I REALLY Need to Learn Portuguese

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Confession time.

I’m rather ashamed to say that, after over three years in the Algarve, I still cannot speak Portuguese particularly well.

Don’t get me wrong, I do get by, but I think the naïve, pre-expat me thought it would be much easier than this.

Well, let me tell you, it’s not. After three years, I don’t really think my Portuguese skills match those I had in French when I took my GCSE. And, on the subject of those French skills, they’ve now left me completely. Whenever I try to speak French now, I just come out with bad Portuguese.

Learning Portuguese isn't Easy
Learning Portuguese isn’t Easy

So, what should I have done differently? Well, first and foremost, I should have looked for language trainers before I left. Sure, the books and CDs helped a bit, but they tend to teach you a “Queen’s English” variation of a language, which sounds little like real people actually speak it.

I should also have dedicated a lot more time to learning Portuguese. Yes, you do “absorb” the language once you arrive, but absorbing means that after three years I understand a bit of the news, the occasional radio advert and snippets of people’s conversations. It doesn’t mean I can speak any more than pigeon Portuguese.

I really do wish that I’d spent every spare minute in the run up to our move absorbing Portuguese. I should have typed “where should I take Portuguese classes in London?” into Google back in 2009! Because I didn’t, I’m still playing catch-up.

This is the year I get it sorted. I can’t have the Portuguese version of Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” taunting me from my bedside table any longer. I’ll be fluent one day—just you wait!

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  1. You’re right it’s not easy you can’t learn it from a book, well you can the reading and writing part but to speak it, is a different matter! We’ve been here for 2 and a half years and get by but only just. Also we don’t live in an expat area
    so we have less of an excuse because there are only a very few around here who speak English so we should be better than we are.

  2. ” Whenever I try to speak French now, I just come out with bad Portuguese.”

    I have the same problem.
    I used to speak French rather well (I did A level French) but, since learning Portuguese (or attempting to) my French is abandoning me and I find myself, partway through a French phrase, having an internal dialogue with myself that goes something like “is that French? Or Portuguese? No, it’s French. It’s definitely French. I think!!”

    It’s very difficult getting to know Portuguese fluently when you like, as we do, in tourist areas. Unlike the kids who are immersed in school and have little or no English around them all day, many contacts we have often just speak English with us instead for pure speed of conversation!

    It certainly takes a concerted effort, I think. And more thorough (and, perhaps, personal) tuition to get it learnt.

  3. “It’s very difficult getting to know Portuguese fluently when you like, as we do, in tourist areas.”
    I meant when you LIVE in tourist areas, obviously 🙂

  4. I’m on year four in Portugal. I’m on year 9 of marriage to a Portuguese man. I have Portuguese in-laws, Portuguese cousins, Portuguese aunts and uncles, Portuguese friends. Regardless, I speak like a complete idiot and just yesterday refused my 6-year-old daughter’s insistence that I get on the phone and wish my mother-in-law a happy birthday because we were in a crowded cafe and I did not want to having a super loud conversation in my total crap Portuguese that everyone could hear.

    There are some friends and family members that we only see once a year, and every time we see them again, I see the total confusion and disappointment in their eyes when I start speaking that says, “Seriously? An entire year gone by and you’re *still* sounding like this?”

    My daughter (completely fluent after three months) now introduces me to cashiers or other clerks, “This is my mom. She always says she’s sorry for speaking bad Portuguese before she starts speaking Portuguese.”

    There is no excuse at all for how pathetic my situation is (though I did teach English full time in Lisbon for the first three years we were hear, and then moved down here to Little Britain where I’m not totally convinced Portuguese is even the first language…so I guess those are two flimsy excuses). But if we end up fleeing this crisis and return to American shores without me having learned to speak Portuguese above the level of a deranged toddler, I will never forgive myself.

    Bottom line–we are super lucky to have English as our first language. The Eastern Euro immigrants speak Portuguese like total champions, they haven’t got the luxury of falling back on their Ukranian or Romanian when they can’t figure out the word for something. I wonder if we could temporarily shut off the English speaking portion of our brain, just until we don’t need it anymore?

  5. (Oh, and a quick re-read of the comment above seems to indicate my English is fading too. I’m super pregnant and sleep-deprived. That’s my excuse for that one.)

  6. Hi Sarah,

    Not sure if I feel comforted or discouraged based on that!

    Best wishes,


  7. Portuguese is a very rich and complex language, not the easiest to learn, however not impossible.
    My suggestion is that you buy the small travel book – English to Portuguese and it will help you with the first Steps of the language, including grammar.
    On your free time, watch tv, films, etc but always put Portuguese subtitles as this is a geat way to learn because you will associate the word to the image as well audition of pronunciation. Read books, first for example the Disney comics, then simple ones that the Portuguese call “literatura de cordel”, generally they are romances.
    The Portuguese language it reads exactly what is written and to learn to understand this, you must learn the alphabet in Portuguese, which is equal to English, but orally the letters sound differently that’s all.
    For example, have a pocket dictionary with you, it helps.
    16 years ago, when I came to England, all of those that I just mention above, helped me to learn the language alone. I am still.
    I’m jealous of the sunshine that you live with. Here, in London of course that we are having a great British Summer, hurray…. :o(
    I wish you a wonderful life in Portugal.
    Have fun :o)

  8. Hi Teresa,

    Thank you for the great tips. Some of them I already do – I always have either a dictionary or my phone with me in order to quickly look things up.

    My reading is improving far faster than my spoken Portuguese, but I’m persevering with it all.

    Your tip about watching films and TV programmes with the subtitles on is a really good one – and one I don’t do enough. I will make more of an effort in future!

    Best wishes, Lou 🙂

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