When the graded tests were handed back, in my corner of the classroom I was surrounded by a German, a Frenchman, a couple of Brits and a South African – all excitedly comparing their high scores. I would coyly move my elbow to cover my grade with a fixed la-di-da expression that masked my discomfort of not getting it.

At that time, I’d been in Portugal for about 6 months and was eager to jump right into the language. I dismissed the “it’s a difficult language” quip that almost everyone spouted when I mentioned I was starting lessons. By and large, the most sympathy came from the Portuguese – usually sharing their kind sentiments – delivered in perfect fluid English.

But I didn’t want to acknowledge the difficulty – I mean where would I go with that? So, struggling through three months and three tests later, I did manage to pass the A-1 level Portuguese for Foreigners course that the government so generously offers to immigrants for free.

Thinking about lessons? Go easy on yourself

I want to share some things I learned on my way to speaking hellos, goodbyes, thank you, excuse me and I’d like my coffee with milk. I’d suggest these points I’m going to mention aren't reasons to delay picking up Portuguese. Instead, see them as ways of easing any guilt you might have about your hesitation in getting started.

My Portuguese language teacher, Raquel Gonçalves, is upbeat, fun and supportive. She’s a serious student herself who’s completing her PhD in teaching Portuguese to refugees – a desperate group of people who are fleeing to safety and looking to quickly assimilate into Portuguese culture – think Ukrainians. That’s a far cry from my situation as an American who is surrounded by Portuguese who speak English – where, frankly, it’s easy to let my lessons slide. Nonetheless, it’s clear to me Raquel applies her compassion equally to all her students regardless of their circumstances. She agreed to have a sit-down with me to offer her insight and guidance on Americans learning Portuguese and the particular challenges involved.

Credits: Supplied Image; Author: Becca Williams;

Americans aren’t pressed to learn other languages

Raquel points out that we Americans don’t have a tradition of learning other languages, so generally, we’ve not cultivated an aptitude for language learning. This is in contrast to Europe, for example, where the proximity of the different European countries encourages learning other tongues.

As an American, I can also add the obvious that we likely become complacent knowing that, lucky us, English is the great common denominator and is the language of business used around the world. As Americans in the U.S. we’re marinated in English language movies and music. Think about it. In the U.S., to see a foreign flick we usually have to go out of our way to find an indy film house.

The opposite is true in Portugal and, as Raquel points out the Portuguese are immersed in the movies and music of America, which supports their language learning process. (I am amazed how often in grocery stores, restaurants, and mall shops American tunes are the musical backdrop.)

Aside from that, Raquel notes that overall the Portuguese tend to be very good at speaking other languages because their native tongue includes so many different sounds compounded by a complex vowel system. Hence their proficiency in Portuguese, she says, gives them a leg-up on learning other languages. Have you noticed? Many Portuguese speak not only English but often French and German and Spanish too.

In fact, my English-speaking Portuguese friends and acquaintances will off-handedly mention how easy it was for them to learn English. This is an eye-roller for me as I’m a former television reporter and anchor who prided myself on being a master of the English language. Oh well.

Start with the right lessons and the little things …

When looking to start lessons, Raquel says, for Americans – especially just starting out, it’s beneficial to have a teacher who can speak English in order to translate back-and-forth so that we can get the full context in English. She believes that in the early stages, it’s easier for us to learn that way as opposed to the approach where a teacher never translates for the students. I believe it’s true as I have heard so many American immigrants say they dropped out of language classes because they were lost with a teacher who wouldn’t translate.

Credits: Supplied Image; Author: Becca Williams;

While you decide whether (or when) you’re going to start language lessons, Raquel offers tips for us to dip our toe in the water of the Portuguese language. She says listening to the country’s music is a great way of getting in contact with the language as it gets us used to the different sounds – even if we don’t understand the sounds. “A very pleasant way of having contact with the language,” she notes, “is listening to the radio while you’re driving or watching Portuguese TV. I also tell students to stroll outside and try to recognize some words dipping into a conversation, while sitting outdoors or eating in a restaurant.”

In the end, she advises, that what the Portuguese really enjoy is that foreigners simply make an effort to say some words in the language. “In the first class I always teach about the social codes we use,” she tells me, “because this has an impact when you're talking to the Portuguese people. Whether you’re at a supermarket or at a restaurant, we like these interactions – so knowing the basics is important.”

In my class of 20, I was the only American. And when I started casually asking my fellow students how long they’d been in Portugal before taking lessons, the least amount of time was about 4 years; others had been living here upwards of ten years and finally getting around to seriously learning Portuguese. Call it a silly rationalization, but this allowed me a sigh of relief knowing that immersion in the culture is a helpful dimension even before the formal lessons begin.

If you would like to enquire about the free Portuguese government language courses, you can email: GLPT@acm.gov.pt and tell them you'd like to register for language lessons where you live. Good luck!

Becca Williams practices Portuguese in Lagos, her newly adopted town on Portugal’s southern coast. Contact her at AlgarveBecca@gmail.com


Becca Williams is originally from America but is now settling into small town living in Lagos, a seaside town on Portugal’s southern coast. Contact her at AlgarveBecca@gmail.com

Becca Williams