Learning to Speak Portuguese Without Sounding Like an Idiot ~ Midlife Expat Learning

Portugal continues to be at the top of best-places-to-retire-abroad lists. This got my attention when I retired in 2019 as a midlife woman of 59. I was intrigued by the thought of lowering my living expenses, and the possibility of being able to afford to live on the ocean as a single retiree. The month I spent living in Portugal in 2019 convinced me it was the country for me to move to in retirement. After returning home, I planned to save money and move to Portugal at 65. But when my house sold unexpectedly in late 2021, I realized I could move three years ahead of plan. I’ve been living in Portugal since October 1, 2022, and will continue to share a Midlife Expat Learning post here every other month as I navigate the complex process of immigrating to Portugal.

Tomorrow, May 5, is World Portuguese Language Day. The date of May 5 was established in 2009 by the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries to celebrate the Portuguese language. Ten years later, UNESCO proclaimed the day as “World Portuguese Language Day.”

I wrote a blog article last year on interesting facts about the Portuguese language. It is spoken by more than 265 million people and is the most widely spoken language in the southern hemisphere.

The people of Portugal, who make up a small percentage of these speakers, use European Portuguese. The people of Brazil, who comprise the greatest percentage of Portuguese speakers, use Brazilian Portuguese. The two are similar but have key differences. Thus, Brazilian Portuguese is easier and has rules that make more sense.

Don’t come over here thinking all you need to know is whatever Spanish you’ve picked up. Folks from here do not speak Spanish — even if they know how — and may consider it insulting. The two languages share some words (yes, please), but most are very different. Remember this delivery notice from Amazon Spain?

Luckily, I realized I’d forgotten to change the translator language from Portuguese to Spanish, and didn’t need to fetch my package from the moon.

Speaking Caveman

Source: Goodreads

David Sedaris, in Me Talk Pretty One Day, describes what it was like learning French after he moved to France. Like me, he stopped talking for a while out of fear of mispronouncing words. “It’s all I can do to remember how to recite my zip code, let alone an entire conversation,he wrote. He describes two kinds of French. We have those same two kinds of Portuguese: the easy kind and the hard kind. The easy kind, Sedaris aptly explains, is when you yell in English slowly and as loud as you can. The hard kind is when you conjugate verbs and put them with other words to make sentences:

“I go him say good afternoon. No, not to him I no go it him say now.”

David Sedaris

This is exactly how my translated Portuguese sentences sound. Caveman speak. “Me want to dinner with friends new this yesterday.” Except when ordering bottles of wine. I can do that perfectly. Cocktails too.

I know all these words!

Options for Learning Portuguese

I began studying Portuguese while still in the United States, using the free Duolingo app. After I found out Duolingo was Brazilian Portuguese, I began using Practice Portuguese and various other YouTube tutorials. After I arrived here, I started the basically free in-person classes offered at the senior citizens academy in my village. The course follows the public school calendar, running from September to June. When I started in November, the class had already moved too far along for me, so I didn’t return after winter break.

Yeah, baby… This is how we senior citizens roll here on the Silver Coast. Learning new languages and whatnot at our own academy.
*Cue swagger*
*Cue tripping on slipperyass cobblestones*

Instead, I found a private tutor through iTalki.com and purchased five weekly conversation lessons. After those lessons, I wanted a more intensive, daily class, and found several online group options through various government-accredited schools and universities. I chose a brick-and-mortar language school in Lisbon that offered online options and, after taking a required placement test, was enrolled in a 20-hour, two-week “intensive course” at level A2.

Let’s just say I’ve forgotten most of level A1, so when a minha professora reviewed A1 grammar on the first day, I was like, Oh merda.” Two hours a day without a break during lessons was hard for me, and retention was low after the first hour every day. I spent another two hours each evening doing homework and studying.

No way in Inferno I’m going to remember this.
Eu costumo não saber WTF estou a fazer.
Number 5 cost me points on the test because I wrote “encontraro-nos.” Não, I did not meet (or find) my friends, because I was studying for this frippin’ test.
I was preocupada (worried) AF about the test. With good reason. I couldn’t even say I was worried correctly, and my teacher had to show me.
I got a B- on the test, which “preocupada-ed” me.

Before I continue with the second 20-hour A2 module, I’m working in my workbooks to review new and old learning. In September, I may enroll in a free government-sponsored course for foreigners, which, like the senior citizens academy, follows the academic calendar and will run until June of the next year. Eventually, some of this stuff will stick. Until then, it’s learn, practice, review, repeat.

I’m actually pretty good at understanding written Portuguese, and am getting additional practice with books I checked out of our local library using my new library card.

Some books, however, require no translation, such as this furniture assembly manual.

I’m also continuing to get help from my 6-year-old neighbor and pequena professora. She illustrated these “flashcards” of body parts for me. Practice makes perfect.

This initial illustration required revision, so I wouldn’t get confused.

My Favorite Words

These are, in no particular order, some of my favorite Portuguese words. I love that the term for making excuses translates to inventing apologies.” Perfect!
“Beijinhosis typed in text messages as a customary sign-off by women and men here, reflecting the common Portuguese practice of kissing each cheek twice when greeting and leaving someone. Some folks close a text with the abbreviation “Bjs.” In the U.S., “bj” stands for something else, so the first time I got a text message with “Bjs” at the end — from my hairdresser here — I was like, “What the…?”

Links to Resources

Stay Tuned

Moving to another country is a complex process, and information can change quickly without notice. Everyone’s experience can be different. I’m remembering to take it all in stride, stay flexible, prepared, pivot-ready, and positive. Stay tuned. Thank you for reading!

Midlife Expat Learning Posts

January/February: SEF appointment

March/April: SEF troubleshooting

May/June: Language classes

July/August: Accountants, doctors, & handymen, oh my!

September/October: One year in Portugal

November/December: Travel as an expat

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  1. Wow Natalie, it’s so hard learning and RETAINING a new language! I started using DuoLingo about 3 months ago to learn Spanish (for no particular reason other than to challenge my brain) and I’m sure I would sound just like a caveman if I tried to have a convo with anyone!!

    I love the flashcards your neighbor made for you and hopefully the A2 classes will become easier as you continue to study! Bjs 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Note to me, if ever I decide to retire outside Canada, highly unlikely, go where English is spoken because you won’t survive. I admire your determination Natalie. That is a lot of work and I know you will get there. In the meantime keep ordering wine and cocktails because everything sounds smoother when you’re drinking. Loved the flash cards.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Jennifer! ❤️ I’m definitely less self-conscious speaking Portuguese after some wine or a cocktail! Smoooooth. And I just bought index cards to make more flashcards with my young neighbor.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I admire your persistence! Living in the country where the language is spoken is a great asset as you can listen to the radio or tv to further absorb the language. It takes time!

    I’ve been studying Ukrainian with a very small group of fellow beginners, all of us older, taught by a bilingual speaker, and I feel I’m at a disadvantage to them for understanding how the cases apply in sentences. Most of the other students have already studied Russian or Latin (we have 3 Jesuit priests in the group). It is challenging, but we’re persisting, because we understand that it is through repetition we learn.

    I asked the teacher if he knows of any movies or tv series that were created or dubbed in Ukrainian with English subtitles. I love watching series in other languages with English subtitles, and am picking up the cadence and some of the words that are repeated frequently.

    Keep going! Portuguese is a complex language, and is difficult!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Tamara! ❤️ You continue to be an inspiration. I remember having to learn some basic Ukrainian words when I got a new second-grade student fresh from Ukraine who spoke no English. He learned to speak English much better and faster than I learned to speak Ukrainian.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re doing doing great studies. It will get better with time! Make sure to take advantage of Portuguese media to keep yourself surrounded with the sounds(and verb tenses) of the language. Radio and tv are your friends. Looking fantastic as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Rebecca! ❤️ I appreciate the tips. I try to watch EuroNews PT every day, listen to PT music on YouTube, and stream movies in Portuguese. My listening comprehension is the weakest, but, as you said, it’s good to surround myself with the language. Thank you for encouraging me!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. No fair Natalie! I’m reading your post, cursing myself for being so language deficient and thinking I’ll never be able to learn another language, but then you have such a great attitude about it and you include such beautiful shots (especially the beach one)! Ugh. Maybe I do need to go back to school, ha, ha. Something tells me that in the long run you’re going to learn the most from your from your 6-year-old neighbor. I gotta believe that showing the effort is half with battle with the people you’re speaking to and truly learning the language. Good for you. Hang in there. Looks like you’re having fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for the encouragement, Brian! You’re right about my little neighbor. She is my best teacher. I do get frustrated when I can’t recall a word in Portuguese, but not nearly as frustrated as when I increasingly forget words in English. 🙄

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have no excuse! I’m not trying to learn a new language and I have that happen to me all the time. Especially when I’m writing. Constantly looking for synonyms and I’m not even trying to be creative, just trying to think of the original word. Ha ha

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Your posts are such a fun experience, Natalie. Humorous, informative, beautiful you, educational, motivational, and more. Thank you! Interesting learning that today is World Portuguese Language Day, the breakdown of languages spoken there, and the attitude of speaking Spanish. I love the language lessons! Revisiting my Spanish and French from HS/college is a goal that gets squeezed out of my schedule. Classes are best for me. I joined a conversational Spanish class at the local library before the pandemic and haven’t revisited the experience. Now I have no excuses! Your journey is inspirational.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You seem to be enjoying your new country and everything in it! As for a new language, sooner you’ll be good at it due tou your efforts & commitment. To me it sounds very complicated even when you’ve translated words to English. Keep on learning, it’s good to challenge one’s brain!

    Liked by 1 person

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