HOW I LEARNED PORTUGUESE - And How YOU Can Too!Fun Portuguese | Learn Brazilian Portuguese


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Long ago I took a year of Portuguese in college. After that I had little contact with the language until 2005, when I decided to pick it up again, this time seriously, with the idea of eventually visiting Brazil and getting to know the people that I would meet there.

Since I didn’t have any outside pressure to study, and no time limits or tests, I was free to take my time and do only things that I really enjoyed. It seemed to work. This article describes my method. Give it a try and you may have the same results.


First I bought a good Portuguese-English dictionary.
I recommend the sturdy paperback Larousse Concise
Portuguese-English/English-Portuguese Dictionary

Dicionário Larousse

It has special sections on living in Brazil, cultural highlights on
subjects like bossa nova, Carnaval, favelas, Brazilian
literature, samba, telenovelas, and sports, along with
a map of Brazil, detailed grammar notes, and verb conjugations.

It also contains a Portuguese Communication Guide,
to help you with letters, phone calls, and emails. Many other
features make this my favorite portable dictionary. I keep a copy
in my home in San Diego and one in Rio. This dictionary can be
found in our store (Nossa Loja).

From my local office supply store I picked up a spiral notebook in which to write down new words as I learned them while reading or watching movies. Even today I always carry a small pocket notebook to jot down words, phrases, and sayings, as I hear them when I am na rua (on the street) in Brazil. The simple act of writing down the words helps burn them into your memory, even if you never look at them again (but you will, won’t you?).


Then I found CD versions of my old bossa nova favorites with Astrud and João Gilberto, Sérgio Mendes, Luis Bonfá, and Tom Jobim, which I listened to on my car’s CD player as I drove to work and around town. You’d be surprised how easy it is to learn a few phrases phonetically if they are wrapped in the attractive package of good music, pronounced slowly and clearly.

I also picked up some more Brazilian music (mpb=música popular brasileira), including CD’s of Maria Bethânia, Chico Buarque, Roberto Menescal, Carlos Lyra, Gal Costa, and Caetano Veloso.

At the same time I got deeper into the roots of bossa nova with recordings of poet and song writer Vinícius de Moraes, who penned many of the lyrics made famous by Antônio Carlos Jobim (Tom Jobim), Toquinho, and others. I also listened over and over to the humorous songs of Nöel Rosa (see other article on this site) and the golden-voiced Dorival Caymmi’s compositions about love and the sea in Salvador, Bahia.

To make things easier, I printed out copies of the written words to the songs. There are several sites on line where you can do this. Try “googling” the title with the word “lyrics” or “letras” (“lyrics” in Portuguese). Example: “Àguas de Março letras.”

With a better grasp of the written lyrics I could begin to sing along as I drove. A few years ago this would have brought stares from passing drivers. But no one pays attention anymore. They just figure you’re talking on a hands-free cell phone.

Paul McCartney says that people all around the world tell him they learned English by listening to the Beatles—you can do the same for Portuguese with Brazilian songs.


After a few weeks of concentrating on song lyrics, I discovered some good DVDs of Brazilian movies with subtitles in English and (sometimes) Portuguese. Then I began to make real progress. What I did will help you also, if you are seriously interested in learning the language of Brazil.

Here´s the process I used:

One evening I would watch the movie with the Portuguese sound track and subtitles in English, to get the gist of what was happening.

Then I waited a couple of nights and began to watch the film with English subtitles once more, pausing often to rewind and write down the most important Portuguese words and phrases the best I could. At first I would pick only a dozen or so items per film, in order to have an easy list to learn.

I used the “back” button on my remote to listen again and
again until I understood mais ou menos(more or less).

City of Men DVD

Even though I might not understand 100%, I would try
my best to imitate key words and sentences, and repeat
out loud along with the actors. The following mornin
I looked over my notes and again repeated aloud what
I had written the night before.Some of my films also have
subtitles in Portuguese. Look for these as “closed captioning”
or on the “subtitles” menu (legendas in Portuguese).  This is
easy to do with the “subtitles” button on your remote control.

When the written Portuguese words were available, the next night I would switch to Portuguese subtitles and watch the movie again all the way through, pronouncing the words aloud as much as I could, taking more notes.

A few days later I started the whole process again with another movie. Remember that I had decided to become SERIOUS about learning Portuguese!

After finishing with this second film for the third or fourth time, I went back to film number one and watched it again (with Portuguese subtitles when available), speaking along with the actors when I could. I was amazed at how much more I could HEAR CLEARLY AND UNDERSTAND after a pause of a week or so.

Scientists who study the process of human learning have discovered that this type of SPACED REPETITION, including a period of not concentrating on the material, allows the subconscious mind to digest what has been heard. That’s why it seems so much clearer, almost miraculously, after a few days or weeks.

Of course I continued to take notes of the items I wanted to remember, and to look over those notes briefly the next day. I kept a separate word list for each film and went over each list aloud at least twice a week. And I continued to listen to the music CDs in my car. By now my vocabulary was growing by leaps and bounds!

After a few months I had added a dozen or so films to my library. With each film the thrilling moment arrived when I could watch the whole film without subtitles and understand almost everything.

Because of all this practice, I could also mimic whole sentences along with the cast—without subtitles!

By then the words and phrases had been burned into my subconscious mind, and I could recall them later, substituting different words in different situations during normal conversations with Portuguese speakers. This gave me a good inventory of basic sentence structures and vocabulary.

A year or so later, when my wife introduced to the actor Lázaro Ramos in Rio, I was able to recite a funny line from one of his films. We all three got a good laugh out of that!

Here are some of the movies I’ve used to improve my Portuguese: Central Station (“Central do Brasil” in Portuguese, an Oscar Nominee), The Two Sons of Francisco (“Os Dois Filhos de Francisco”), The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (“O Ano que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias”), Lower City (“Cidade Baixa”), “Ó Pai, Ó” (about Carnaval in Bahia), City of God (“Cidade de Deus”), City of Men (“Cidade dos Homens”, a mini-series), Elite Squad (“Tropa de Elite”, Golden Bear winner in Berlin), Bye-Bye Brazil (Golden Palm winner at Cannes), House of Sand (“Casa de Areia”), and the classic Black Orpheus (“Orfeu Negro”, 1960 Oscar winner). All these are available with subtitles in English in our store (see Nossa Loja).

While watching dramas and comedies, I began to mix in some music DVDs. In our store are DVDs of stage shows and musical selections by Tom Jobim, Roberto Carlos, Chico Buarque, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethânia, Zeca Pagodinho, Zeze de Camargo, and other individuals and groups, singing popular songs along with Brazilian “oldies”.

Some of these DVDs have subtitles in Portuguese
(a few even have English translations). For the others,

Dorival Caymmi

you can look up the lyrics on line, print them out,
translate them (some translations are also available online)
and keep a copy at your side while watching the
performance. Personally, I can watch some of
these videos twice a day with no problem.

By the way, some people have commented to me that “watching the same movie over and over must be boring.”  I emphasize that this method is only for SERIOUS students. How “boring” would it be for you to sit through hundreds of hours in a classroom to meet your objective? Compare that with relaxing on your sofa, drink or snack in hand, watching a film that also immerses you in the fascinating daily life of Brazil. Which method would you prefer? It’s your choice. 


I confess that I have been an avid language learner all my life, so it didn’t take long before I wanted to get REALLY SERIOUS and decided to supplement my music CDs and films with recorded Portuguese lessons in order to refine my listening ability, my grammar, and my pronunciation.

As a language teacher to adults for years I recommended the
Pimsleur series of tapes for people who wanted to get some basic
skills in the language before going to a foreign country. These and other

FSI tapes

courses are available in our store (Nossa Loja).

For serious learners I suggest the Foreign Service Institute’s
language tapes and books. In the 1980’s and 1990’s I used the
to teach Spanish to Americans working in Mexico. More recently
I chose them to help myself with Brazilian Portuguese.

These lessons were developed to help U.S. diplomats and cultural attachés quickly learn a language before they moved to a foreign country. The tapes and CDs were developed by teams of expert linguists to cover all aspects of the spoken language, in a way that would gradually build speaking and listening skills over time.

This is a very serious course and I made tremendous progress in Portuguese in just a few months of listening and repeating, while cruising along the freeways and streets of California.

Whichever tape or CD course you choose, just stick to it and you will rapidly begin to understand and speak Portuguese, probably much better than if you sat in a classroom four times a week for a couple of semesters.

Just think of all the time you now spend driving, sitting in waiting rooms, exercising or walking. You could put one of these courses on your iPod or your car CD player and make great progress when you would normally be doing something much less productive. 


On my first trip to Brazil I took along almost a suitcase full of books: half a dozen dictionaries, grammar manuals, verb lists, travel books, history, maps, and novels. It was a pain (literally, in my shoulder), but I needed the backup in order to continue learning.

Then I heard about Amazon’s Kindle, the electronic reader that’s


smaller than a thin paperback, yet can hold hundreds of books.

I bought a Kindle and the Kindle versions of most of the books I needed and, “Oba!” I had instant access to everything—on the plane, in cabs, in waiting rooms, sitting by the beach—wherever I wanted to go except in the water.  And I no longer had sore arms from hauling all those books through airports.

I even have a Kindle subscription for Rio’s main newspaper, O Globo ($9.99 per month), which I read every morning with my coffee. I learn Portuguese and keep up with the news—without getting ink on my hands.

When I bought my wife’s iPad we found that all the books on my Kindle could be transferred to her new toy for free by using the Kindle app that comes with each iPad at no cost. Owners can also buy Kindle books and have them appear on their iPad in less than a minute, usually less expensive than a traditional book.

The Kindle has many other features that I like, including adjustable letter size, which helps my tired eyes. I suggest you look into these e-readers. In our store (Nossa Loja) I included a section on books and learning aids for Kindle and iPad. 


Once you have a basic command of Portuguese, you’ll want to continue reading, watching movies, listening to music and language tapes, and writing down new words as they come up. By then these actions will have become habits that help you learn a little every day.

When you finally arrive in Brazil and begin to interact with the natives, you will be very glad and proud that you spent the time to learn Portuguese. You’ll receive so much praise from your new friends that you’ll never want to stop learning. A whole new world will be open to you, and your life will never be the same again.

As a final note, please write to tell me what you decide to do, how your progress goes, and anything special that you discover along the way. I enjoy the feedback, and will use your experience to help others.

Até breve (See you soon),


P.S.: Students of Portuguese often ask me where to find materials to help them learn. I finally decided to put together a list of items that I used (and continue to use). These are now available in our store (Nossa Loja) on this blog. A small part of the proceeds from the sale of these materials goes to help pay some of the expenses of setting up and maintaining this internet publication, with no additional cost to you. If you find these articles useful, please help support us. Obrigado!


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3 Responses to HOW I LEARNED PORTUGUESE — And How YOU Can Too!

  1. Anthony Monteiro

    Tom, gosto muito do seu website.


    • admin

      Muito obrigado, Antonio!

    • admin

      Muito obrigado, Antonio. As a new member of our San Diego conversation group, you are on the right track for improving your spoken Portuguese.

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