Learning Portuguese, I think I’m learning Portuguese, I really think so…


Boa tarde! Chamo-me Sarah. Vivo em Trespostos, perte Castanheira de Pera. Estou em Portugal há três semanas.

Yes, we’ve had our first Portuguese lesson – it was meant to be last week, but I had one of my can’t-get-out-of-bed-until-lunchtime headaches so we missed it.

At first, we thought the lessons might be a bit chaotic for us – there are two other English couples in the class who have been going for some time and ‘helped’ by throwing in their tuppence worth frequently which made it a bit difficult to concentrate on what the teacher (Teresinha, meaning little Teresa) was saying. That settled down though and we quite liked the casual format of the class – a bit like a group conversation with English and Portuguese intermingled, depending on ability.

One of the students said she had been told to give herself ten years to become fluent, which I thought seemed a bit excessive. And then Teresinha gave us our first notes about Portuguese grammar….

There are four different forms of the definite article (like the English the), depending on the combination of masculine/feminine and singular/plural.

There are many ways of forming a plural, depending which letter the singular ends in. For instance, if the singular ends in l, you must look at the vowel that precedes the l – if it is an i, the l changes to an s but if it is any other vowel, the l changes to is. Even more complicated are words that end in ão, of which there are many in Portuguese. The plural is made by replacing the ão with either ãos, ões or ães. As our notes say (I love this) ‘The correct choice is the difficult part….’ I think we learn how to make the correct choice in a more advanced lesson.

Adjectives must agree with the noun they are qualifying – if the noun is feminine and plural, the adjective must also be in the feminine and plural form. As far as I can see, this means that there are four forms of every adjective too – you can’t just learn that ‘novo’ means new, you also need to learn nova, novos and novas.

Help! It isn’t helped by the fact that, when David & I were at school, they didn’t bother teach you what things like definite and indefinite articles are (I can hear our parents tutting from here), so we are having to learn that too. Suddenly ten years seems very generous.

It all seems very complicated (actually, it is very complicated), but Teresinha reminded us of some of the difficulties of learning English that we just take for granted – the different meanings of well and well, read and read, tear and tear for instance. She also learned that oo is pronounced oo as in food, until she came across flood and blood. Although there are some subtle differences in the pronunciation of some Portuguese words there aren’t any that look or sound exactly the same but mean something completely different depending on the context. That’s alright then!

Having said that, we both left with a feeling that we had learnt something and might have a fighting chance of mastering the language. In fact, we were able to go to the supermarket and ask for (and find!) a cheese made without animal rennet. In rather basic, pidgin Portuguese but not bad when you consider we’ve only been here three weeks. We’ll get there.



6 responses »

  1. And of course English plurals can be confusing – mouse/mice but house/houses for instance. You’ll get there in the end, but it sounds like a long slog.

  2. Bula ,[ Fiji Greeting ] I am very impressed.
    50+ years ago my Dutch ,French language teacher was very un impressed that the class needed English grammar lessons first !!

  3. Have I ever mentioned that I studied English, French and Latin? (Didn’t everybody back then?). I say, you only need to be understood. Your average Portuguese footballer speaks enough English to get by but will never win a literature prize in any of the languages he or she speaks. Sorry – have to go. I’ll wax lyrical about this some other time.

  4. Anyway, as I was saying, it is indeed an impressive target to set yourselves a 10-year goal to become proper fluent. But I reckon you don’t really need to know the “passive pluperfect…” whatever; you just need to be able to have a chat. ie some vocab and a bit of grammar. As you say, if you can do English, you can do Portuguese. Hey David, maybe you could use a bit of PNG pidgin? It’s a good example – a lot of people speak it but not many can spell it and it as virtually no grammar at all. Mi laikim.

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