Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Film Review: "Central Station" ("Central do Brasil")

"Central Station" is the best Brazilian film that I have seen so far.  The story line doesn't sound very interesting:  a rather cynical and unhappy woman (Dora) writes letters for illiterate people in Rio's Central Station.  Events throw her together with a young boy (Josué) whose mother had dictated a letter to Dora minutes before her death.  After an initial moral lapse (I don't want to give away too much of the story), Dora grudgingly does the right thing and reluctantly accompanies the boy on his quest to find his father, who lives thousands of kilometers from Rio. The film follows them on their journey, which proves to be more challenging than either of them had expected.  

The film won several international awards, a Golden Globe, received two Academy Award nominations, and was widely acclaimed.

What is it about this 1998 film that makes it so wonderful?  First of all, there is perfect casting in every role.  Fernanda Montenegro *is* Dora, and in spite of her character's many faults, she manages to make you care about her.  She also allows the character to gradually develop and change in a credible way, so that by the end of the film, the transformation that has occurred is totally believable. Vinícius de Oliveira plays Josué, and the chemistry he has with Montenegro matches the story line perfectly.  He does not treat her as if she were his mother, his aunt, or even his grandmother, but instead as a rather cranky friend whom he does not really trust at the beginning.  

Part of the key to the film's success is its steadfast refusal to allow sentimentality to overtake the story.  The characters do let down their guard and become closer as the film progresses, but they never become maudlin.  

The film's director, Walter Salles, does a remarkable job keeping things moving along at just the right pace. Most of the movie is filmed in the sertão of Brazil, with dusty roads, sparse landscapes, and desolate truck stops, but Salles and his cinematographer never miss the opportunity to frame shots that are surprisingly beautiful.  His eye for color and composition is amazing, and the film is a pleasure to watch for the visual element alone.  The film has a certain European sensibility, so it didn't come as a surprise that the producer, who takes part in the commentary track, along with Salles and Montenegro, was influenced by Italian directors.  

The script was written by two writers in their mid-twenties, and based on the information in the commentary, it was the first non-documentary project for both of them. They managed to get it right. The soundtrack is also excellent.  The music has just enough presence that you're aware of it, but without ever interfering with the story.  

The DVD was clearly aimed at the American market, so the title and opening credits are all in English, and the film's only subtitles are large and yellow, and they appear so near the bottom of the frame that they rarely interfere with the image.  There are no Spanish or Portuguese subtitles, and the only audio tracks are the original Portuguese (so glad that they didn't dub it!) and the commentary track.  The commentary track is definitely worth listening to after viewing the film the first time.  The strong feelings of mutual respect that the three commentators have for each other, and the love that all of them have for their film, comes across very powerfully. 

The DVD's image transfer and the audio are both very clear, surprisingly so for a film of this age. There are times when it's somewhat difficult to hear the characters when they mutter something as an aside or under their breath, but this just makes it feel more realistic.  

I've already watched this film several times, and each time, I see or hear something new.  Highly recommended!


  • DVD sold on Amazon
  • DVD rental from Netflix
  • Streaming video from Amazon Instant Video (for purchase only, costs more than buying the DVD)

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Spiral Approach Applied to Language Learning

The so-called spiral approach to learning has been incorporated in programs and textbooks in various subject areas.  It is one of the distinguishing features of the program "Everyday Math," which has been adopted in many public school systems to teach elementary students.  

As described in Wikipedia, the spiral approach is "a technique often used in teaching or textbooks where first the basic facts of a subject are learned, without worrying about details. Then as learning progresses, more and more details are introduced, while at the same time they are related to the basics which are reemphasized many times to help enter them into long-term memory."

This approach is consistent with the graduated interval or spaced repetition that is used in the Pimsleur language program, which has been the basis for my Portuguese language instruction.  The main elements which the two approaches have in common is that neither expects total mastery the first, second, or even third time that a word or concept is taught.  Instead, both approaches incorporate adequate repetition of the material that has already been introduced, so that the student can be assured that he/she will encounter it again, and eventually the content will become so familiar that the student will master it, but without excessive rote memorization.  

This helps to relieve the anxiety that many learners experience when they first encounter new material.  This is particularly helpful in learning a new language, where the student needs to be focusing all of his or her mental energy on listening carefully to the sounds and rhythms of the language, and then reproducing these sounds.  Since every language has distinctive sounds, and no two languages have an identical set of sounds, every student of a new language must work hard to produce new sounds.  Add to this the challenge of acquiring a new vocabulary and a new grammar, as well as a new sound-symbol correlation, and the student is already going to have a great deal on his mind.  Anxiety not only wastes the student's mental energy, it adds unnecessary stress to a process that can be inherently stressful, even to a highly motivated student.

One of the biggest payoffs of these approaches is the very positive impact that they can have on a student's confidence in his or her ability to learn a new language.  With Pimsleur, by lesson 4 or 5, the student has heard and repeated some of the most basic phrases often enough that they come almost as naturally as his or her native language.  There is no need to do even a fast mental translation.  The first time I realized that I was saying something in Portuguese without having to think about what I was going to say, was truly gratifying.  I have studied a variety of languages, several over the course of a few years in college, and I had never had this automaticity occur so quickly in other programs.  

The biggest problem with Pimsleur is that it is outstanding as far as it goes, but then the student must supplement it in order to get a complete exposure to the language, including reading and writing.  This requires finding materials which complement the program, and that can be a challenge.  I am on level 3 of Pimsleur, and haven't yet begun a formal, chapter-by-chapter approach with a textbook.  Instead, I have used a grammar book, a textbook, several dictionaries, and some "teach yourself" type books to find additional material or to answer questions which Pimsleur raises but does not explicitly answer.  

I also started attempting to read Portuguese books and articles within a week or two of starting with Pimsleur.  This was a sobering experience, because I lacked adequate vocabulary to read much of anything without great difficulty.  So I scaled back and read simple dialogues and other written material in some of the books that I had found.  I did continue to read newspaper articles, but instead of translating them, I used them for practice reading aloud.  This helped me to develop a smoother spoken language, even if I wasn't always positive about the pronunciations and often had no idea what many of the words meant.  I wanted to break past the word-by-word tendency that many new learners have, and this helped.  I realized that my pronunciations were not always correct, but I didn't worry about it.  

So without even thinking about it, I was already applying my own form of the spiral approach.  I did this by not waiting until I had reached a certain level of mastery before I challenged myself with exposure to more difficult materials, but instead of trying to read or translate the harder texts perfectly, I used them for my own purposes, which was to gain greater fluency with the way the language looks and sounds…. and in terms of the sounds, settling for the best I was able to do.  This also helped me to find which sound-symbol relationships were the most difficult for me.  In the case of Portuguese, these were the nasals.  

One thing that a learner must be aware of if he or she uses the spiral approach, is that it can cause you to experience unrealistic highs and lows as you learn the language.  There were days when I thought I was really making significant progress, because for whatever reason, all of my exposure to Portuguese reinforced what I already knew and gave me the feeling that I knew more than I actually did. This felt pretty good!  But then they would be followed by days where one or more elements of my program reminded me that I am still at a very, very elementary stage.  This can be humbling, and if you don't watch it, it can be discouraging.  In some cases, a certain Pimsleur lesson might introduce a lot of new structures or vocabulary or even combinations of sounds that were really hard to say.  I would repeat the lesson, and though I'd do better the second or third time, in most cases, I just forged ahead, knowing that the challenging parts would recur in succeeding lessons.  And of course they did, and each time I grappled with them, I got better.  

I have found that listening to Brazilian music and watching Brazilian films has been a vital part of my language learning.  In both cases, there is a pleasant combination of entertainment along with the ability to recognize certain very familiar words or phrases.  On top of that, you get a lot of practice listening and developing an even better ear for the distinctive sounds and intonations of the language.  Subtitles in English are essential for me when I first watch a Brazilian film, but then I try to watch sections of it without subtitles, after I have seen the film at least once.  Sometimes, Portuguese subtitles are provided, and these can be even more helpful, but they often do not match perfectly what is actually being said.  

I have a Portuguese novel which I download onto my Kindle app way back when I first started learning. At that time, I could barely read a sentence without stopping to look up words. I have gone back to it every week or two, and each time, I'm able to read ore.  I just looked at it again today, and was surprised at how much I could read without having to consult anything.  I'm still not ready to read the whole book yet, but it's a great way to measure my progress, even better than my growing ability to ready news articles, which change from day to day.  Having the same book as a benchmark is sort of like having a pair of jeans that you want to wear after you have lost weight on a diet. 

Of course, when you construct your own spiral approach to learning, you cannot be certain that you might not be leaving out something important, so it's crucial to eventually work through a textbook or written program of some sort.  But at the beginning and intermediate phases, a judicious application of the spiral approach, along with a solid audio program, or an audio-visual program like Rosetta Stone, can be a way to maintain your motivation and interest without bogging  you down with a textbook which you may or not be ready to tackle.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Helpful Website and Other Favorite Resources

Early on in my study of Portuguese, I found a wonderful website called "Hacking Portuguese," by a woman in California who has spent the last several years learning Brazilian Portuguese. 

I left a comment with some questions, among them how to deal with Portuguese nasals, and she very helpfully suggested that I could use my knowledge of French nasal sounds with Portuguese. That was a real eye-opener and proved to be excellent advice.

She also listed some resources, including some excellent books. That list was exactly what I needed. 

I had already found a small phrasebook at Barnes and Noble, mostly designed for European Portuguese, but including references to Brazilian as well. It is called Conversational Portuguese in 7 Days, and while the promise of acquiring conversational skills in any language in seven days is a bit of a stretch, it does include a surprising amount of information for such a small book. It seems to be primarily designed for British travelers to Portugal, but covers a great deal and is fairly well organized, with lots of dialogues, basic grammar, and illustrations.

I also found a book on Amazon called Say It Right in Brazilian Portuguese: The Fastest Way to Correct Pronunciation. This book includes pronunciation of common phrases using a special modified alphabet that was actually pretty helpful, especially with words or phrases that were giving me trouble in Pimsleur. When I bought it, it only cost about $6 and it was worth it.

My next purchase was Pois Não, a comprehensive course for Spanish speakers who are learning Brazilian Portuguese. I will write a longer review of this book, but for now, I have to say that for the $26 cost, it is a real bargain. It covers all the main elements of grammar, and even includes a separate grammar reference. It is definitely aimed at students who have some level of knowledge of Spanish, and includes lists of vocabulary as well as sentences which only appear in Portuguese and Spanish. However, all of the explanations are in English, so it’s good for a native English speaker who has knowledge of Spanish but isn’t fluent.  The book also includes a CD which contains audio tracks to help with pronunciation, and even has video clips which show native speakers articulating various sounds, to help assist the learner.

I also bought a small DK Portuguese-English picture dictionary, for about $10, and perhaps the single best resource so far, Whitlam’s Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar: A Practical Guide, which had been highly recommended by the author of "Hacking Portuguese." This book also needs a review of its own, but for now, suffice to say that it is indispensable.

Also indispensable is the Larousse Concise English-Portuguese/Portuguese-English Dictionary, which cost about $12. Well-bound for a paperback, large enough to be easy to read, and so far, it's had the words I have needed. Even the pronunciation guide is pretty good, and it has helped me pronounce words that I wasn't sure about.

A Frequency Dictionary of Portuguese (Routledge Frequency Dictionaries) cost a little over $30, but it's a good way to see what words are most often used in the language, and each includes not only a definition but a sample sentence.

Another great, small, inexpensive book that I took a gamble on was 50 Ways to Improve Your Portuguese: A Teach Yourself Guide (Teach Yourself Language). This one cost a grand total of $5.66, and was written by two women who have taught Portuguese to English-speaking students. It comes with a free 20 minute audio download for pronunciation, and includes lots of very good information. It’s an excellent supplement to the grammar book, because it really focuses on the areas that are likely to give English-speakers trouble. They also do a very good job of explaining things and giving enough examples to illustrate the points they cover.

Please note that as of May, 2012, which is when this post was written, all of the above books are still available on, but both the availability and the prices are subject to change.  

Learning Brazilian Portuguese: Early Challenges with Pronunciation

Coming to Portuguese from Spanish has some advantages, but it also offers some significant challenges, especially in the area of pronunciation. The reason for this is that there are so many words that appear exactly the same, or almost the same, when written, but which sound quite different. The difficulty is that when you see or hear a word that looks or sounds almost like a word that you know in Spanish, you have to work very hard not to pronounce it as you would in Spanish, since this will almost always be the incorrect pronunciation in Portuguese. 

The first lesson of Pimsleur Portuguese Level One challenged me from the beginning. I heard the phrase "com licença" and I wanted to say "con," with a clearly articulated "n", but I could tell that wasn’t right. Thus began my introduction to the many nasal vowels and diphthongs of Brazilian Portuguese. I had a lot of trouble with certain words, too. Usually, these were words that were similar to Spanish or English words, so I had to unlearn prior pronunciations and get them out of my head before I could learn the new ones.

"Restaurante" was one of them. Wow! First, there’s the "h" sound that the initial "r" represents. OK, was this like the "h" sound for "r" in French, as in "restaurant" or "au revoir"? Not exactly, though it sounds close. The "au" is more of an "ow" sound than I was making at first, and then the "an" has a nasalized "a," though the pronunciation did differ somewhat between the two native speakers on Pimsleur. Finally, there is the "chee" sound of the "te" at the end, which became familiar as I moved through the lessons, but took a while to get used to.

The phrase "eu tenho" was another. First, there’s the pronunciation of "eu," which sometimes sounds almost like Spanish "yo," but usually has a very definite "oo" sound at the end, and sometimes almost disappears depending on what follows it. And "tenho" has a very soft "nh" sound, not really like "ñ" in Spanish, and certainly not "ng" that one hears in the Spanish “tengo.”

It also took me a long time to eliminate the "a" between forms of the verb "ir" followed by an infinitive. This was a very hard habit to break. I'd hear "Eu vou comprar alguma coisa," and I'd be thinking "Voy a comprar algo," and the "a" would sneak in when I repeated the sentence in Portuguese. 

Getting used to final "o" having an "oo" sound took some time, too. It was only after I was about halfway through the first level that I started to break old habits and develop new ones, with better Portuguese pronunciation.

And the thing was, I could really hear it when my pronunciation was off, and I could also hear when it improved. I remember laughing at the beginning, because I felt that I had to literally contort my face and my mouth and my tongue in order to get the right sounds. It was a real challenge. 

The best remedy for my struggles with pronunciation was to repeat the troublesome words or phrases over and over again. I used the iOS app "iTranslate" to help with this.  This wonderful resource will translate to and from a variety of languages, including Brazilian Portuguese.  You can either type or speak what you want to have translated, and the app will print what it heard you say, and then translate it.  Like all artificial translators, it sometimes comes up with some rather clunky translations, but that's also good practice for the learner.  If you can tell that the sentence doesn't look or sound right, you're on the right track.  

The voice recognition is quite good, so you can use it to practice your pronunciation.  At first, it recognized my English, French, and Spanish pronunciation, but had a really hard time with my Portuguese.  So I knew that it wasn't a problem with the software, it was my inability to articulate correctly.  Also, my spoken Portuguese was a lot slower and more deliberate, and the software does a better job of recognizing speech at normal speeds, which I simply wasn't able to reproduce at first.

Once I had made it through lesson 15 or so of Pimsleur, "iTranslate" started to accurately pick up what I was saying in Portuguese.  The first time I got it to accurately print "restaurante" after I had spoken it, I felt that I was finally getting somewhere.  

The other area that was problematic for me were the nasal vowels and diphthongs.  I cannot say that I have mastered these yet, but I'm sure doing a lot better than I was at first.  The first time I heard the Portuguese word "americano," I thought, "Why does the final 'a' sound like the 'u' in the English marker 'uh'"?  I did my best to duplicate it, but again, my mouth wanted to pronounce it as if it were the Spanish look-alike "americano," where the "a" sounds the same in both positions. Only after doing some reading did I learn that any vowel that is immediately followed by an "m" or "n" becomes nasalized, and in the case of "a," this changes the sound of the vowel itself.  Once I got this through my head, it helped me to understand why Portuguese "antes" does not sound like Spanish "antes," and why Portuguese "banco" does not sound exactly like Spanish "banco."  

It was helpful for me to read that the endings "-am" and "-ão" have the same sound.  Since Pimsleur doesn't provide written scripts or even vocabulary lists, I was getting confused about the way a word would be written. I also read that one is not supposed to pronounce the "m" at the end of a word, but in one lesson, I thought that I could hear the faint sound of "m" at the end of the word "com" in this sentence: "O meu irmão é casado com uma brasileira." The best I could do was to make the word "com" very nasalized, so that it didn't disappear into the word "uma" which follows it, and that seemed to get my pronunciation closer to what I was hearing.  

Another helpful strategy for dealing with Portuguese nasals came from the author of the amazing website Hacking Portuguese, which I mention in another post.  She suggested that I apply my knowledge of French, pronouncing "bom" almost like the French word "bon," "um" like "un," and so forth.  This helped me to get past whatever issues I was having with the "m" at the end of a word.  

Some Random Thoughts About Getting the Most Out of Pimsleur

Pimsleur has been the core of my instruction in Brazilian Portuguese, and it's been a wonderfully effective program.  I like it because I can listen to it in the car, at the gym, or at home, and I don't have to be sitting in front of a computer.  I have found the spaced repetition to be a good match for my learning style.  

However, I do not use the program exactly as described in the audio guide that accompanies it.  I know that the guide will tell you that you can move on to the next lesson if you know about 80% of the material covered in a lesson, and this is probably true, but I prefer to repeat a lesson until I have reached a higher level of competence.  This is a personal decision, and for some learners, the motivation of moving through the program at a faster rate will outweigh any benefits to repeating a lesson.  

Pimsleur actively discourages students from writing as they listen, and I agree with this when you are first hearing a lesson.  However, there is no reason why you cannot go back to a lesson after you have learned the material and use it as to develop writing skills, too. This will not defeat the audio-only approach of the program, as long as you do not attempt to write during your first exposure to the material. 

The following suggestions are some strategies which I have found to be helpful in getting the most out of this program. 

1.  Listen the first time just to listen. Really pay attention to what is being said, try to visualize the words if you can, and if there's any word or phrase that really has you stumped, replay it until you have a good idea of what is being said. I often do this first listening at the gym, where I obviously do not attempt to repeat the lines out loud. 

2.  The second time through, repeat everything out loud, and again, go back and replay any phrases or sentences that are very difficult to say. Yes, Pimsleur will cycle back and have you say the same thing in upcoming lessons, but the faster you can get an accurate pronunciation, the better.

3. The third time through, go for mastery. At this point, I am usually able to repeat about 90% of everything in the lesson with fluency and almost automatically. The automaticity becomes even better as you hear the same phrases and sentences repeated in succeeding lessons.

4. Use the opening dialogues as dictation, but only attempt this after you have progressed about 5 lessons ahead of the lesson that you're attempting to transcribe. Why? The dialogues often include vocabulary that is not actively practiced in the lesson in which the dialogue appears. It may not come up for another couple of lessons. Going back to the dialogue after you've moved beyond the lesson gives you a review, and increases the likelihood that you'll be able to write down what is being said.

5. Write a script for the rest of the lesson. "Script" may not be the best term; you can write phrases or isolated vocabulary words, but it really does help to have something written down. Do not attempt this as part of your listening and speaking practice, though. First of all, it's going to slow you down too much, and secondly, it interferes with the whole Pimsleur approach. However, once you have mastered a lesson, there is no interference in learning if you go back to it and write down what is being said. 

6. A word-by-word script is probably excessive, as the same phrases are repeated in different sentences, but a list of isolated vocabulary words is probably not of much value. I have found that by writing key sentences and all of the new vocabulary in phrases (they will mean more in context than in isolation), it provides me with a written review that I can read aloud without the lessons actually playing. This gives added reading and pronunciation practice, helps me to focus on grammar, and reinforces vocabulary that doesn't appear as often in the audio lessons (Pimsleur definitely repeats some words more than others).

7. Use what you have learned, even if it means that you talk to yourself.  I don't care if it sounds like a crazy person, if I am home or in the car alone, I will try to say what I am doing or plan to do in Portuguese. If I don't know a specific word, I still try to get the overall concept. For instance, let's say I am driving to the grocery store, so my sentence might be "I have to go to the grocery store."  I don't remember the word for grocery store, but I know how to say "Eu tenho que ir."  It may not be perfect, but it's practice, and the more you do it, the better you will get at it.  Plus, if I really want to know the word for grocery store, I'll look it up when I get home.  

Review of HBO series “Alice”

I ordered this series because I’m learning Brazilian Portuguese and movies and TV shows are a great way to build my listening skills.  Hearing nothing but Portuguese for an hour or two helps  with pronunciation and vocabulary, too, but mainly, it’s hearing common phrases over and over again until they become familiar enough that you can understand them without subtitles. 

The reviews for this series were positive and the price was very reasonable for 13 episodes that are each about 45 minutes long.  

I had no problems with the discs, though they were really hard to remove from the case.  The audio is excellent (I chose 5-channel Portuguese, but there is also 2-channel Portuguese and a Spanish dubbed track).  Subtitles are available in English or Spanish, but not Portuguese.

The video quality is very inconsistent.  I think that the transfer to DVD was not done very well, but it could be the original source, though the series was shot in 2008. The problem seems more apparent with longer shots, when the image has very obvious horizontal lines (like on an non-HD TV).  Strangely, close-ups look quite sharp in comparison, and since most of the series consists of close and mid-range shots, it’s only the scenic long shots that are affected by the problem.  

As for the series itself, I was totally drawn into it and watched the entire season in a couple of days.  Be patient with it, because by the second or third episode it looks as if they have introduced way too many characters and story lines, and then they appear to drop them.  However, the characters do reappear, and there are enough twists and turns in the storyline to keep your interest throughout.  

Although the story is centered around Alice, the other characters are just as interesting and they are allowed to develop enough so that Alice becomes the catalyst around whom their stories are told, more than the driving force of the plot.  

Alice herself changes from a shy girl from the hinterlands, to a more outgoing and assertive urban woman.  In the process, she loses some of the things that made her the most endearing at the beginning, but it’s a gradual change, and it wasn’t until the last few episodes that I really became impatient and annoyed with her (as do the other characters in the series).  However, she never really means to do any harm, and as one character remarks, even when she has hurt people, they do not stop liking her.  My guess is that most viewers will forgive her, too.

The series is filled with strong, independent, and complex women, and not all of them are young.  The depiction of several of the older women in the series is unusually realistic and unlike most of what we see on American TV, they are not treated as caricatures, or “cute old ladies.”  In general, the men are more stereotypical, but they too are complex in their own way.  One of the strengths of the series is that each character has his or her share of faults, and the viewer comes to accept the good and bad in each character.  

Many Brazilian films seem to be about the problems with crime, drugs, and the huge income disparity, with lots of stories about life in the favelas.  While these are all important subjects and are worth viewing, it’s a nice change of pace to see a series that focuses on the everyday life of a group of middle class Brazilians.  

One caveat for viewers who are uncomfortable with nudity or sex scenes:  there is a fair amount in this series, so if it offends you, you should probably steer clear.  It’s nothing more than you’d see on HBO in the US, but it’s definitely more explicit than you would see on broadcast network TV here.  

I enjoyed the series a lot more than I had thought I would, and in spite of issues with the video transfer, I highly recommend it.