Acquiring any new skill can be a challenging and time-consuming task. Often, if something is actually worth learning, it may take years to do well. This extended timeframe is especially frustrating when first approaching a new language. You want to speak it right now! Not some arbitrary day in the future.
Brazilian Portuguese, in particular, has a number of complexities — including its odd nasal sounds and other pronunciation quirks like the letter ‘R’ — which make it daunting for a native English speaker. And, if already know some Spanish, don’t expect it to help at all.
Think Portuguese is just slower Spanish with a few different words? Think again. Spend an hour practicing the ‘open’ vowels of Brazilian Portuguese. I recommend you get some ice for your mouth and throat first.
That’s an irreverent aside from Timothy Ferriss, the author of three New York Times #1 best-sellers. His latest book, The Four Hour Chef, uses the process of learning how to cook as a metaphor for mastering any skill. According to Ferris, if you approach a subject systematically — break it down into its core elements — you can achieve much quicker results.
The 80/20 Rule of Learning
Ferriss suggests deconstructing your objective into its smallest learnable units — the LEGO bricks, if you will. Then, select the 20% of these bricks that you need to learn to get 80% of your desired result. That’s a principle worth repeating: with regards to learning any language, you can achieve 80% fluency by mastering only 20% of the rules and vocabulary.
The author calls this ‘hacking’ the language (‘hacking’ refers to any clever, non-obvious shortcut which increases productivity). And he’s convinced that his learning style significantly shortens the time it takes to become functionally fluent. Ferriss knows a bit about the subject; he speaks five languages.
Lately, he’s been focused on the failure points confronted when acquiring a new skill. Why do people stop learning a language? With Brazilian Portuguese, it can be those multi-vowel dipthongs or a lack of others to practice with. If you identify a few of these ahead of time — whether they be universal or unique to your situation — you can better overcome the barriers. Ferris asks such questions as:
How similar is it to languages I already understand? What will help and what will interfere? Will acquisition erase a previous language? Can I borrow structures without fatal interference like Portuguese after Spanish?
That last one is especially true for an English speaker. Spanish and Portuguese — because of their tremendous similiarity — often seem to fight for the same space within your memory. Just the simple pronunciation of the word de becomes a struggle after growing accustomed to one way or the other. Personally, I stopped my study of Spanish in order to focus solely on Brazilian Portuguese.
‘Six Lines of Gold’ by Timothy Ferriss
Ferris uses six simple sentences to “learn but not master any language in one hour” by revealing its basic grammatical foundation. (He calls them his “six lines of gold.”) Applying this CliffsNotes-style hack to Brazilian Portuguese results in the following table.
|The apple is red.||A maçã é vermelha.|
|It is John’s apple.||É a maçã do John.|
|I give John the apple.||(Eu) dou a maçã para John.|
|We give him the apple.||(Nós) lhe damos a maçã.|
|He gives it to John.||Ele dá a John.|
|She gives it to him.||Ela dá a ele.|
Sentence 1: A maçã é vermelha
So what can we learn from this little exercise? Quite a bit actually. The first thing you may notice is that, in a sentence like ‘the apple is red,’ Portuguese and English have the same word order: subject-verb-object (SVO). The SVO word order is common in Brazilian Portuguese, and having the same fundamental sentence structure is one aspect that makes it familiar to English speakers.
However, something that’s different — and often hard to remember — is that nouns have gender; they’re either masculine or feminine. The biggest clue to determining a noun’s gender is the use of ‘o’ or ‘a’ at the end of the word (note that this rule is sometimes broken). Typically, masculine words end in ‘o’ and also have o as their definite article — ‘the’ in English. Similarly, most feminine words end in ‘a’ and use a for the definite article.
Furthermore, you need to keep agreement between the noun, its definite article, and any adjectives. In this example, ‘the apple’ translates to a maça, which is a feminine noun. The color ‘red’ needs to agree with this, so it takes the feminine ending vermelha — rather than the masculine adjective vermelho.
Sentence 2: É a maçã do John
In this next sentence, two things stand out immediately. First, the verb é — which means ‘is’ in the example above — refers to ‘it is’ in this one. Second, Portuguese handles possession differently than English; there isn’t a letter like ‘s’ latched onto the end of a person’s name to show possession. Instead, a maça do John literally means ‘the apple of the John’ — where do is a contraction of de (‘of’) and o (‘the’).
O John (‘the John’) is another oddity to the English-speaking ear; Portuguese uses a definite article before proper nouns. Proper nouns include the names of people, bands, companies, and cities; anything you can refer to in specific. Thus ‘Karina is my friend’ becomes A Karina é a minha amiga (which is literally ‘The Karina is the my friend’). Again, it takes some getting used to.
Note also that regional dialects exist. For our example sentence showing apple possession, do John is the most correct (and common) translation. However, in the Northeast of Brazil, you’re more likely to hear the simpler de John. As a nordestina friend said to me, “we like to swallow our words here.”
Sentence 3: (Eu) dou a maçã para John
Here the analysis get a bit more complicated. The first thing you might notice in the third sentence is my use of parentheses around the subject pronoun eu (‘I’). This is because it’s actually optional. You can convey the exact same meaning by just saying Dou a maçã para John.
How can this be? Because we’re encountering another key difference between the two languages. English requires a subject pronoun for the phrase to make sense. But in Portuguese verbs are conjugated; they take on a different form depending upon which person is doing the action.
For example, the verb dar (‘to give’) changes when it’s combined with various subject pronouns — words like ‘I’ (eu), ‘you’ (você), ‘he/she’ (ele/ela), ‘we’ (nós), or ‘they’ (eles/elas). With conjugated verbs, you can tell who’s speaking from the verb form itself. Thus, quite often, the subject pronoun is dropped — noticeably in casual speech.
Sentence 4: (Nós) lhe damos a maçã
Now we approach what I find to be the toughest concept to retain — that an indirect object pronoun moves to the front of the word order. Remember that ‘apple’ is the direct object of the sentence, while ‘him’ (the imaginary John) is the indirect object. In Portuguese, you’re literally saying ‘We him give the apple’ — you can see how this can be disorienting.
You’ll also notice that ‘give’ (damos) has changed its form to align with ‘we’ (nós). Luckily, there are conjugation rules we can memorize that depend upon the three possible verb endings: –ar, –er, and –ir. In the case of the first person plural pronoun nós with an –ar verb (dar), we always add the suffix –amos for every form within the indicative mood. To use another common verb as a further example, falar (‘to speak’) becomes nós falamos (‘we speak’).
Sentence 5: Ele dá a John
The next two ‘lines of gold’ should feel more comfortable for English speakers, since the basic word order is again the same. In both Sentence 5 and 6, we find the structure: he/she (ele/ela) + verb + direct object pronoun + indirect object (or its pronoun). ‘He gives it to John’ clearly transposes to Ele dá a John. It’s pretty easy to make the connection.
Sentence 6: Ela dá a ele
In addition, we see that the mercurial verb dar has coordinated with ele/ela (‘he/she’) to take the third person singular form, ele/ela dá (‘he/she gives’). Thus, in the last four sentences, we’ve learned three present tense forms of dar. Also of note, in both of the last two examples, is that the direct object pronoun ‘it’ — referring to the ‘apple’ — is simply a.
Hacking Brazilian Portuguese
One final language hack that Ferriss offers is to understand what happens to auxiliary verbs — how does conjugation occur in the context of multiple verbs. I use this concept daily when communicating in Brazilian Portuguese. To quickly get a handle on the subject, Ferriss provides two slightly more complex sentences beyond his original six.
|I must give it to him.||(Eu) devo dar a ele.|
|I want to give it to her.||(Eu) quero dar a ela.|
Sentence 7: (Eu) devo dar a ele
You’ll notice again that the subject pronoun eu is optional, since devo is the first-person present tense of dever (‘must’). A new twist is that the verb dar appears now in its basic form — known as the infinitive. So, literally, the phrase above reads ‘I must to give it him.’
Sentence 8: (Eu) quero dar a ela
The final sentence doesn’t hold any surprises — only the addition of a new verb querer (‘to want’). In 7 and 8, we’ve ascertained a pattern for when auxiliary verbs come in sets of two: the first verb is conjugated in line with the subject pronoun, and the second verb tags along for the ride in its infinitive form.
Mastering auxiliary verbs early on is powerful advice. Often, our budding attempts at a new language resonant with a caveman clunkiness: ‘me want that’ (and plenty of pantomiming to go with it). The two-verb structure helps you avoid this type of embarrassment, and instead create sentences that are more fluid and natural from the beginning.
I’d suggest memorizing the most necessary conjugations — present, past, and future — for a number of helping verbs right away. My go-to list includes querer (‘to want’), gostar (‘to like’), ter (‘to have’), and precisar (‘to need’). It’s also important to know how to use poderia (‘could’), deveria (‘should’), and gostaria (‘would’). Remember that just a few permutations on these seven words opens the door, potentially, to every verb in the Portuguese language.
It’s really a great time-saver. As you come across new verbs, you can focus on retaining only their infinitive forms at first — rather than getting bogged down in studying the conjugations of each one. For example, you might learn the word comer (‘to eat’), than drop it into the auxiliary structure in order to say eu quero comer (‘I want to eat’).
With these helpers in your repertoire, you can create a wealth of sentences that convey your basic needs — improving your beginner’s confidence immensely. Sure, you’re not going to talk about particle physics, but these helping words will get you through a meal in a restaurant or a ride in a taxi — the kind of real situations you’ll encounter on your next trip to Brazil.
I hope that this breakdown of the ‘Six Lines of Gold’ into Brazilian Portuguese was helpful. Have you used any hacks to become fluent in Portuguese faster? If so, what were they? Feel free to share your language learning experiences in the Comments.
Photos: Lucas Foglia, and Timothy Ferriss on Flickr and Facebook
Thank you for the article. You did a nice job. I found it very helpful.
Very nice article!
As a native Portuguese speaker, I just have a small comment regarding sentence number 4: in this sentence, “Nós” is not optional: If you ommit it, the sentence becomes “Lhe damos a maçã”. But “Lhe” is an oblique pronoun, and we can never start a sentence using this kind of pronouns.
So, if you want to ommit “nós”, you have to change the order to: “Damos-lhe a maçã”.
Of course, there is no compromise in understanding, and if you say “Lhe damos a maçã”, every Brazilian will know the meaning of the sentence. But still, in written language this is forbidden.
Delighted to have a better understanding now of Brazilian Portuguese language structure to help me edit my speech with Cariocas while in Rio de Janeiro. Well written and useful guide. Thank you!