People ask me all the time how long it took me to learn Portuguese.
Three months is all I needed to gain enough fluency to be a fully functional Portuguese speaker! Let me tell you how I did it!
Portuguese for Jiu Jitsu
In 2013, with virtually no experience in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or the Portuguese language I decided to move to Brazil. I had a lot to learn, so I trained BJJ 2 times a day in the morning and evening beginner classes. I was able to understand the techniques because they were demonstrated, but couldn’t understand the accompanying explanations. At first I was scared to ask questions, and settled for whatever help my drilling partner could provide. Every now and then, I built up the courage to ask a quick question, but for the most part, I remained silent.
In actuality I had a lot of questions, but I would be too scared to ask them. Instead of taking a risk, I would go back home and practice the words that I needed until I felt confident I could use them.
After all, confidence is key when you’re trying to speak another language! It doesn’t matter how much you study, if you’re too scared to speak.
Some Brazilians look friendly and super easy to speak to, but the people at Gordo BJJ, not so much.
Not to say they aren’t friendly, they’re just large and intimidating, and even more so when you can’t understand the words that are coming out of their mouths. Professor Weber was no exception.
Weber taught the beginners classes that I frequented, and he was actually rather famed amongst the gringos for his large size and savage pressure passing game.
One day I was struggling with a technique and he came and introduced himself to me, slowly, so I could understand. Then it was my turn, sink or swim, I had to use my Portuguese and I had 2 options: keep to the books, or throw in a little freestyle.
The hardest part of language acquisition is the ability to freestyle at any given moment.
What do I mean by freestyle? You take Portuguese 101, introductions, someone gives their name… what’s the proper response? Prazer, pleasure to meet you, right? Right. Then boom, the end of the interaction. Very superficial and lacking in substance.
Freestyling is an attempt to engage in a more in depth conversation that will take you outside of the pre-prepared vocabulary that you spent hours drilling on your own.
I opted for the latter.
“I’ve heard of you”, I told him, completely vulnerable to a “not by the book” response that could contain billions of word combinations, most of which would be incomprehensible to me.
“What did you hear? I hope it was good.” He replied.
Honestly I’d heard a lot of things about him, none of which I was capable of communicating in Portuguese.
That’s when fight or flight instincts kick in. A lot of students are so determined to answer questions with a translation of what they would say in English that when faced with the realization that they are incapable of responding, they shut down. They begin to experience adverse physiological reactions such as an increase in adrenaline that keeps them from simply searching for alternative solutions.
So there I was, I started a conversation I couldn’t finish. At least not in the way that I would in English. So, I stayed calm and I compromised.
“Bad for them, good for you.”
That was the best way that I could communicate to him in Portuguese that he was making grown men cry at night. It was not a direct translation, but the context was there. I even attempted to add a small sprinkle of the sarcasm characteristic to my authentic English speaking self.
Confidence and Motivation in Language Learning
I was proud and he was amused, but more importantly, it broke the ice and opened the door for many more conversations in class.
Instead of maybe attempting to speak bad English like they might with the other gringos, Weber and the instructors engaged me more in Portuguese.
I changed too, instead of being scared to ask questions in class, I was more willing to stutter through until I was understood, I had a new found self-confidence to accompany my subpar language ability.
Self-confidence is an often overlooked attribute to learning. Mastering a new skill requires a constant series of failures, plateaus, and tough self assessment that can be hard to handle without proper belief, motivation, and feedback from experts.
Let’s go back to my fight or flight moment with Weber and consider my flight option.
Keep in mind, not only was I risking public ridicule every time I opened my mouth to speak, I was REALLY BAD at bjj, one of the only females in the entire school, and I’m extremely introverted, so I hate talking to new people.
In flight mode, I would have said “prazer”, smiled, nodded and waited for Weber to walk away. I would have been ashamed of myself for not attempting to use my big girl words whether I admitted it consciously or not. I’d give myself maybe 2 minutes max attempting to drill before the linguistic shame festered in my heart alongside the disappointment and frustration at how much I suck at BJJ, so I’d have to excuse myself to go to the bathroom.
I know myself so I know my eyes would start watering whether I wanted them to or not. Then I’d be stuck feeling dumb in a bathroom because I couldn’t stop crying, ashamed because I didn’t use my big girl words, AND frustrated and disappointed because I stucked at jiu-jitsu. All that because I lacked the self confidence to face feedback during a teeny tiny interaction. What if he laughed? What if he didn’t understand? “What if” a million other things that were irrelevant to the situation but tormenting my mind!
Students with low self confidence experience these kinds of emotions all the time.
Not everyone moves to Brazil and cries in bathrooms like me, despite popular belief I’m actually a super sensitive person. The most common case of low self confidence I encounter are the people that never attempt to learn. So many people in BJJ are motivated to learn Portuguese to form a deeper connection with the culture, but they don’t have the self-confidence to believe that they can learn another language.
Yeah, you are kind of old, you’ll never get to live in Brazil, and Brazilians use a lot of slang with very little grammar.
These are all just excuses.
Tips for Learning Portuguese
So here are some solutions that will hopefully encourage you to start learning!
(You can now download the Portuguese for Jiu Jitsu vocabulary guide)
Define your objective
If you don’t want to move to Brazil, you don’t actually need to be fluent in Portuguese. It would be really cool if you could watch a technique video and understand it though right? Short term goals work too, maybe pick a specific technique video and try to understand the entire thing.
Identify the target vocabulary
If you’ve identified your objective is to watch BJJ videos and you’re never going to vacation in Brazil, don’t waste your time learning food vocabulary and family members.
Now you need to realistically assess how often you are actually exposed to this vocabulary without studying.
Do you have a Brazilian instructor that you often hear speaking the language? Do you read or watch techniques in Portuguese? Do you watch movies and TV shows in Portuguese? Have you ever read Brazilian athlete’s post’s on social media? Do you hear Brazilians talking on Reels? Do you use google translate to attempt to talk to people in Portuguese on social media?
Formulate a study plan
Generally when I ask students how they plan on achieving their objective they tell me: study more, read more, practice vocabulary. Then comes the classic intro to SMART goals. Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound. Then we recreate their goals into academically acceptable format, put it in their binders, and never look at them again.
Graphic organizers exist to be lost, along with the notes of random vocabulary you jotted down somewhere while studying on Duolingo.
The first step of learning a language is being real with yourself. How much time between work, training, family, and fun do you actually have to commit to studying? One the graphic organizer you might be attempting to feel idealistic and put 1 hour a day but in actuality it will be 1 hour a day for 3 day then you’ll forget for 5 then be back at it for 3. You need to set a goal and actually stick to it, so don’t over do it. I used to take the metro to work on off peak hours so I could always find a seat. It’s 30 minutes each way so 60 minutes total a day 4 days a week. But sometimes I’m tired or I have to grade papers or I’m just lazy. So, my study plan in this situation: 2 days a week on the way to work I will study Portuguese (grammar and vocabulary) by watching Youtube videos, reading articles, or with a book. I’ll bring a notebook with me to write down any vocabulary or questions I might have. All 4 days of the week, on the way home, I’ll listen to music or watch something in the target language on my phone. This way it doesn’t seem like studying, also because I worked a night job and it wouldn’t be as safe to have my phone out.
This is a plan that works with my schedules, accommodates my defects, and is so minimalistic that I cannot fail to execute it.
Formulate a plan to increase exposure
As you can see, I’ve just developed a study plan that includes a grand total of 1 hour a week with some supplementary music. How does that work? You’re never going to learn a language in a classroom or on Youtube, the only way to fully master a language is to go out and learn it on your own.
So how can you increase exposure to authentic interaction with the language and more importantly how can you get expert feedback? Honestly, I’ve seen a lot of Gringo in Brazil use Tinder to do it. They are constantly matching and repeating the same introductory phrases over and over again. You can start following Brazilian athletes on Instagram and reading their posts. You can start commenting on them to see if they respond. You can read the responses on posts to see how other people respond and try to identify slang.
Try to keep your exposure limited to your target topic. Netflix shows and songs in the target language help you pick up on sentence structure but the vocabulary is not related to jiu jitsu. Alternatively, there are a lot of really bad BJJ videos from Brazil on Youtube. It may be hard to find good material at your level without a teacher, but it’s possible and worth the time it takes.
The more you increase your natural exposure to the language, the easier it will be to adjust and modify your formal study plan. You may only study one hour a day in transit but by changing some habits and following some Brazilian athletes you also spend a considerable amount of time going through Reels in Portuguese and trying to google slang you see in posts.
Execute your plan for studying and increasing exposure within a definite amount of them and then evaluate your progress and redefine your goals.