Learning a new language can be fast and cheap… if you don’t do it in the traditional way. Here’s how I learned Portuguese

I’ve seen a lot of people interested in learning a new language, but most of them don’t do it because they are intimidated about the language itself thinking it’s very complicated or thinking it could be expensive to learn.

Those are fair concerns and, depending on the language you want to learn and/or your native language, it could probably become more complicated to learn one language than other. But there’s only one way to know: by doing it!

Some background on why the traditional way was not really great for me

When I was 21, I got a job where I had to interact with English speakers and that forced me to use English everyday and I had to be able to communicate clearly, so I felt like all my language gaps where being filled little by little. I moved to the U.S. five years ago and my english has improved a lot from 10 years ago, but I’m still learning new words and phrases each day and honestly I don’t think I’ll ever finish learning.

Ever since I was 18, I wanted to learn a language different than English and I wanted it to be French just because it sounded nice (at least to me). However, I was very intimidated by it, it seemed so complex that I just kept relegating it for a long time. Finally, when I was 23, I decided to sign up for a traditional class (again) to go and learn it. It was expensive, it was a great experience since I made a some nice friends and I learned the language and the culture. However, when I dropped out of it after 8 levels, I could read, I could understand a lot, but I struggled speaking and writing it… Exactly the same problems I had with English. Which again, confirms that the traditional way is not the best way of learning a new language.

What are the main takeaways from these two experiences?:

  • It was very time consuming.
  • It was not cheap.
  • I got some good experiences, but still needed to improve a lot in order to be able to have meaningful conversations with native speakers.
  • Depending on the teacher, it can be either frustrating or boring. This happened to me in both classes, but on the French class was what made me decide to drop off after the 8th level.
  • If you’re not very exposed to the real language/slang and only learn from your teacher and the book, you won’t master the language.

Then what is the modern approach?

I promised myself that I would learn it and come back to enjoy my tourist experience even more. However, I started asking about classes and they were expensive and time consuming, but I didn’t want to fall in the same trap again so I didn’t do it until the end of 2018 and the results were great. Here’s how I did it:

1. Basics — Duolingo

This is an AMAZING application to learn languages. It’s fun, straightforward, if has some level of gamification built into it and, most importantly, it’s FREE. The key here is investing your time learning and going through all the levels, it progressively, increases the complexity and you get a very good foundation.

I spent 15 to 30 minutes daily and finished the whole Portuguese course in less than 6 months. I sometimes did more than that time, but it was because I got so engaged with it that I wanted to keep going.

2. Listening — TuneIn

By the time I had went through 65% or 75% percent of the Duolingo course, I started listening to the radio in Portuguese. TuneIn has thousands of radios and podcasts from all over the world and in all languages. Finding a radio in Portuguese was very easy, there’s all kinds of radios but I found it more useful listening to the news. I used to listen radios from Brazil and Portugal in order to get more familiar with different accents. And once again, everything for free.

The time I spent listening to the radio varied a lot, but the key was to not make it a boring task. I did it while I was doing other things. For example:

  • I was running 30 minutes to 2 hours on a daily basis back then, so I turned on my favorite Portuguese speaking radios and went on.
  • Whenever I took a shower (to me that’s 10 to 15 minutes) I was also listening to the radio.
  • When I was washing the dishes, I was also listening to the radio.

I kept listening to the radio during my whole learning journey and I still do from time to time.

3. Speaking and Writing — Busuu

This app is similar to a traditional course where you start from scratch and learn little by little, but the really powerful feature is that every lesson has an activity for speaking and/or writing which you submit and is reviewed by native speakers of the language you’re learning that are also learning other language. This may sound pretty simple, but feedback is one of the best tools to continuously improve. People would correct me on some pronunciation mistakes or on misspells, but also started getting some kudos like “You’re doing great”, “Your accent is amazing”, and the best I’ve ever had was “You’re speaking way better than a lot of people than I know from here in Brazil”.

Feedback like that just helps and motivates you to keep going, and shows you that you’re making progress. And to me, a honest feedback from a native speaker is way more valuable. This app is not free but it’s cheap, (compared to traditional presencial lessons) it costed only 10 USD/month.

It took me 6 months to finish all the levels available in Busuu. And again I was spending an average of 15 to 30 minutes a day on this. At the end I also made a couple of good friends that I still talk with, we usually chat and comment each other on social media.

4. Reading —Kindle

There are a lot of great resources out there for reading, here are my top ones:

  • Amazon Kindle: This is a free app for reading books. And this is, in my opinion, the best tool for reading. I’ll expand below
  • News: Just do some research and you’ll find thousands of news on the internet in that language, it’s up to you to chose what to read, just try to pick a topic you like so it doesn’t get boring.
  • Quora: Quora is one of my favorite sites. Here people post questions and other people answer, you can find great content from professionals in there. I used to spend a lot of time on Quora in English and Spanish, but I started also reading it in Portuguese.

As I said, the best tool for me was Kindle. I used the free app that I could install in my phone instead of the actual Kindle device (which is great too). There are several free and paid books in all the languages you can imaging. I recommend starting with either your favorite book that you read in your native language before or with a book with stories for kids, that way it should be easier to understand and get started without less frustration.

The two features that I love the most about kindle are:

  • It saves your progress on the book so you can get back to where you left off.
  • It has a built-in dictionary in the book’s language, so any time I didn’t know a word, I just highlighted it and then I could read the definition (not the translation) in Portuguese. That forced me to learn more.

I finished two books in Portuguese 2 months after I finished the Busuu courses and I knew I was ready for the main test.

Extra Tip

  • The language my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts.
  • The language of my laptop
  • The language of my browser
  • The language of my cell phone — This not only changed the Android operating system language, but a lot of apps automatically switched to Portuguese.

The results

I bought tickets to visit Rio de Janeiro with my family and went there during the end of 2019 — Right before COVID hit — and I was impressed with how I was able to communicate.

My family and Christ the redeemer in Brazil

I was communicating better in Portuguese after that whole year of learning than I was communicating in French or English after 4 years of traditional learning. I was talking with the taxi drivers, they showed explained a lot of the culture, social and political problems of Brazil; I could read and understand what they were saying in restaurants and museums; we met a few people on the building were we rented the apartment; and it was great overall. The only thing I hadn’t accounted for was that the people from Rio have a different accent which is more similar to the people from Portugal, so it took me a while to get used to it, but no biggie.

Not bad for 14 months learning, and $80 spent.

Software Engineer - VP Architect @Digitas

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