Mar 27, 2024

Resources for learning European Portuguese (A1-B2)

When I first moved to Portugal eleven years ago, I resolved to avoid the difficulties I had experienced as an exchange student in Germany many years before, where my northern German accent and academic style of speaking caused bartenders and salespeople in the Saarland to refuse service shortly after my arrival. So in Évora, I decided to learn the language "of the street" from neighbors, shopkeepers and daily tasks. It was a slow process to be sure, but I soon learned that other options were hardly available in the interior; even the local university offered essentially nothing except an A1-level course for Erasmus students, which was poorly attended (and often canceled) due to the lack of coordination among the faculty. In that city and in the border town I moved to a few years later, there were also neither language schools nor established, reliable tutors available. The few who could be found had issues with low business volumes and soon ceased their registered commercial activities.

In the heavily populated coastal regions with a large number of immigrants or tourists with money, there are a number of good programs at universities or private institutions, but the time commitments for these (typically weeks or months of full-time attendance) were not really compatible with my lifestyle and work schedule, and the most highly recommended programs cost thousands of euros that I needed for other things.

When it came time to take the CIPLE exam to certify A2-level competence for my permanent residence (which is also required for citizenship for those not married to a Portuguese citizen), I enrolled in online courses offered by the Camões Institute in Lisbon. These had three options: an entirely self-guided program, and two programs with some level of interaction with an assigned tutor for 30 minute sessions each or every other week. I opted for the latter, and the excellent tutors (who in my case were usually native Portuguese enrolled in some graduate program in Spain) were probably the main reason I was able to pass the exam and get my título da residência permanente. The actual exercises in the online courses weren't very good (except for the writing assignments), and I found a lot of functional errors in some of them. Plain sloppy programming, which is really shameful in a country that hosts the Web Summit every year.

My early explorations of apps available for language learning a decade ago were not very satisfying. Flashcard programs like Anki or Memrise are really too limited for achieving any kind of functional competence, and at the time I found nothing with any kind of systematic structure for acquiring basic grammar and conversational skills. I could open and read an entirely Portuguese grammar book and understand the content without difficulty because the concepts were largely familiar to me from other language study, but without some systematic practice or more social opportunities in the country, the grammar books were of little real use.

One hears that "immersion is critical", and when I moved to Portugal, I assumed that my learning curve would be even faster than it was years before for German, Russian and Japanese, but there's immersion in the shallow end of a language, with simple, comprehensible input to build a foundation of basics, and then there is immersion in the fast river of daily adult life with bills to pay and neighbors and authorities of all kinds to deal with, where in the comfortable slumber of a language novice, it is more likely that "human voices wake us, and we drown".

For a long time, the only "comprehensible input" (in Krashen's sense) that I could find to help improve my Portuguese was the podcast "Portuguese with Leo", which is intermediate level, about right for me by the time I discovered it, but still lacking the content I needed to patch up gaps in my competence.

Duolingo, allegedly the world's most popular language learning app, while helpful for basic Spanish, simply sucks whale dork when it comes to learning Portuguese for Europe or Africa. People have no idea how bad and useless its teaching of Brazilian Portuguese is for a visit to Portugal until they get here and realize that what they hear sounds nothing like what they learned. There's nothing wrong with Brazilian, and if I were planning to visit Brazil or spend a lot of time with people from there, I would certainly spend time mastering the quirks of pronunciation and the great differences in vocabulary and grammar in informal speech particularly, but for Portugal all that is simply unhelpful in the extreme. The differences are far greater than between ordinary speech in the UK and the US, for example, and on my first visit to London in 1977, I understood almost nothing of the directions people gave me on the street. In what was supposed to be my native language. So don't expect to get far with Brazilian in Portugal. Even if you are a native speaker from Brazil, the pace and manner of speech here may make you feel like a victim of a traffic accident.

But meanwhile, there are a few good apps and sites that focus on European Portuguese and may help you prepare for holidays or life in Portugal. The best of these I've found are described below.

I didn't realize until someone in a Facebook language learner's group mentioned the Practice Portuguese app that I had actually discovered and subscribed to their YouTube channel some time ago. But I didn't pay enough attention to the YouTube content to realize that there was something more on offer and that this something was, to a large extent, something useful for me, even after eleven years of living in Portugal and a competence level that allows me to conduct daily business and socialize in my hunting club without a lot of difficulty.

I'm currently working my way through the A1 level of the Practice Portuguese iOS app and website, though I also skip ahead and enjoy a lot of the B1/B2-level content in lessons, videos, podcasts, etc. After a few days of looking at the free content, I decided to subscribe (the best deal here is via the web site, not the online app stores for phones and tablets), and I am finding a lot of useful material to fill basic knowledge gaps even at the simplest level. I'm also impressed by the well-considered and somewhat original options for review, including the recently introduced "audio review" option.

One of the things that distinguishes the content of Practice Portuguese from Duolingo, for example, is that the voices used in the app are real ones (sometimes with shitty audio and a lot of background noise, but there is always a button to click and hear the same expression in a clear, noise-free native speaker's voice). The use of a large number of different speakers is helpful, I think, to recognize some of the different pronunciation one might encounter, and this is often dealt with explicitly in the lessons. Not differences between Brazil and Portugal but rather how one might here something in Lisbon as opposed to Beja or Braga.

Another resource I found recently is "Conversa Portuguese". It uses the Learnworlds platform (similar to Teachable, which I use sometimes to offer online CAT tool instruction for memoQ) and has what looks like a well-structured program for those needing Portuguese competence for countries other than Brazil. The platform also offers quite a number of useful, free resources for practice. I've looked at these resources, and I like them, but I haven't tried the commercial instruction program (yet) for lack of time. I hope to do so later this year and offer an in-depth report on what I find.


Some may wonder how it is that I can still find useful learning opportunities for European Portuguese with programs like Practice Portuguese or Conversa Portuguese, given that I've lived in the country for so long, I have a Portuguese partner with whom I share a farm and a life, and I've had a lifelong reputation of being "gifted" with languages (said reputation being largely unearned and taken seriously mostly by monolinguals). Well, I ask myself that too sometimes, but it is what it is, and "fluency" is really context-dependent, and depending on one's needs and commitments may differ greatly between individuals. It all really comes down to comprehensible input, I think, and that depends a lot on interests and background. Within a few weeks of coming to Portugal, I could grab an organic chemistry textbook in the library and read it, understanding everything in Portuguese (even though I could pronounce none of it). But it was probably a year before I could reliably order a pizza or tell the butcher just what I wanted.

For my friends and colleagues and others who plan to visit Portugal for a holiday or a professional conference or who may consider living here at some point, the options I have described in this article should give you a good foundation for coping with the variety of Portuguese you'll encounter here and perhaps make the culture of the country a bit more accessible. Portugal is not the Paradise some claim it to be, but of all the places I've lived in my life, I find it the least problematic for the things that matter most to me. Your mileage may differ, but equipped with some basic language skills, you'll be more fit for the journey.

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