Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Recommendations for Beginners

Beginning learners want to know which program will work best for them.  I believe that the sooner a learner starts to think in the language he or she is learning, the deeper and more effective the learning will be.  This means that when you have a thought, you do not have to translate it word by word in your mind from English to Portuguese, but you are able to express what you are thinking in Portuguese without the intermediate step of translation.  This is essential to building fluency, but it is often overlooked or minimized in language instruction.  

If your memories of foreign language instruction include lots of drills with verb conjugations, the proper use of the subjunctive, lists of prepositions, and so on, you are probably not alone.  All of these are important elements in acquiring mastery of a language, but they are *not* going to get you thinking in that language. 

I have studied several languages in high school and college, and I'm not being critical of my instructors, most of whom were excellent and enthusiastic, and many of whom were native speakers.  However, we spent most of our time learning grammar and vocabulary from the instructor, or with textbooks, reading aloud, reading to ourselves, or writing. We had lots of written homework and all of our tests were written, though we usually had dictation exercises where we wrote down what the instructor dictated (which at least gave us some practice with listening). I do not remember a single test that required me to *speak* the language out loud. 

While classes were often conducted in the language we were learning, the vocabulary we acquired from that was limited to classroom interactions ("open your book, get out your notebook, read this selection," etc.).  We had exposure to language labs and conversation groups, but this accounted for less than 10% of our time, and most of it was supposed to be done outside of class.  The result was that I learned how to read and write the languages that I studied with a good level of fluency, but my spoken language never reached anything even near that same level.  

Luckily, there are programs designed for self-learners that address this problem by actively involving the learner in speaking the language from the very beginning.  

I have been very happy with Pimsleur because of its use of spaced repetition.  Pimsleur teaches you a basic phrase or word, and then repeats it in a variety of sentences. It does this lesson after lesson, building on what you have already learned. So a word that you learn in lesson 1 will re-appear over and over again in subsequent lessons.  The program has you taking part in series of conversations and you have to talk out loud (though I also use the lessons as a listening resource).  You have to think in Portuguese in order to keep up with the program, because you do not have time to translate the sentence word by word from English to Portuguese, in your head. You are able to simply say the whole sentence because you have already repeated the words or phrases so many times that it becomes automatic.  

Pimsleur's Brazilian Portuguese program consists of three levels that include 30 lesson each, and each lesson is about 25 minutes long.  The lesson begins with a short dialogue, and then the instruction begins.  

Pimsleur's biggest downfall is that it teaches the formal language almost exclusively.  For instance, its uses "o senhor/a senhora" instead of "você" throughout the first lessons. Many of the lessons focus on business-type conversations. But in spite of this, the program worked for me, and I have used other resources to help acquire the informal language. 

Pimsleur is not cheap if you buy the CDs, but there are some ways to keep the costs down.  I was not able to find a complete set in my library, but you can buy the first 16 lessons on CD from Amazon for about $35.  

This gives a learner the chance to get a feel for the program without making a major financial commitment.

If the program appeals to you, you could then purchase the additional lessons from, which has the best prices I was able to find.  They sell them as digital downloads, and you can buy them by the lesson, in groups of lessons, or an entire level of 30 lessons. You can listen to them on your computer, or you can transfer them to you iPod, iPhone, or other MP3 player. The costs vary depending on how many lessons you buy.  Audible has good trial offers for new members and they often have promotions that give added discounts to a new member. 

So, Pimsleur does *not* teach the informal language, but what it does give you is an excellent basis upon which to build.  Once you can think in basic Portuguese, you will be able to start adding the informal vocabulary and usage to your spoken language.

The Semantica series, level 1, does teach the informal spoken language:

Right now (mid-June, 2012) they have a special sale that sells both Series 1 and 2 for about $80 as a digital download.  These are videos and they're quite good, but there's a big gap between Series 1, which is appropriate for beginners, and Series 2, which is aimed at high-intermediate level students.  

The weakness of Semantica is that it does not cover much grammar and it doesn't give you much exposure to the written language, aside from PDFs with the scripts and what you see on screen.  It has a rather limited vocabulary, too. However, the videos are fun and the story and characters are interesting enough to keep you motivated. is another program that does a good job with informal language, and depending on their current offers, is available for a reasonable price.  

They have a huge number of lessons at different levels, organized around dialogues, with social and cultural insights designed for learners who plan to travel to Brazil. The dialogues are really good, but they do not use spaced repetition, and they don't give you a lot of time to repeat what you've heard.  To me, this made the program useful primarily as a supplement to Pimsleur, and I don't think I would have made as much progress relying solely on PortuguesePod101 as I did with Pimsleur. 

The lessons include PDFs that accompany the audio, so they give you some practice with the written language, and they cover basic grammar in a non-threatening way.  PortuguesePod101 also includes online quizzes and flash cards that are pretty good.  

Overall, each lesson contains enough material to keep you busy for 30-40 minutes.  You get to select which elements you cover in each lesson and are free to move through the lessons in whatever order you choose.

I didn't begin PP101 until after I'd had a good foundation with Pimsleur, and I stuck with Pimsleur because I could do it anywhere (car, home, gym, etc.).  You can download PP101 lessons as podcasts to use on your computer or iPod, but I found it was easier to do it online, because that's the only way to get all the features in each lesson.

Recommendations for a beginning learner:

1.  Start with some sample lessons of Pimsleur, either the first 16 lessons on CD from Amazon, or by purchasing lessons from Audible.  Try at least the first 5 lessons before you decide what you think. It won't prepare you to speak informally, but it *will* get you thinking in Portuguese, and to me, that is the ultimate goal. 

2.  Try the free trial at  Its biggest weakness is that it does not use spaced repetition, but it's a great supplement to Pimsleur and you *might* find that you don't need Pimsleur if you get PP101. (Do not pay the full subscription price for PP101, as they offer deeply discounted promotional rates after you sign up for the free trial. You should start getting emails which advertise these offers not long after you register for the free trial). 

3.  Download one of the basic level 1 Semantica lessons (you can buy them individually) or check out their free (very short) samples on YouTube to get an idea of what they're like. 

4.  Start reading Portuguese every day. I like "O Globo," "Folha," and "Estadão":

I've added them to my Facebook news feed, which works better for me than trying to remember to visit the websites every day.  

You can use Chrome's translation feature to translate articles for you.  The other way I practice with reading online is to read the Portuguese text out loud, without worrying about the translation.  This helps to build fluency and pronunciation skills.  

5.  Watch Brazilian movies on DVD and listen to Brazilian music. Don't worry if you don't understand much, but try to start getting a feel for the sounds and rhythms of the language. You will find certain very common expressions (most of them informal) cropping up over and over again.  

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