The best way to learn Portuguese is to go to Brazil and be immersed in it. There are two ways of doing this. An internet search or investigating a language exchange program works well for those with more serious study plans. The second approach of searching for schools upon arrival is better suited to those with a more vocational approach with a time frame of 1-12 weeks.
For those taking the latter option the easiest way to find a Portuguese language school once in your preferred city of residence is to go to the nearest English school. Ask if they have any Português para Estrangeiros (Portuguese for Foreigners) courses. In the major cities and tourist locations, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find several schools offering these courses. Even outside the major cities, you should be able to find a Portuguese teacher by asking around. They may not have taught gringoes but before but just as every English speaker studies English at school so do Brazilians study Portuguese.
It is worthwhile to visit a few schools to find the best price. If you’re a beginner you’re only going to be learning the basics so there will not be a huge variation in the content you are going to cover? Once you begin studying at a higher level then choice of school and the quality of the course and the teacher’s qualifications becomes more important.
Issues in choosing a Portuguese class
Group classes vs private study
Are you are at the same level as the other students you will be studying with? Sounds like an obvious doesn’t it? If there is a large disparity between students the stronger ones either dominate the discussion or get bored waiting for the slower, less proficient students. Alternatively the slower students get left behind and struggle to get a word in during practical conversation exercises. The closer the match the better the group. This is where larger schools are at an advantage because they are able to make finer distinctions between grades.
More expensive but the individual focus can greatly accelerate learning. There is no competition during conversation exercises nor the opportunity to remain silent and avoid areas of weakness. The course material is always at your level, not somebody elses. Aside from cost the downside is a loss of diversity a group brings. A group exposes a student to a much wider range of vocabulary as each student has a different background, job, reason for studying, likes and dislikes and on and on…
What happens if the numbers in the class fluctuate? It works to your advantage if people have paid upfront for a term then fail to attend class (it happens more often than you may think). However, it works against you when you’ve budgeted for a group class only to find half the students have dropped out or moved on to Bahia and now the school wants to up the fees because numbers have dropped. What happens if class numbers fall to an extent where it is no longer cost effective to maintain the course? Do you lose your money, get credit or something else? Clarify this point before you sign up for a large block of classes.
Portuguese only or is English permitted?
Having a teacher fluent in English is helpful for explaining grammatical points but in a way this is also cheating. Portuguese only classes do your head in for the first few weeks but you will learn much quicker by being forced to speak Portuguese. It is incredibly frustrating to have an intelligent opinion to offer but be unable to express yourself however in the long run you will be the better for it. Both in fluency and as a general human being – you now understand how every migrant to a new country feels.
Structure v flexibility
Professional language services who organise everything in advance usually have links to university programs and have a more academic leaning. These programs are better suited to serious students with a 6 month to 1 year outlook. Some courses can get quite expensive but extras such as homestays, cooking classes and field trips add value to the program that cheaper less structured courses do not provide.
Studying a few hours a day provides sufficient mental stimulation as well as leaving the rest of the day to get out and explore the neighbourhood. 3 hours a day is about the limit for most people when it comes to learning a foreign language. It doesn’t sound like a lot but in the beginning it can be quite taxing on the brain to sit in a class trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. One week previously your brain had it easy understanding all before it. Not now and it doesn’t like it.
Classes are typically either in the mornings or afternoons leaving the rest of the day free. Take afternoon classes. It’s hard to drag yourself out of bed for a morning class if you’ve spent a night out on the town. You’ll learn more of a language with a beer in your hand than a pen.
Other language tips
Reading newspapers, magazines and watching the TV news are other good ways to pick up words and get up to date on current affairs. E.g. greve (strike) was the word I learnt thanks to bus drivers wanting a pay rise whilst for guerra (war) I have George Bush to thank. News reports are less likely to contain slang, have images that can help you put words to pictures or events and can involve repetition in the day to day news cycle. It is not a great leap to guessing the words in classified job, car, personal and apartments for rent ads. The Simpsons in Portuguese is still funny even if you don’t know the words. All these little things help is absorbing the language faster and free.
A final way to learn Portuguese may be to approach a school and offer to exchange English, French, German, Italian or Japanese for Portuguese. Most schools are quite receptive to this as they gain a native speaker which they can market to their students. You will have to make a longer time commitment (at least one semester) if you are thinking of going down this avenue.