Hey, dear linguonaut! Tudo bom? In this brief instalment, allow me to bring you to how to start learning European Portuguese.
It’s a fantastic language, expression of some of the most dynamic cultures around, terrific in the business world, excellent for reading top books in their original version, superduper to travel and meet awesome people, instrumental to mutter your favourite bossa nova and fado songs, excellent for understanding geopolitics first-hand. 🇵🇹
And there is more to it. You’re going to find a few reasons to take the leap right in this post: WHY YOU SHOULD LEARN PORTUGUESE. (COMING SOON)
Now, you may be tempted to ask: how difficult is European Portuguese? You can find an answer below, however, allow me a spoiler: it’s not as difficult as you might fear, but only if you approach it the right way. 👈
As someone who has fallen into every pitfall when learning languages, I think I have a thing or two to say in this regard. So, in this post, you’re going to find: my personal experience, how to get started learning Portuguese, issues to address at the beginning of your learning journey. 📝
Warning: I focus here, as you have noticed, on European Portuguese. Most of what I write is applicable to Brazilian Portuguese too, but as we are at it, if you feel inclined to the southern American variant, you may have a look at the post written specifically concerning that: Learning Brazilian Portuguese: How to Begin 🇧🇷
Here below, unless otherwise specified, when writing Portuguese I will mean European Portuguese.
And now, let’s get the party started.
Learning European Portuguese: my experience
This chapter isn’t here because I’m egocentric (though yes, I am), but to offer you the opportunity to check whether your baseline situation is similar to mine when I began studying Portuguese.
I have had my share of surprises in life. For example, learning Camões’ language wasn’t a plan of mine.
At age 34, I got A2 Chinese and B2 French qualifications from a Spanish national vocational school. In that moment, I felt inclined toward embarking on a new language adventure; but I hadn’t much choice. 🤔
I already spoke Spanish; about French, there was no level higher than B2 at less than an hour by car. Chinese was so miserably taught, I had no interest in pursuing any B1 course there. Concerning Valencian, I would pass a C1 level examination two months later. So? In the time window at my disposal, there was only European Portuguese available.
So be it. New mission: learning Portuguese.
At that time, I didn’t need it in my job. I was working in an international company where languages were kept in high regard, and we had dealings with Portuguese-speaking companies, but not to the point of feeling the necessity for fluency in the language.
I was just curious. After all, what did I know about Portugal, its language, the Portuguese-speaking world? Alarmingly nothing. I would discover soon that my interest would only grow along the way. 😍
Interest alone pushed me all the way from A0 to a C2 qualification in two years and a half. But learning Portuguese during these thirty-something months, I also discovered several reasons for which it’s worth getting fluent in it: I’m going to list them below, but before, let me explain why European Portuguese in the first place.
Why European Portuguese
I’ll prepare soon enough another guide concerning Brazilian Portuguese. But here, let me clarify why this post is about European Portuguese:
#1 It’s the variety I learned first. In the old continent, Brazilian Portuguese wasn’t a thing up until very recently.
#2 Most European teachers spent most of their Lusophone time in Portugal, hence, they are better equipped with the European variety.
In fact, I do recall conversations that now sound weird, some twenty years ago, in which the average dude here was surprised to find a Brazilian teacher or a non-native teacher of Brazilian Portuguese. It was like people were expecting Brazilians to work just as soccer players, picanha-savvy chefs, Carnival dancers and capoeira teachers. 🇧🇷
#3 I’ve mostly worked with Portuguese companies; I had more Portuguese friends than Brazilians.
#4 Brazilian Portuguese is starting now to have some traction in the teaching world. Up until recently, European Portuguese in bookshops outnumbered Brazilian Portuguese eight to one.
#5 I had projects to relocate to Portugal. 🧳
Does this mean I don’t endorse Brazilian Portuguese? Not at all! It’s fascinating, a powerful engine of pop culture, a tool of communication to a huge country with incredible diversity. And, as hinted before, I’ll devote an entire guide to learning Brazilian Portuguese from scratch.
How to begin learning European Portuguese
Now, let’s suppose you’re quite curious about European Portuguese but aren’t sure if this is your thing. What should you do? Take a little step forward and get the textbooks listed below. With a limited budget, you can:
- Understand whether Portuguese is your next language;
- achieve an A2, even in the worst-case scenario, which comes in handy for flying to Oporto for tasting vinho verde or exchanging small talks to that ravishing Brazilian neighbour of yours; 💖
- embody Lomb Kató’s motto: “Language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly”;
- put a couple of exotic books on your shelf so that your next date will be impressed with your linguistic open-mindedness. 📚
I would recommend you to follow this route, in the order below. If you manage to put in 30 or 60 minutes every day, gorgeous! Keep in mind it’s way better to study X minutes every day than 3X hours twice a week.
Now, you may argue: you’re jumping straight to self-teaching materials, why not enrolling in a course? With teachers, classrooms, desks, blackboards and all of it?
It’s a fair question, to which my answer is: because self-teaching is a more efficient use of your time and money.
Why self-teaching is better than group teaching
I don’t want to bother you with technicalities, but in short, it’s insanely difficult to structure group teaching in a way that is sustainable for schools and valuable for students.
A school has to generate enough revenues to stay on business, otherwise game over. How do they achieve them? By scaling: if they manage to put a teacher in a classroom of twenty-one pupils, it’s more profitable for them than putting three teachers in a seven-student classroom.
But even in a group of seven students, which wouldn’t be bad to work with, issues emerge soon. The group may be composed of, for example:
- teenagers whose parents paid for the course, hence a lack of interest; 😛
- business people whose focus is on Business Portuguese only;
- retired teachers with an interest so burning they interrupt the lesson every two seconds; 😞
- various thirty-something that tried Tinder and it didn’t work, hence more inclined to socialize than anything;
- then there’s you, with your goals and learning style…
Groups have this brutal limitation: the pace of the teaching is mandated by the slower individual in the group. I’m not being insensitive and by all means I don’t mean we should kick people out of classrooms, but neither we advance if we don’t acknowledge reality.
I almost hear the question in your head: can’t school create more homogenous groups?
They can if they are big enough to attract a massive pool of Portuguese learners. But how many such schools do you think there are? Too few, even in much popular languages like Spanish or French. 😒
But again, even if there were, you have to measure yourself again practical life: that group in which you perfectly fit may gather up Tuesday and Thursday at 5 p.m., right when you’re working. Or the school may be on the other side of town and that’s two hours commuting.
And again, even if up to know everything was convenient, think about what you get for what you pay. Hiring a private Portuguese tutor for conversation would be, say, 30 GBP; otherwise, it’d be 15 GBP for an hour in a group of seven.
Let’s do the math: if hiring a teacher all for myself for 30 GBP/hour, it’d make sense to enrol in a group course for 15 GBP/hour if I got to talk at least half an hour, but in a group with six other guys, I’d speak for eight minutes. 😔
Then, there are still further issues, from my point of view:
- The first and last ten minutes of one-hour lesson are, practically, wasted time: a lot of frivolities, little solid content;
- the two guys speaking in their mother tongue most of the time are always there; 😞
- when doing exercises with your deskmate, you’re trying to improve yourself with a human being who is as clueless as you about Portuguese.
Nothing of it happens with a private tutor. 😐
Another question you may have is: haven’t you said you went to a school? Isn’t it how you learned Portuguese? Yes, I have said precisely that, but I’ve been uniquely lucky: I found the right teacher, right group, right place, right time.
More in detail, I had two awesome teachers, groups were so small it felt like private tuitions, my fellow classmates were as eager to learn as myself, lessons were at a time of the day in which I had enough energy to attend them. 🏆
Now, believe me, if I tell you I’ve studied languages in five countries, in all sorts of schools, with all kinds of methods: I went to language schools as much as my hipster neighbour goes to his barber, but I have never been as lucky as with Portuguese. And in such cases, I have learned way more by myself than in group-teaching environments.
Summarizing: is it impossible to find good schools to learn Portuguese? It’s not impossible, but it is terribly hard. That’s why I recommend you to go on your own, with a little help from a good private teacher. 😉
Self-teaching European Portuguese
As hinted before, I’d recommend you to follow the path laid below in this order. And: better a little every day than a lot once a week.
Step 1: study Colloquial Portuguese, by Routledge, cover to cover
It’s a thoroughly good volume for many reasons. First, it doesn’t even seem a textbook proper, as the matter is dealt with in a way that favour comprehension even when your brain isn’t at full capacity: in my case, early morning or late evening. 😴
Then, it offers quite an amount of dialogues with proper explanations aside. The focus is on European Portuguese but you have abundant references to Brazilian Portuguese. It covers most topics you would expect for beginners or false beginners and, ultimately, it features all the necessary sections of a trustworthy self-teaching tool: grammar points, exercises, lexicon, transcriptions. 🤓
It doesn’t come with a CD, for Routledge made available online at no extra cost all the audio tracks. Once completed, this book grants you survival in any Portuguese-speaking environment, that is, an A2.2 level approaching B1.1.
Step 2: use Gramática Ativa 1, by Lidel Edições Técnicas
It is a text that I would recommend as a support to the Colloquial Portuguese one. It reinforces theory, and it is monolingual Portuguese: that’s why I would use it just AFTER having completed the earlier.
Doesn’t the Routledge textbook cover grammar? It does, but Gramática Ativa 1 consolidates it and you have to take into account one of the cornerstones of learning languages: no level is fully covered by one textbook only, for no book is perfect. One is strong on audio tracks but weak on grammar, another has excellent dialogues but the choice of topics is poor.
That’s why I recommend Gramática Ativa 1: it consists of about 100 pages of exercises with keys. Also here, you can work independently. There is no audio, but neither is the purpose of this volume to improve listening comprehension.
Step 3: browse Visual Bilingual Dictionary, Portuguese – English, by DK
It is a visual dictionary, that is to say, words are alongside images. It’s freaking great: if you want to learn vocabulary, it’s way better than flashcards. 🤓 Moreover, the layout is awesome, pictures and great and the paper so smooth it’s a pleasure to hold it.
If I could have one of these dictionaries for all world’s languages, my house would be filled.
Step 4: read Contos con nível (A2), by Lidel Edições Técnicas
When done with the previous books, you can continue learning through this other very useful tool: Contos con nível is a collection of 17 short stories, specifically written with an A2 Portuguese learner in mind.
It’s a skimmed version of narrative, but narrative it is nonetheless and the sooner you begin with real-life language, the better off you are. To put to test your exposure to the language, you also have exercises and answer keys. 👍
One thing you have to keep in mind is that the content of such booklets may seem childish: it’s because, as you may imagine, it’s complicated to talk about other matters at a beginner level. Astrophysics, car races and 19th-century literature will come if you keep learning Portuguese. 😉
And after all, books for children are freaking awesome, let’s admit it.
Step 5: read O Principezinho with a pencil at hand
That’s exactly it, the De Saint-Éxupery’s masterpiece. This is real stuff, though simple: a few words and turns of phrase may unbalance you, but it’s readable material now. If you have read it already in your native language, all the better; if you haven’t, I strongly encourage you to do it. 🦊
Warning: there is a Brazilian Portuguese edition, titled O Pequeno Príncipe. The link above is of the European Portuguese one. With books, before achieving a B2, you better always check what variety it is.
Things to keep in mind when studying European Portuguese
#1 Use some private tuition
You may benefit from a private tutor at any stage from 1 to 5 in your Portuguese learning journey.
When you start, having a language exchange partner is pointless, as you’ll bore the hell out of them with your lack of fluency.
On top of that, linguistically untrained people tend to make all sorts of mistakes with learners, and before a B1 level, you have no linguistic antibodies yet. 😷 A private tutor is way better, even as little as you can afford. You can get one as early as you want, of course.
#2 The gift of ridicule
Every now and again it’s good to have morons around.
I propose you wait to practice with native speakers in real-world environments, but let’s imagine you don’t listen to me or that some circumstance arose and you have to. Let’s presume you do your best to put your best European Portuguese forth but it comes out it does not work. The other person derides you. ☹️
What can we do? Rejoice! Scorners provide a service in high demand: correction! Nice people do not correct your mistakes, as long as they somehow understand: so, they never help you improve. See? We should credit pricks for a lot more than we do.
#3 A decent dictionary
Supposing your mother tongue is English, at a beginner level you can resort to the WordReference dictionary. It lacks precision and A LOT misses, but it suffices at this stage.
#4 Learn European Portuguese for real
Filling a textbook with notes and actual learning are two different things. By the end of the path laid here, you should know the very basics, at least:
- the difference between written and spoken language;
- probable faux-pas like: the spelling of why/because, por/para, pronouns, accentuation and stress, alphabet (so that you can spell any name), articles, basic conjugation; 🤐
- pronounce vowels well and acquire good prosody.
Chapter after chapter, book after book, if you don’t put this stuff into your head, you’re going nowhere. Always remember: language fluency isn’t something that you buy by purchasing courses or a textbook or a trip to Brasilia. It’s something you build with dedication.
#5 Avoid ingesting Brazilian Portuguese while a beginner
Don’t do that. Life is already miserable in and on itself. Get to a B1-B2 first, then open up your brain to Brazilian Portuguese, or whatever other variety you’re interested in.
Same if you happen to do the other way round: get a solid intermediate level in Brazilian Portuguese before including European in your linguistic diet. 🍲
I don’t mention Angolan, Mozambican or other varieties not because they’re not interesting (I find Angolan charming, personally), but because:
- Material is harder to find,
- less people are interested in them,
- the choice tends to be between Brazilian and European Portuguese, among students.
A few issues you may encounter with European Portuguese
#1 You haven’t been studying for some time and now your neurons are rusty
Unless to the freshly graduated, it happened to all of us. The solution? Stick to the habit, until the habit will be strong enough to carry on your weight.
If you decide to learn European Portuguese, go for real. Write your resolution on an elegant piece of paper and hang it on the wall, on a spot you bump into as often as possible. If you take care of the habit first, in no time the habit will take care of your learning. 💪
It does require a leap of discipline, at the beginning. Above all, don’t fun yourself, as the world is already rife with people funning you. If you wake up and think “What do I feel like doing today?”, you’re failing. “What is the most important thing I need to do today?” is the question you need to ask yourself. Don’t be Homer Simpson: be Jocko Willink.
#2 You speak some Spanish and you’re mixing them up
Watch out. I wouldn’t embark on a joint-learning experience of Spanish and Portuguese, if I had a say in the matter. If your Spanish is below B2, beware you might make a huge Iberian hodgepodge.
I didn’t experience it because when I started Portuguese I was already as fluent in Spanish as now; it happened to me though in other cases: German-Dutch, German-Yiddish, MSA-Dariya Arabic, etc. Some learners, though, seem immune to it, much to my envy. Try and see what happens. 🧐
#3 European Portuguese would be your first Romance language
Supposing you are an English native speaker with no Italian, Spanish, French or Romanian under the belt, you will have to spend some time learning a different, let’s say, linguistic operating system. 💻
The upside to learning Portuguese first is that you wouldn’t risk any confusion. You don’t know how many times I had conversations like this:
A: Oh, you’re Italian! I speak Italian!
B: Oh really? How cool!
A: Sí, hice un mestrado em Ciencias Diplomâticas e después tive amigos de… (which is a mix of Spanish and Portuguese, with no Italian)
Needless to say, we southern Europeans roll in the aisles with northerners like this fellow.
#4 Trusting Duolingo
If your plan is to learn Portuguese solely through an App, by all means, stop and go play poker or bake some Yotam Ottolenghi’s cake. 🥮
Besides, just a minor, almost insignificant detail: Duolingo’s Portuguese is Brazilian. Currently, no European Portuguese is offered there.
#5 Weekend binge-studying is counterproductive
It’s hard to make time for studying when you haven’t been doing it for a while. The temptation is to set a goal for oneself, then to realize you’re lagging behind and make up for it by studying during weekends at an obsessive-compulsive level, to then abandon your books until the following Saturday.
Learning does not work like that: ten hours every weekend is of little use. A hour and a half every day is DEFINITELY the way to go. 📅
FAQ about learning European Portuguese
Q: Should I start from the European then pass onto the Brazilian variant?
A: You can start from the southwest Atlantic then move northeast. Whatever floats your boat. ⛵
Q: I have already completed all the steps you laid down and have an A2. What’s next?
A: I’ll write some stuff soon about the best way to achieve an intermediate European Portuguese. At the moment, if you can’t wait, I would invite you to consider these:
Português XXI 3, Livro do Aluno + Caderno de Exercícios, by Lídel: this is one of the most used textbook on earth. As you can see, this is number 3 (B1): why don’t I recommend it all the way from number 1 (A1)?
First, because it is monolingual Portuguese, which can get things challenging at the beginning. Secondly, because it’s based on teacher-student dynamics: but at a B1, you can fully exploit its abundant upsides even though you’re a self-learner.
Português Em Foco 3, Livro do Aluno, by Lídel: see reasons above. Theoretically, to be used in a classroom environment, it’s the best around to cover a B2 level also for self-learners like yourself.
Gramática Ativa 2: for the same reasons for which I recommended the Gramática Ativa 1. It covers B1 and B2.
Enjoy your learning!
Q: Do European Portuguese have variants?
A: It does, but at this stage, I wouldn’t concern myself with variants. Neither at an intermediate: the advanced is the place where dig into it.
Q: Do you recommend getting a certificate to prove one’s fluency in European Portuguese?
A: I do! More on it will follow in the incoming months! 📜
Q: Is it true that Portuguese people understand Brazilians more than the other way around?
A: True, but there is no alchemic secret: it’s simply exposure to the other variety. The Portuguese consume more content in Brazilian Portuguese than Brazilians do in European Portuguese. It’s easy to bridge the Atlantic gap, really.
Q: How different are Brazilian and European Portuguese?
A: There are differences, though I believe they are exaggerated in native-speaker circles. If you look at things close enough, even between the north and the south of your city, you may find language differences.
Phonetics, grammar, spelling, lexicon: here you will undoubtedly find variations between the two shores of the pond, but eventually, it’s one language. Just as a Londoner will always understand a New Yorker, a carioca will be able to communicate with a lisboeta.
So, when do you start learning European Portuguese?
With this brief guide, I hope to have instilled in you a bit of curiosity and provided a few tools to get started with European Portuguese, with strong reasons but no stress.
European Portuguese filled my life with so many opportunities that it’s hard to exaggerate. I made friends, found love, got promotions, obtained salary increases, discovered new outlets for my creativity. 🇵🇹
At this point, it would be me having a couple of questions for you:
- When did you start thinking about learning European Portuguese?
- What would be your main motivation?
- What’s holding you back right now? ⛓️
Now, I have a favour to ask you.
Learning the language, building this website and jotting down this post has been hard. I can make this all sustainable only if it reaches an ample audience. If you found it useful and/or entertaining, would you mind sharing this article? Thank you from the bottom of my heart. 🙏
I’ll get back to Portuguese – and other languages. If you’re hungry for more, stay tuned 😉
Thank you for having taken the time to read this. 🧡
Your personal Lusophonist,