Overcoming a Plateau in Your Portuguese Learning

Hitting a plateau with learning Portuguese? This guide is all about how to get back on track by focusing on realistic goal-setting for language-learning.

Do any of these statements sound like you?:

  • “I’m just not getting it”
  • “I study all the time, but I’m not getting any better”
  • “I’ve been living here for years, I should know so much more.”
  • “I can read Portuguese, but I’ll never be able to speak it”

When you first start learning a language, that initial excitement gives you the motivation you need to push through mistakes and stay positive. Over time, however, many learners hit a plateau when it starts to feel like all the effort isn’t paying off. You thought you would be fluent by now, but instead you feel lost every time you try to have a conversation. You start to wonder what you’re doing wrong and why you’re still stuck at the same level.

Managing expectations and attitude

This often comes from unrealistic expectations about what it’s like to learn a language. Language is a very particular skill that is not learned the way you learn about other topics. You can’t just read a book, study your notes, pass a test, and then, like magic, you speak Portuguese!

Learning a language involves developing a whole new communication framework and incorporating many complicated factors into the way you interact with the world. It’s not just memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary; there are also social and cultural factors to consider, which are learned through experience.

Don’t Sabotage Yourself

Many learners do themselves a disservice by seeing the goal of learning a language as reaching perfection, in other words, reaching “fluency”.

If the only mark of success is “being fluent”, learning Portuguese is going to feel discouraging and never-ending. It’s important to find ways to feel good about the process of learning Portuguese, realizing that even the smallest improvements are pushing you closer to valuable life changes.

Furthermore, everyone’s situation is different, so don’t get down on yourself for what you haven’t done. Decide what’s right for you and cultivate the mindset that serves you best.

Celebrating failure

Remember that when learning anything, failure is not only acceptable, it’s necessary! If you aren’t struggling and making mistakes, then you probably aren’t challenging yourself enough to really learn something. Try to seek out failure, rather than avoid it, as this is what gives you the opportunity to grow.

Revamp your approach to learning

Next, take an honest look at how you’re studying.

What exactly is it that makes you not want to study or that makes you feel discouraged when you study? Are you unsure if you’re focusing on the right thing? Do you simply forget or run out of time? Do you feel like what you learn is not relevant? Are you using methods that are too hard or too easy for where you’re at right now? Are you using resources that aren’t motivating to you?

Explore some of these questions to try and understand what is making you feel stuck. Then focus on removing the barriers where you can. For example, can you use the resources you have in a new way? Can you create a better study plan that fits into your life?

Many learners fall into the trap of thinking that if they can’t do something “the right way” or “the best way”, they can’t do it at all. Sure, if we all could spend all day every day wandering around Portugal having conversations with people (along with our private Portuguese tutor travel companion who creates personalized lessons for us along the way), then I’m sure we’d learn pretty quickly. For most of us, however, the process is ongoing and it takes effort to work it into our real, everyday lives if we want to stick with it. Focus on what you can do, rather than giving up because you don’t have the time or money or energy for the ideal learning path.

Getting back on track

Once you’re ready to get out of your comfort zone and you’ve analyzed what makes you feel stuck, the challenge moving forward becomes maintaining resilience in the face of inevitable setbacks. This is much easier said than done, which means it’s good to have a plan for dealing with slumps.

This is where good goal-setting skills come into play. Maybe thinking “I want to be fluent” is a motivating reminder for you, but as an actionable goal, it’s too vague and too far off. Communication is too complex to be reduced to fluent or not fluent. Instead, think of small, specific things you can do in the next day, week, or month that relate to your goals.

Goals

Being Specific and Realistic

Wait, what goals? The best goals are those that are:

specific (“ask for the menu at lunch today” rather than “speak Portuguese when I go to restaurants”)

and

realistic (“memorize the regular -ar verb conjugations for the present tense by next week”  rather than  “become fluent by next month”)

Be specific and realistic not only with the goals themselves, but also with the time frame. For example, “spend an hour studying prepositions on Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays this month” gives you a manageable plan and a stopping point where you can reflect and decide on your next plan of action. If you instead said “study for 1 hour every day”, it would be hard to analyze what to do next or when to reevaluate.

Think about what timeline makes sense for you. Do you want to come up with a new goal each week? Do you want to have multiple simultaneous goals over the course of a month? Do you want an even smaller goal to complete each day? Do you only want to set goals when you feel stuck? Be realistic about what makes you feel motivated rather than overwhelmed.

Types of Goals

There are also different types of goals and you should choose what fits best for your life, or a combination. For example, you could set goals related to:

  • how long or how often you study
  • completing a real-life challenge / using the language to accomplish a specific task
  • memorizing a specific set of information (verb conjugations, vocabulary words, etc)
  • using a particular study method over a period of time

Long-term vs Short-term goals

It helps to be specific, but if we’re also being realistic, let’s admit that we aren’t all the type of people who have the time or energy to develop highly structured learning plans with deadlines and contingencies. (But if you are, go for it!) For the rest of us, it’s okay to keep your long-term goals more vague. Think of them more like your ideas or hopes about what learning Portuguese will do for you. Then you can focus on specificity when it’s time to think of short-term goals.

So make a list! What do you want to improve? What kinds of contexts do you want to communicate in? What will make you feel good about your progress?

Then, spend some time clearly identifying baby steps toward the goals that matter to you. Go through each long-term goal on the list and write a few short-term goals that are a little more specific. Don’t worry about strictly following the rules — just think of goals that you feel like you could take action on right away. Adjust your mindset to focus on the short-term and a path to your long-term goals will come more naturally.

Keep this list handy so that you can choose a new goal next time you need a boost.

Ideas!

And right about now is when many of us hit “decision paralysis”. If the thought of making a list of goals makes you want to give up rather than get started, use some of our ideas below to give you a launching off point:

I want to improve my Portuguese skills more quickly

I want to stay connected with my family

  • call or write an email to a Portuguese friend or family member

I want to communicate better at work

I want to make small talk with the people I meet

I want to feel comfortable traveling

I want to be able to ask for help with I’m shopping or running errands

I want to talk about more complex topics

  • use the simple past tense to write about what I did each day this week
  • memorize the presente do conjuntivo conjugations for ser, ir, and estar
  • listen to one article in Portuguese every time you brush your teeth this week

I want to express myself more clearly

  • write a 1-page story in Portuguese
  • practice pronunciation by speaking in Portuguese for 20 minutes every day
  • all week, keep using Portuguese even when someone responds in English

I want to learn the rules of Portuguese grammar

  • complete 5 pages of exercises from a European Portuguese grammar book
  • read and take notes on 5 learning notes or blog posts about Portuguese prepositions

Pay attention to your small successes

These goals may feel more isolated or less impressive, but their importance shouldn’t be minimized. Having a temporary focus like this can give you a foundation to build on. Learning a language is the combination of millions of small successes over time, rather than a few large leaps.

We’re usually our own harshest critics, so it’s much easier to remember that one time you pronounced bacalhau codfish incorrectly than the five times you used the right phrase to greet someone. These little “wins” are sometimes necessary to give you the push you need in the right direction.

Connect and get support

Connecting with other learners can help you navigate roadblocks and get concrete advice on learning the language. Check in with friends or family members, visit online forums, or see if there are in-person meetings in your area.

Relaxa!

Goals are important for providing focus, but not each and every learning experience has to be targeted. Use goals to get you started or get out a slump, but if you feel excited about a particular topic or need a break from the structure, it’s okay to let yourself veer off the path until you find you need another boost. These ideas are a way to get started and to explore what directions are rewarding and effective for you. Be open to following different paths or trying out different structures that help you learn, using these little goals as launching off points.

When you feel like giving up, reestablish a connection to the language through what feels motivating or entertaining to you, rather than draining. Go to a Fado house, find a Portuguese translation of your favourite book, or cook a delicious Portuguese meal!

Get Started!

Don’t worry about analyzing which is the perfect goal. The most important thing is to just get started. Comment below to share what worked for you. Are there any mini-goals like these that have helped you get back on track?

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