Week 5 – Keep Calm and Learn Brazilian Portuguese

I have always had a dream about living in Brasil. I do not know what attracts me there, it has always seemed an exotic and warm place where I could have both worked as an engineer but where I could picture my personal life blooming.

Along my educational and professional experiences I have met several Brazilian expatriates and friendship have quickly grown each time. The more I have been talking to my new acquaintances the more I received confirmation that the quality of life they were talking about was exactly what I had expected. We would be in contact via our professional Skype messenger during the day,and because of the time difference it would be early afternoon in Paris when they were getting to office in Rio. And the typical summary of their morning could be “Hey! This morning I went for a run on the beach but it was too hot so i had a swim in the sea”. No comment.

So for years I have tried to learn Portuguese with no real trip planned. In the meantime I have been all around Europe but also to Turkey, Thailand, Hong Kong, Dubai, New York (3 times), Washington DC, Italy regularly, but have never found the time (one short week) to book a ticket to visit my dream country. I think I always pictured myself moving there for work but not before.

Anyways, not only I had no incentive to learn the language quickly, but although I speak fluently Italian and understand Spanish very well, Portuguese, and more particularly Brazilian Portuguese, has remained pretty mysterious to me and doesn’t sound familiar at all.

Then 2 things happened to me a few weeks ago.

First I learnt via different sources about Benny Lewis “Fluent in 3 months” blog.

“I’m not gifted with languages. I don’t have the “language gene” (if such a thing exists). How do I know? I struggled with languages for years. […] By the time I reached my 20’s I could still only speak English. […] While in Spain, I met a guy who changed my life. […] He explained that to speak a language, you’ve just got to start speaking it. There’s no magic, he said. You only need a willingness to make mistakes. […] I tried his advice, and I’ve never looked back since.” Benny Lewis

I am generally willing to buy any book about self-development but since I am already confident with languages I decided to listen to the Blinkist summary first and see if I could use any advice and why he could learn any language so fast while I was still struggling with a language that was so similar to the ones I already spoke.

No incredible technique is explained in the book unfortunately, and the only thing I assimilated is that you need to dedicate at least 2 hours a day to it. And find different ways to listen to the language, to exercise yourself in writing and speaking. The main advice is: don’t wait until you are fluent to speak, don’t be shy, fin people to speak to, no one will judge and that is the only way to improve your skills. You can find additional techniques in Benny’s TEDx video hereunder:

Actually, that made sense. I had been studying English for more than 10 years before I moved for a year exchange in the UK in 2009. Although I could understand everything I realized that I could not express myself as fluently as I thought I would in my mind. I also realized I had a terrible accent and I was struggling to express clearly my thoughts with native speakers. In fact, because I had always been shy, I had always avoided speaking English while on holidays abroad. I would always let the other speak if possible. But after a few months with no other choice than to speak all day with my fellow students and teachers I improved so much more than in the past years. Bottom line is, if Benny could learn any language so fast I could too, I just needed commitment.

Wedding in Rio

Second event: 3 weeks ago one of my dear friends that I have not seen in 3 years (because he lives on the other side of the ocean) called to invite me to his wedding in Brazil in May. Destiny was calling. We were in February, the wedding is in May, I had exactly 3 months to learn Portuguese. No turn of events could be more of a sign that it was the perfect time to finally get into it!

How I am learning Brazilian daily

Last year I tried to listen to some Brazilian news channels but the subjects were boring and I could not get subtitles to get used to the pronunciation. It was also very difficult to find movies translated in Portuguese online.

This year I had a little advantage: I have recently subscribed to Netflix and to my great surprise a lot of TV shows are translated in Brazilian. And include subtitles!

After looking for a TV show that had enough episodes my choice was set on an old but classic TV show: Gilmore Girls, 7 seasons (plus the new ones ongoing), a lot of rich dialogues, I was served!




By the way, I started this challenge 3 weeks ago and I am already on season 3. I cannot speak nor write yet but the oral comprehension is improving fast!

Reading and writing

I have also been looking for books in Brazilian, possibly easy and compelling stories that I would be motivated to read. Because it is difficult (even on Amazon) to find books translated in Portuguese I looked directly for Brazilian authors. I obviously thought about Paulo Coelho, the very famous novelist, author of the Alchemist (“According to The Washington Post, Paulo Coelho has sold an estimated 350 million books and is the all-time bestselling Portuguese-language author”).

In parallel, while browsing to find a podcast App in Portuguese on my phone I actually found a free application that grants free access to several books from this author called English Stories – by Paulo Coelho.

So last week I purchased Na margem do rio piedra eu sentei e chorei (aka “By the River Pedra I Sat Down and Wept”), a compelling love story from what I have read so far. Basically I read a few pages in English on the App first and then read the Brazilian version of the same pages while also writing down all the unknown vocabulary and the associated translation. Not only I use these cards to memorize new words in Portuguese but it also forces me to exercise my writing.

Next step

The most important advice from Benny Lewis remains to practice talking as often as possible. This I will be working on next months!

Additional insight: This very interesting blog post How To Learn In 2 Days What Normally Takes 6 Months includes a paragraph about how to assimilate fast concepts or languages that people normally need months to learn.

Context-Based Learning

How the Mormon church trains their young missionaries to speak foreign languages so efficiently has garnered lots of attention. When an 18 or 19 year old enters the “Missionary Training Center” (MTC), they enter something of a language learning boot camp. Students at the MTC learn in a few weeks what takes most college students three or four years.

Many universities have applied the MTC’s methods to their language learning curricula. The U.S. Military has also studied and teamed with the MTC for decades to better understand how to efficiently train their soldiers. As a result, the Army’s Intelligence Brigade, based in Utah, draws on former Mormon missionaries to fill their ranks.

So what are some of the MTC methods?

Primarily, the MTC uses what is called, “Context-based learning.” They start by reciting a phrase and working on the pronunciation. Once the student has a basic grasp, they are put into groups of two to role-play real world scenarios. Role-plays make up approximately 70% of learning at the MTC — learning while doing — with a teacher standing by to individually coach when needed.

The system is simple:

  1. Learn a concept
  2. Practice and use that concept in a real-world scenario
  3. Get coaching and feedback
  4. Repeat
  5. Get coaching and feedback

Interestingly, researchers examined the effects of role-playing on the self-concept of shy adolescents. One group of adolescents got traditional discussion-based training while another did role-play based training. The group that did role-plays experienced a significant positive change in their self-concept, which has a significant impact on their behaviors.

In our digital world, simulation training — based on role-playing real world scenarios— is becoming increasing popular.

Additionally, research has found that getting consistent feedback is essential to effective learning.


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