Learning Portuguese: Tips and Tricks to Help You Falar

For those of us who want to get to know actual Portuguese people and speak to them in their language.

UPDATED April, 2020

Falamos português? Claro.

Figuring out how to order a coffee, or, to show off, a bica, is easy enough. You might even get by with your awful Portuguese when taking a taxi or asking if the No. 28 goes to Feira da Ladra. For those of us who want to be able to venture outside the ex-pat crowd and get to know actual Portuguese people, we need a bit more.

The royal library at Mafra (cross the ropes by appointment only)

Classes and Private Teachers

Nothing beats a professional teacher who will patiently correct you, find your weaknesses, and work toward true proficiency. One-on-one is clearly preferred, but the best teachers tend to charge a lot and are rarely available (contact us if you teach professionally). Group classes are available at many schools across Lisbon, offering everything from intensive eight-hour-a-day two-week courses to occasional evening classes. The reviews of most schools have been very, very spotty — most ex-pats we’ve met give up before getting to B1, which isn’t even close to proficiency.

The best classes Atlas has discovered have been offered through CNAI, the Portuguese immigrant support department, to anyone who has established residency. You can try to sign up for these courses in their office at Rua Álvaro Coutinho, 14, Monday to Friday, 8h to 17h. Be prepared to wait months for a course to open up, and then be expected to commit within a few hours of receiving a phone call to a daily course lasting three to four months. Your luck may be better. But their teachers are vetted professionals and we highly recommend them.


Even if you’re in a course, but especially if you’re on your own, the key to learning a language is practice, practice, practice, people. Chat with the waiters and insist on speaking Portuguese. Get to know your Portuguese neighbors. Talk to homeless people. Pick up someone for a one-night stand and don’t resort to English or whatever else you speak normally. Try. Get a used Portuguese study guide. Memorize the phrasebook section of your Lonely Planet guide. Sit on a park bench and do an easy crossword puzzle. Do.

See the Atlas guide to basic Portuguese

Print and Online Language Learning Resources

Let’s not get into how Millennials are more comfortable with apps than with actual people. Presumably, if you’ve read this far, you like talking to real humans. Nonetheless, there are some excellent resources for Portuguese language learning on the interwebs. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them are for Brazilian Portuguese.

Out of all of them, the little handy app Duolingo is free and is a great start despite tailoring to Brazilian. For reasons that are not obvious, the app requires you to be connected to the Internet, although it claims that it doesn’t. BBC offers a free basic course as well, again geared mostly for Brazilian.

The U.S. Foreign Service Institute does have an intensive audio course in European Portuguese, available for free download here. There are also several websites for finding online teachers or language exchanges, some paid, some free. Here’s a comprehensive list.

Last but certainly not least (thanks, Michel Ribbens!): PracticePortuguese.com, a podcast program launched by Rui, a Portuguese, and Joel, a Canadian, back in 2013, focused on real, modern Portuguese speech and the nuances of European Portuguese specifically. The free version is already very good, but the premium add-ons are very much worth it — and would go to support an excellent and necessary project.

Past basic grammar, what we found most important is building our vocabulary. Here, you’ll run into another problem: Portuguese-English online dictionaries also mostly favor Brazilian. In print, the Dicionário Universal Langenscheidt Inglês-Potuguês / Português-Inglês has been most useful to us. Once you get some Portuguese down, it’s best to switch to a Portuguese-only dictionary. Our favorite is the Dicionário Editora da Língua Portuguesa by Porto Editora, which also complies with the Orthographic Accord (the agreement among Portuguese-language countries to modify their local varieties of Portuguese into a common one, something many, if not most, Portuguese can’t stand, but we’ll cover that in a different article).

But the best vocabulary tool we’ve come across — it’s far more than a dictionary — is Reverso Dictionary online. The concept is simple: you type in a word, or a phrase, which is even more useful for idiomatic expressions, and Reverso spits out what it finds online among professionally translated texts. You’ll usually have several versions of each translation, and each one will be presented in context. It works equally well for English-to-Portuguese translation. And it’s free.

On our Android and Apple phones, we’ve installed a variety of offline dictiornaries thatcome and go. But we much prefer to use Reverso’s Android app, although it requires data and the ad-free version costs money. The latter lets you save the words you look up.

On to memorization! Anki is a great tool for setting up flashcards and synchronizing them across devices. But the recently released Memrise promises to use science and facts and stuff to improve language learning. The app applies the most recent research on memory, focused on variable repetition rates — much like Anki — and we’ve come to believe that it works far better than regular practice. And you can practice your sets offline. There’s a free version of Memrise, but the paid version has been worth it for Atlas. Memrise has many sets of cards set up by others (including several by Atlas, incognito), but it’s best to build your own as you read and study. To that end, we count the Woxikon synonym search function indispensable to expanding our ability to praise something with a tad more than “É bom! É muito bom!”

Where to Hear and Read Proper Portuguese 

One of the most effective ways to learn Portuguese is by watching hours of scandal on one of several Portuguese-made soap operas. Seriously. We don’t know the names (okay, one Atlas correspondent does), but when we see one playing at a tasca, we tune in. RTP, the national TV and radio broadcaster, is especially varied in coverage and offers several TV and radio streams on its website. The news radio in the mornings on Antena 1 is particularly helpful and relatively easy to follow.

Publico is the newspaper of choice for most educated Portuguese that we’ve met. The paid digital subscription is reasonable, but there’s plenty to read for free as well. Almost any newspaper kiosk will carry the print version. Other popular Portuguese newspapers are Correio da Manhã, Jornal de Notícias, Diário de Notícias, Expresso and Observador, the latter delivering plenty of international news and offering an interesting newsletter on the Portuguese startup scene. BBC Brasil, meanwhile, is consistent about translating the top stories into an accessible language, free from country-specific idioms.

A Note on Local Peculiarities

The biggest obstacle to effectively integrating into Lisbon is the Lisboetas’ predilection for using a ton of slang and idiomatic expressions. When the more well-spoken Portuguese talk to foreigners, they dumb down and slow down their speech. You may be able to talk to one of them for hours without any difficulty, but the second they turn to their local friend, you’re out. Our suggestion is to politely ask when you’re not clear about something. But there are two reliable books that should get you cursing proficiently in no time: Dicionário de Calão by Eduardo Nobre and Dicionarinho do Palavrão & Correlatos by Glauco Mattoso. Or, just take a road trip with a good Portuguese friend through Porto.

On Key

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