Getting Past Beginner’s Intimidation On Your Way To Portuguese Fluency

We get amazing emails from our members daily, and we usually just respond to them privately. But since the response got quite long and involved, I decided to go over it a couple times before sending and try to turn it into a more or less intelligible article that others might be able to relate to… but you can be the judge! – Joel

Question (Edited slightly): I need inspiration and a plan. I am a subscriber and like the Podcasts a lot. Husband is Portuguese and I have taken lessons, can read and write pretty well but am so reluctant to speak. I did go to his village in central Portugal for three weeks alone to force myself to speak. (had no choice!).

Oh, I am 69 years old. I know that I know more each year but as time passes am more and more reluctant to talk. I guess it is me evaluating myself? And of course it is meu marido’s native language so I just let him do all the talking when we are in Portugal. We go often, at least once a year. Listening to the podcasts is really good for me.

But what do you suggest? I know that immersion would be key but at my age I am not interested in spending one or two months away from meu marido. Of course the big challenge is verbs and yes, I know when I talk I am translating. When I write it seems to come much more naturally but then I am calm and I am a very visual person (writer and painter). Meu Deus! I bet you didn’t expect a message like this. But what do you think? What would be a good plan? I am a very disciplined person and just need a boost of inspiration.! Thanks in advance, Obrigadinha, K.

Joel’s Response:

Hi K,

Great to hear from you and thanks for taking the time to write. Thanks also for your support these last few months, we really appreciate it.

I started writing this email then realized it might be interesting for others to read so I tried to write it more like an article. So if it’s ok with you, I’ll post the question and answer (without your name of course), on the long-neglected blog section of our site!

It is also inspiring that even though you are beyond the age of your average language learner, you are still taking your language learning seriously (keeps the mind sharp… many people stop learning after their schooling and our brains quickly get lazy with every year that passes!)

Bringing the Learned Vocabulary / Grammar the Surface (a.k.a. Activating a Language)

I was exactly in your position when I started learning – I had studied a bunch of grammar and vocabulary, but it seemed like there was a great distance between the knowledge in my brain and the words coming out of my mouth… in other words, if I was writing or had a few seconds to think, I could construct the phrases, but to immediately recall the vocabulary, verb conjugations etc instantly in a conversation was another challenge. Studying a language on paper is one thing, but then it takes hours of listening, speaking and therefor months / years of feeling dumb on a daily basis in real-life conversations. (After almost 3 years of speaking the language, those moments of feeling dumb are less frequent, but they still happen frequently!)

Intimidation in Speaking a New Language

I totally understand your intimidation with the language and your reluctance to speak. I find it especially happen during weeks where I am working mostly with English clients and communicating a lot with my Canadian family/friends – If you spend hours and days away from the language, it takes a little while to warm up the Portuguese muscle again.

It also doesn’t help that most of the population (especially the young generations and those in hospitality/tourism) seem to speak near-perfect English. So as new Portuguese speakers, it is intimating and frustrating to know that any second, we may make a mistake that will cause them to start speaking English to us, (rendering our Portuguese-learning efforts useless!)

Group Portuguese Classes

When I first arrived to Portugal I took a 4 month intensive course at the language school here in Lisbon. The classes were 4 hours per day, and while it wasn’t easy to take that much time away from the other priorities in my life, it really did help to be surrounded by others who were also learning. Although I also consider myself relatively self-motivated (especially when I have a sense of urgency to accomplish something), I found that I benefitted from the healthy competition of trying to not fall behind the other learners, and the accountability of having to finish homework and study certain skills on specific days.

If you happen to not consider yourself to be a social person, I would try to get past that since the potential gains outweigh any discomfort of learning in a social setting. I know it’s easy for me to say, but I also wouldn’t let the difference in age be a factor when deciding whether or not to do group classes. There were a couple learners in my class in their 40s/50s – but when we were all in the same class and shared the same beginner’s humility, we all relate to each other as equals (and all of the different ages and backgrounds made the whole experience much more interesting). It is also motivating to see that others have more trouble than you in certain areas, and of course that you have more trouble in other areas. The other benefit of group classes is that the price is usually cheaper than a private tutor.

The potential downsides are that usually classes can only be as advanced as the few weakest students. One thing I found was that since some of the students were coming from languages with pronunciations / accents sounds much different than between Portuguese and English, such as the Asian languages, there wasn’t a lot of focus on the more subtle aspects of pronunciation. For example, if I wanted to master the differences between a particular open and closed vowel sound – or where the tongue needs to go to nail the very tricky “lh” sound – the teacher had the bigger fish to fry of trying to get everyone in the class first able to pronounce some of the easier consonants that English speakers don’t have a hard time with (eg. R’s, L’s, Ch, G’s etc). But for me that wasn’t a deal-breaker since the teacher was usually available for individual explanations if I thought careful about what questions to ask.

Private Portuguese Tutor

On the other hand, you also have the private tutor, which I don’t yet have any experience with (but have considered). Because of demand, some schools seem to be (understandably) more focussed on the basic levels (A1/A2/B1) and have less classes available for advanced learners. A private tutor would offer you more schedule flexibility and they can focus on materials specific to your level. The downsides I can see would be cost, and you would lack that healthy competition that you get from the group classes. (Although it is more nobel to claim we are only concerned about our own personal journey, we are a competitive species, and we can use that to our benefit!)

Don’t be Afraid to be Chato/a!

The last thing I can say is that sometimes it pays to be stubborn. If people speak to you in English because they think they are helping you, reply to them in Portuguese, even if you feel ridiculous. I am constantly in situations where I feel that the Portuguese person wants to show me how good their English is, and likewise, I want to practice (and let’s be honest, show off) my progress in Portuguese. It is almost an ego battle of who is going to cave in first and speak their native language.

It takes courage to force the conversation to stay in Portuguese when you know any minute you are probably going to say something strange and sound like Tarzan… but in the long run, no one is doing you any favours by speaking to you in English when you are making a concentrated effort to learn Portuguese. Usually replying in Portuguese will give them the hint, or sometimes you have to explicitly tell them “Sorry, I need to keep practicing my Portuguese, so I won’t be speaking English to you.” Once I was speaking to a Portuguese who genuinely wanted to practice their English, so we arranged that I would speak in Portuguese and he could respond in English. Telling the other person that you need to practice can also take some pressure off – you are humbly declaring yourself a learner, you will feel less obligated to speak perfect Portuguese, and the words may come out easier.

Speaking With Your Partner

If you don’t already, try to insist that your marido speaks to you in Portuguese, at extended parts of the day. Yes, it can be draining for a learner to speak Portuguese for hours on end, but also remember that it will be equally draining for him to a) slow down his mind to patiently wait for you to finish sentences and b) decide which errors are worth interrupting the conversation to correct.

Even though he is speaking his own language he will likely be speaking a simplified version, trying to consider what vocabulary/expressions you will understand or not – that can take just as much effort and patience as it takes for you to speak Portuguese.

Correcções = Boas!

Invite him to correct you, and most importantly, don’t get frustrated when he inevitably interrupts you to do so. This is harder than it sounds – you are working hard to construct a sentence and form an idea, and you keep getting interrupted because of your errors. But try to remember that these corrections are little favours. Think about why you made the mistake, why the correction makes logical sense, thank him, then return to the idea.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are trying to force a conversation to stay in Portuguese or try to finish a sentence before the moment passes (or people get impatient), it’s going to be uncomfortable. But so is living in a country and years from now, still feeling like you don’t yet have a handle on the language. One has to decide which pain is greater – the short term discomfort of speaking Tarzan Portuguese or the long term of feeling like a permanente estrangeiro!

Hope some of this rambling helps give you some ideas. Mostly importantly, make some concrete decision about what changes you will make in your day to make your Portuguese fluency a priority.

Keep in touch and boa sorte 🙂

Joel (O Canadiano)


  • I’ve only just discovered the Blog page. Can this site get any better!
    This blog post has really resonated with me, I am comforted and encouraged to hear of someone else flying with Portuguese reading and writing (not to mention mentally constructing wonderful Portuguese conversations) while struggling even to ask for an extra spoon in a restaurant!

    So, thanks to the original poster for hitting the nail on the head, as it were, and also thanks Joel for your sound advice. Luckily my desire not to be uma permanente estrangeira far outweighs my fear of sounding like Tarzan, or indeed, Jane!

  • Hi Joel

    Thanks for this article as it’s so easy to believe we are all on our own and that we are the only ‘dumb’ ones who can barely string two words together in a conversation with a Portuguese. In my mind I speak perfect Portuguese to myself when walking the dog!

    May I offer a suggestion? Last year I placed an ad on a conversation exchange website explaining what I needed and what I could offer. I had a lot of response, although mainly Brazilians, which was expected, but through Skype I get some of the conversation I desperately need. As you point out, even living in Portugal doesn’t mean one gets a lot of ‘normal’ conversation. The site I used is below and to date I have never had any spam or ads, just other bewildered folk trying hard to learn a language.

    Thanks for such a great website.


  • Have just found your site today and I love it!!!
    You have described exactly my frustrations in this article – I have lots of vocabulary in my brain but I just can’t get it o come out of my mouth when I need it!! I’m glad it’s not just me!!
    Thank you

  • I have recently found 2 portuguese speaking churches in my area. I have no partner to practice, but the people of the church are wonderful and helpful. I suggest that as a way to be immersed in culture and language on a regular basis, or however often you choose. I am spiritual and not overly religious…but it works for me learning…and living!

  • Bonjour, je suis tout à fait d’accord avec l’analyse ici; je parle un peu anglais, et c’est vrai que les portugais vont parler en anglais si le moindre problème de compréhension survient. Alors, je dis que je ne parle pas anglais, et comme le français n’est pas beaucoup parlé à Lisbonne aujourd’hui, les portugais sont obligés d’accepter mon portugais même s’il est imparfait. C’est ma ruse pour parler portugais au Portugal. Gosto muito do website, é muito bem feito. Obrigada pelo tudo. Beijinhos, Véronique (Brest, França)

  • How refreshing to find someone like the original poster who is 69 like me! I’ve been wondering if I’m just too old to try and learn Portuguese. My main reason is because my son is marrying his Portuguese fiancee this October in Portugal, Covid permitting, and I so want to be able to speak a little Portuguese to her family, none of whom speak English at all. We have visited before but it was just so exasperating not being able to communicate with the family at all and having to depend on our future daughter-in-law to have to constantly translate for everyone. I find the hardest part for me is navigating the site in an order which will be more beneficial for me. Sometimes when I return to the site I cannot pick up where I left off and then get confused. I fear I may be wasting too much time on the wrong themes. I’ve made plenty of notes since beginning several months ago and although there are some words which seem to have stuck in my old brain some others don’t stick! I guess its just trial and error!

    • A few tips for you :

      If you go to Account > Bem-Vindo, there should be a link to “What’s Next” to pick up where you left off. If that doesn’t seem right, check the main units page (Learn > Units) and scroll down until you see a unit that’s not at 100% yet. (It’s fine to skip ahead, but when in doubt, I would recommend just going in order since we have these sequenced from A1 up to B2 content).

      To help with making what you learn “stick”, I would recommend using Smart Review (under Learn) on a regular basis. There is a quiz version and a flashcard version — both let you review what you’ve learned in the Units so far.

      I hope that helps a bit! 🙂

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