From our desk in Rio de Janeiro, July 2015
Subject: The Best Ways of Learning Portuguese (And How We Learned Them The Hard Way)
How long do you think it takes to learn a new language? Six months? A year? Ten years?
I naively thought that 10 weeks of night classes would be a good start. 2 hours of talking, listening and learning Portuguese would be a great start, right?
When I arrived in Brazil I was completely disheartened to find that almost nobody understand me, and the few phrases I had mastered were of almost zero use in my day-today life. Great.
I made the decision to move to Brazil in early 2011 after a short trip to Rio. My first time there, I spoke a few words – numbers, colours, etc – but couldn’t even hold the most rudimentary of conversations.
Returning with two suitcases (one full of BJJ gis) and enough money to last six months, I figured I could pick up enough of the language to get by in that time. It couldn’t be that hard, right?
As many other people have found out, very few people speak decent English in Brazil. Even in major tourist destinations like Rio de Janeiro, only a wealthy and well-educated minority will be able to speak English, and even then it’s usually pretty bad. The the vast majority of the 200million + people won’t have a clue what you’re saying.
Therefore, learning Portuguese before you arrive in Brazil can make your stay a lot easier and more enjoyable.
You’ll have an advantage over the many clueless tourists, you’ll make new friends and meet hot Brazilian chicks, you’ll win the respect of locals and avoid getting crushed when you rock up to a new BJJ gym, and you’ll avoid getting scammed.
Read on for our hard-learned lessons in learning Portuguese for jiu-jitsu and beyond.
The Train BJJ in Rio Guide to Learning Portuguese
Before You Arrive
1: Get a Good Dictionary
You may think that Google translate will be your best friend, but a small pocket dictionary will be far more useful and reliable than any app. Cellphone reception is notoriously slow and patchy in Rio, and flashing expensive smartphones in public is widely discouraged due to the risk of often-violent robbery. Therefore, good old-fashioned paper will serve you well.
From ordering in restaurants to figuring out travel directions, a pocket dictionary saved my ass more times than I can count. We recommend The Oxford Portuguese Mini Dictionary. It’s small enough to carry in your pocket and contains handy vocabulary and verb conjugations.
2: Practise at least an hour every day
The only way you’re going to get good at ANY language is practice, practice, practice. You need to put as much time in as possible, and at a minimum you should be doing 1 hour of active study per day, every single day of the week. If that sounds like a lot, think about this; it only adds up to 7 hours a week. You probably spend more time than that messing around on Snapchat, watching technique vidoes on YouTube or sat in traffic.
An hour a day working through a textbook, online learning program or what have you is nothing – in that time you can memorise vocabulary, rep your conjugations and practise your prepositions.
If an hour of active study is too much, then you should at least spend that time passively studying.
3: Can’t Study? Try Passive Exposure
Passive exposure to the language means listening and surrounding yourself with Portuguese wherever possible. This is a great way of preparing yourself for the environment you’ll experience when you arrive in Brazil.
Go to your phone and Facebook account and turn the language settings to Brazilian Portuguese. Now you’ll see common words and terms every single time you look swipe, click or scroll. It may seem confusing at first but you’ll soon adapt and feel comfortable, which exactly mirrors how it goes when you actually get to Brazil. You’ll pass through a period where everything is confusing, soon you’ll start recognising common things and later you’ll treat them as second nature.
Downloading Portuguese subtitles for English-language movies is a great way of learning new vocabulary and can help you pick up slang words that formal teaching may not expose you to.
4: Focus On What You’ll Use
If you’re going to train BJJ in Rio then it makes sense to learn as much jiu-jitsu specific terminology as possible! Most of your conversations will be about jiu-jitsu with other jiu-jitsu people, so master these first and the rest will follow easily.
Knowing the names of body parts, techniques and common commands are all essential. From there you’ll learn verbs and action words, and you’ll soon discover the difference between present and past tense. Asking local black belts to coach you on finer details of techniques is way more fun than trying to talk to a taxi driver or a rude waiter!
Take a look at our free guide to BJJ vocabulary to get started.
Once You’re in Brazil
5: Listen Carefully
Reading and writing are great for understanding how the language works, but spoken Portuguese is completely different to how it’s commonly written, and the strong city accents will leave you bamboozled and wondering if you’ve learnt anything at all. Mushy Carioca accents and harsh Paulista accents don’t match words as you probably imagine, so you need to familiarise yourself as much as possible with the rhythm and cadence of the language before you arrive.
Music, TV shows and films are a good place to start and can be easily downloaded or found on YouTube. Try to familiarise yourself with the sound of the language and don’t worry too much if you don’t understand everything. Pick out words you do recognise and listen to how they sound. Common films people like to watch include The Elite Squad (Tropa De Elite) and City of God. As for music, people love O Rappa.
6: Mimic Other People When You Speak
It may sound obvious, but try your best to speak like a local! You may feel weird like you’re putting on a fake accent, but Portuguese is a language that relies heavily on correct intonation (how the words sound). You may think you’re saying the words correctly, but a foreign accent can make it indecipherable.
Copy the sounds people make when they speak, don’t just sound out the words as you think you should be spoken. An up-twang or glottal stop will make all the difference between effective communication and complete dumbfoundedness.
Something that’ll feel really weird but will actually make you sound like a very proficent speaker, is to say English words with a Brazilian accent when speaking Portuguese. That means Facebook becomes “Facie-bookie”.
7: Just Like Jiu-Jitsu – Drill, And Get Your Reps In!
When you practice BJJ you learn a new technique and you try it out on someone. If it shows promise, you try it out on other people until you’ve nailed it. Speaking Portuguese is kind of the same.
Learn a particular phrase or series of questions that can create a basic conversation and try them out on someone. See how if they can understand, how they respond, whether they correct you, and what answers they give you. Then adapt and adjust based on their feedback, and try it out on somebody else. Go through the same process over and over and soon you’ll become more confident and comfortable in speaking with different people.
8: Speak Up! Don’t Be Shy
The only way to learn how to speak Portuguese is to actually SPEAK it as much as possible. That means getting out among the locals and not just hanging out with other English speakers (a common trap many visitors fall into). Going out and hooking up with new groups of people in bars will usually mean you meet Brazilians who speak English, but asking them to help you learn Portuguese is cheaper than any language class!
This may be obvious but getting a Brazilian girl/boyfriend is ideal, but be careful they’re not just using you to practise their English!
You have to really, really want to try if you’re serious about learning Portuguese. It’s not going to happen overnight but even a little bit helps and can have a massive impact on your time in Rio. People will appreciate you making the effort, you’ll get less hassle in stores, restaurants and in taxis, and you’ll have a completely different experience to most visitors.