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How to speak Portuguese like a native

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Essential tips and tricks for learning Portuguese

Portuguese is a global language, with over 250 million speakers in Africa, South America, Asia, and - of course - Europe. Whether you want to mingle with Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach, or you need to network with business contacts in Porto and Lisbon, it’s a language with plenty of uses. It’s also not all that challenging to learn, as long as you know which tools to use. At Babbel, we offer Portuguese courses for all levels and abilities. Our learning app lets you learn how to speak Portuguese wherever you like, with courses lasting from 1-12 months, and everything is based on real-world situations. If you’re ready to dive in, be our guest. Signing up takes a few seconds, and you can download the app straight away. When you do, here are some tips to help you in your quest for perfect Portuguese.

These tips will help you hone your Portuguese skills

1. Master pronunciation straight away to get a helping hand

One of the first things to know about Portuguese is that its pronunciation is very different from Spanish, and has some quirks that may be unfamiliar. As with all languages, pronunciation is vitally important to communicate subtle meanings, which is why Babbel makes a point of using conversational learning. But there are also some pointers to learn that will give your accent an instant boost. Written Portuguese tends to rely heavily on graphical accents to communicate how words should be spoken (another area where it differs from English). Learning these accents is an excellent first step before you learn any vocab, and there are three key ones to look at first.

Firstly, tildes (~) are commonly used to “flatten” the sound of vowels with a kind of nasal intonation. It’s hard to describe how this sounds, but if you match up words with tildes to Babbel conversations, you’ll quickly get the picture. Secondly, many words use the circumflex (^) to denote that vowels are shortened and “closed”, as in the English words “go” or “they”. Finally, Portuguese people use acute accents (´) to have the opposite effect, “opening” up vowels. English examples could be “not” or “net”. All of that may sound a bit abstract without hearing those symbols in action. But, learning them early on is a good primer for understanding how spoken Portuguese relates to what you see on the page.

2. Mix cinema and Portuguese to immerse yourself in vocabulary

When you start learning how to speak Portuguese, it’s vital to be exposed to as much oral and written material as possible. You probably can’t move to Portugal, but there are some excellent substitutes that are almost as good. Cinema is a great example. There are two ways to use films to turbo-charge your language learning. Firstly, many students find that watching English films with Portuguese subtitles is really helpful. That way, you can match up spoken sentences with their Portuguese equivalent, and you may be more likely to remember them if Brad Pitt or Jennifer Lawrence are delivering them.

Alternatively, you might try watching Portuguese language movies with English subtitles. “City of God” by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles is a great place to start, or you might try “Tabu” by Miguel Gomes, or anything by Portuguese legend Manoel de Olivera. Be ready to stop the footage and back up if the dialogue becomes too rapid and have a notepad to hand so you can take down any handy new vocabulary.

3. Build on similarities between English and Portuguese

Portuguese is what’s known as a “romance” language. That doesn’t mean that knowing it will automatically turn you into Casanova (although it won’t hurt). Instead, it means that the language is derived from Latin, the tongue of ancient Rome. This means that English speakers will recognise a host of Portuguese words before they even open a dictionary. That’s going to be really handy when building a comprehensive vocabulary, but the similarities go deeper than that. Many Portuguese words operate in a similar way to English, which is also partially derived from Latin. Take “mente”, for example. In most cases, it functions as the Portuguese version of “ly”. So, the word “ideally” becomes “idealmente”. Those kind of structural likenesses are very useful for making links between words, so it’s a good idea to learn a few common suffixes and prefixes as you start learning the language.

4. Organise a city break to Portugal

At some stage, you’re going to have to put your learning into practice. If you’re based in the UK, that’s not necessarily that easy. There are Portuguese and Brazilian communities across the country (especially in Birmingham and North London), but it’s much better to actually spend some time in a Portuguese city.

Lisbon and Porto are less than 3 hours away by plane from most British airports, and both are rewarding places to spend some time. You can take your Babbel course with you when you go, and use our app to help you learn during your stay. But you might prefer to go “cold turkey” and just plunge into the bars and cafés of either city. It’s a brilliant way to become more confident.

5. Always keep gender in mind when memorising words

Unlike English, Portuguese is a language built around gender. Every noun in the Portuguese language is either male or female, and this conditions the role they play in sentences. There’s no way around this: everyone who learns how to speak Portuguese has to find a way of memorising which gender fits with each word. This might sound complex, but you’ll soon get the hang of it. And some simple tricks can help ascertain which gender to use for specific words. This isn’t 100% effective, but most of the time, if a word ends in “o”, it’s masculine, and if it ends in “a”, it’s feminine.

If you keep this in mind, you can focus on learning words that are exceptions to the rule - and that’s a lot less demanding than dealing with each word individually.

6. Learn verbs that matter, in ways you can relate to

When you’ve mastered gender, you’ll probably move on to conjugating Portuguese verbs. This is where learning how to speak Portuguese can get a little overwhelming. With so many verbs to learn, and a seemingly endless set of permutations about how they work, conjugation can feel like climbing a mountain. However, that’s the wrong way to approach things. Instead, it helps to break down learning into manageable, easily relatable chunks. For instance, there are some core verbs that everyone should learn, as they will constantly appear in all sorts of contexts. “Ser” (“to be”) is a great case in point. You’ll need it to say things like “you’re my best friend”, or “we went fishing” - so it’s very, very important.

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to use “ser” as a starting point. Break it down into its present, infinitive, and past participle tenses, to give a flavour for how the process works across the board. Then, using the same principles, move onto other common verbs. After that, learn conjugations for verbs you are most likely to use in Portugal or beyond. This makes it much easier to remember conjugations, while creating a launchpad for learning other subject areas.

A Babbel course is the perfect route to fluent Portuguese

Finally, if you really want to become fluent quickly, there’s no substitute for solid language tuition. And there’s no better option than starting one of Babbel’s personalised Portuguese courses. We’ve paid a lot of attention to the way people learn, and come up with a new route to foreign language fluency. Instead of cramming vocabulary and grammar rules, our courses rely on conversation and real world examples to immerse students and stimulate their interest. This tends to have rapid results for your confidence, pronunciation, and fluency. Thanks to Babbel’s use of native speakers and our conversational methods, you’re sure to sound convincing, even to the locals in Lisbon, Porto, or Sao Paolo. We can help you learn the Brazilian accent, provide a grounding in Portuguese business language, and get you ready for university exchange courses across the lusophone world.

Just download the Babbel app, enrol on a course, and use these tips during your studies. Before too long, you’ll be ready for a Brazilian adventure or a stay in Madeira. Even better, you’ll have the language skills required to have an incredible time.