- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

Learning Portuguese Over 2 Months + 1 Week

I originally wrote this article about learning Portuguese in the last week of our stay in Brazil. Now, more than a month later, we’re finally able to upload the video. Hopefully the nearly one-month lateness of this post doesn’t confuse anyone.


It’s my last week here in Brazil, learning Portuguese. Vat and I landed a little over two months ago in Florianopolis with the goal of not speaking English the entire time. I wanted to share my thoughts on our progress, as well as how it differed from Spain, the first country of our four-part journey.

Overall Language Progress

Before I go into details, I thought I’d cut to the chase. I feel my Portuguese is a solid intermediate level, as is Vat’s. My Portuguese is weaker than my Spanish was after three months (as opposed to ~2 in Brazil), but they’re roughly in the same ballpark in terms of functional ability.

More specifically, I feel I can hold a conversation in Portuguese about most topics, and I can quite easily have one with Vat. I can read books in Portuguese with roughly the same fluency as I could in Spanish. Group conversations and following movies and television are still tricky, but they also were with Spanish after three months.

I’d consider this second leg to be a success, although a qualified one. Learning Portuguese, after Spanish, is a considerably easier task than learning only Spanish (or indeed, the two Asian languages we’ll be tackling next). So while I’m happy with our ability after two months, I still think we could have done better in some aspects.

Comparing Spanish and Portuguese

Although our level of Spanish and Portuguese wound up around the same, the level of effort we put in was quite different.

In Spain, I put quite a bit of emphasis on maintaining a no-English environment, watching television shows in Spanish, reading books in Spanish and listening to music in Spanish. In Brazil, I relaxed those rules and read/watched the shows I wanted to.

As someone who reads/watches a lot on the internet, going no-English in my input was harder than going no-English in my output. That said, I don’t feel the results of the two were the same. Not speaking English dramatically impacted my rate of learning (compared to French, which I neither restricted output nor input), but the further step of restricting output I felt had only a moderate boost.

I sense this was because I was primarily judging myself on my ability to hold conversations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, forcing yourself to hold conversations in a language has a larger impact on your conversational ability than watching movies or reading books. Had my standards been somewhat different (primarily wanting to read literature or watch television) the input/output difference might have reversed.

In Spain, I also studied more, using grammar books to learn the rules of expressing myself. In Brazil, Vat and I went to a regular Portuguese class, but that was the extent of our formal study. As such, I feel I have a slightly better grasp of Spanish grammatical rules than Portuguese.

Why the Change of Strategy?

Our reasons for being lazier in Brazil was partially a chance to relax a bit before tackling Chinese. The other reasons had more to do with work. Vat spent more than half of this trip working nearly full-time processing his grad school applications and editing the video for Spain. I also worked quite a bit more, catching up on some business work that had been getting neglected in Spain.

Given the lack of formal effort put into learning Portuguese, I think we did quite well, which is a testament to the no-English rule. After having tackled three languages, it remains my favorite learning method because of its simplicity and ability to focus your learning energies on what actually matters to you when communicating.

Experience of Living in Brazil

From the beginning of our planning stages, Vat and I decided this trip would be about depth more than breadth. As a result, in Spain we spent over two months in Valencia, and only two weeks traveling. Brazil was even shorter, so we spent the entire time in one place.

I think this kind of travel has tradeoffs. It’s cheaper, less tiring and you get to form deeper friendships. But, the downside is that you don’t get a good survey of what a culture is like in general. We spent all our time in Florianopolis, so I’m not in the best position to comment on what life is like in Rio, São Paulo or Belo Horizonte.

Florianopolis is an island in one of the southern states in Brazil. It’s relatively safe and affluent with forest-carpeted mountains, encircled by miles of natural beaches.

We ended up staying in Barra da Lagoa, a small fishing village on the far side of the island, outside of the main city. It was a great location for surfing, after taking a few lessons, I bought a surfboard to practice during the two months we were there.

I enjoyed the proximity of the beach and the great weather, but I’m more of a city person so the small town life was occasionally frustrating. Withdrawing cash, for example, meant spending an afternoon taking buses to the next city which had the only ATMs.

Being in a small, tourist town, also made it a bit harder to make friendships. Although we had a couple good local friends by the end of our stay, many of the people we met were other travelers, only passing by for a few days. In Spain we had plenty of other foreign friends, but they tended to be exchange students who were staying for as long as we were.

Learning Portuguese from Spanish

The language burden in Brazil was considerably less than it will be in the other three countries, because of the similarities between Spanish and Portuguese. Some linguists classify the two as being dialects of the same language, because they are at least somewhat mutually intelligible.

I didn’t notice the mutual intelligibility in the first week, which I noted here. Perhaps our Spanish wasn’t advanced enough to pick out the similarities, or Peninsular Spanish is simply further away from Brazilian Portuguese, but when we had a couple emergencies, we broke down to speaking English as nobody understood our Spanish.

After spending two months in Brazil, however, I can say that the similarities between the two languages greatly facilitated the learning process. The grammar is more or less the same, especially at basic levels. Where vocabulary differs, there are often systematic differences, meaning you can quickly add a lot of likely vocabulary just by learning a few rules for translating between Spanish and Portuguese.

The biggest worry I had going into Brazil wasn’t learning Portuguese, but forgetting my Spanish. Although Vat and I did bump into this problem, it turned out to be less severe than I had experienced with my French. For one, we got the chance to practice our Spanish semi-regularly with the Argentinians who were also traveling to Floripa.

The recency of learning Spanish also seemed to help, since I could still remember the rules in Spanish, so when they differed in Portuguese I could make a mental note not to transfer the newly learned concept back to my Spanish. With French, I suffered from this more simply because I had forgotten many of the rules formally (I was speaking from habits) which made it more difficult to maintain the barrier between the two languages later.

I think the ultimate solution to picking up a third or fourth language is to maintain some kind of practice schedule for your prior languages. I plan to schedule a half hour each week of Skype in each of the languages I’m learning to prevent them from deteriorating when I return to speaking English.

For those looking to see a longer, unedited look at our ability, you can see an interview we did here in Portuguese. Again, I feel our level is somewhat worse than Spanish, but in the same ballpark.

This time I didn’t try to include our errors in the subtitles, so the lack of subtitled errors shouldn’t lead you to believe our Portuguese is error-free!