses your eye in the hopes of gleaning some sort of meaning from the jumbled mess.  That’s when you latch onto a false friend, and next thing you know you’re even further down the mountain.

One of my favorite Farley movies, and a striking example of why false friends cannot be trusted.

There are a lot of Portuguese/English false friends, and even more Portuguese/Spanish false friends. *shakes fist*

Here are some Portuguese/English examples:

Portuguese word –> Translated meaning in English

Time –> Team

Bravo –> Angry

Cargo –> Post or Job

Chefe –> Boss (Like in German!)

Now I will elaborate on some methods I used to improve my language ability, as well as some of the things I tried that didn’t work so well:

Tip #1:  Read, read, read, and read…just not Twilight:

The best way to improve vocabulary is to read!  Newspapers and magazines are great because the articles generally aren’t painfully long, and they are also chockfull of advertisements.  I had read some children’s books written in Portuguese while in South Dakota (*Note: For any fan of that classic old book smell, the SDSU library is your friend), but decided I would try something more extensive.  Unfortunately, I decided to read Crepúsculo or Twilight.  My host sister Júlia had the book, and it was the only book I recognized that I knew would be written at a fairly simple level.  What I didn’t take into account, is how painfully agonizing a book like Twilight is for the non twelve year old girl fawning over Edward Cullen.  There was definitely a vocabulary boost, but only for words that entail describing Edward Cullen’s face, or Bella’s undying love for him.

No ten page dialogues talking about Edward's face in this book. Nope.

Tip #2:  Keep Vocabulary Notebook Handy/Dictionary

The combination of a small pocket notebook, pen, and electronic digital is absolutely crucial for the language learner.  As a shameless Apple convert, I can say that the dictionary apps for the iPhone/iTouch have been invaluable for learning a new language.  Easy access to a dictionary can help you escape a tight bind while abroad (reading a menu at a restaurant), and also compile new words into the notebook.  Having a pocket notebook allows for quick vocabulary review time—waiting for a bus, riding the subway, or any other sort of filler time.

Music is your friend

This goes without saying, but music is a great and fun way to learn new words, practice listening, and expose yourself to some new culture.  I was absolutely thrilled when I found this song by Vinícius—simple and fun.

“A Casa” – Vinícius de Moraes

TV can be helpful:

After work I usually try to watch a little bit of tv to get a feel for the Brazilian channels, but without subtitles I usually end up gravitating to the kids channels.  I see you, “Os Backyardigans.”

You guys seem nice, but I have no idea what you're saying sometimes.

Challenge yourself:

This is the biggest problem that I have encountered while learning Portuguese.  Routines are great, but the only way to truly improve (just like in anything) is to get out of the comfort zone.  This means attempting to converse with people in Portuguese for as long as possible—even if it means looking like a fool.

Lastly, one of my favorite parts to learning languages is the colloquialisms and idioms.  Here are a couple that I have come across so far:

“Mão de vaca” – To be cheap or tightfisted with money (literally: cow’s hand)

Example: Você é mão de vaca!  You’re stingy!

“Braço curto” – To be lazy or unwilling to work (literally: short arm).  The manager in the office over here was explaining to me that someone who is “braço curto” is like a dinosaur.  They have a big mouth, but their arms are useless (the dinosaur reference is not the typical meaning, but just a joke he was using to describe the phrase).

Example: Ele é braço curto.  He doesn’t want to work.

This one is particularly relevant, considering it’s my birthday tomorrow (woot!)

Fazer + “dois patinhos na lagoa”  – Turning 22 years old / anything related to the number 22 (Literally: To have two small ducks in the pond).  Initially this didn’t make much sense, but when you write 22 on a sheet of paper, it really does look like two ducks.  The verb fazer is used in the context of having a birthday.

Example: Eu vou fazer dois patinhos na lagoa.  I am going to turn two ducks in the pond.

Lastly, one that doesn’t make nearly as much sense:

“Meia boca” – Average or mediocre (literally: half mouth)

Example: Este trabalho está meia boca.  This work is mediocre.

Though meia boca doesn’t make entirely too much sense, let’s consider the idioms and phrases that English learners encounter (*note, this video gets me everytime):

Anyways, that’s all from me.


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