The gold standard of online Portuguese education

In the last 6 months, we’ve seen major new content and website relaunches from three of  my favorite Portuguese websites. I think these three resources now constitute the gold standard of online Portuguese education. Throw in a copy of the Green Book and you’ll have everything you need to get started, get better, or get fluent:

  1. StreetSmart Brazil – personalized lessons over the internet from an amazing group of teachers. SSB launched a new website this year, brought on board new teachers, developed new types of classes, and improved the custom materials that they use.
  2. Semántica – video lessons featuring stories shot on-location in Rio. Semántica recently launched a new 100-video series for intermediate speakers, to add to their offerings for beginning and advanced speakers.
  3. BrazilPod – lessons for all levels from a crack team of language professors at UT Austin. BrazilPod just launched Língua da Gente, a new podcast for beginners.

These three projects have a few things in common. All of them have been around since the start of Hacking Portuguese in 2010. All of them played a major role in helping me achieve fluency, meaning I can vouch for them personally. One of them (BrazilPod) is entirely free, and for the others I’ve been able to negotiate discounts for Hacking Portuguese readers (see recent blog posts). And they all work well together.

Finally, you’ll notice that none of these projects are affiliated with major language education brands that churn out ‘content’ for dozens of languages. Instead, they each have smart, experienced individuals at the helm who are passionate about Brazilian Portuguese and only Brazilian Portuguese: Luciana Lage at StreetSmart Brazil, James Hall at Semántica, and Dr. Orlando Kelm at BrazilPod.

It’s these folks who give these projects a personal and human touch that is missing in so much language education. If you haven’t given them a shot yet, I hope you’ll check them out and come to know how awesome they are just as I have, and get amazingly good at your Portuguese in the process!


Now for some honorable mentions. Unlike the ones above, these are made by companies with multiple language offerings, and I have expressed skepticism about them in the past. However, after using them more (and hearing about others’ very positive experiences, in the case of BRIC), I now feel that they are worth another look:

  • PortuguesePod101 – HUGE amount of content for all levels, even quite advanced. PP101 tries to be comprehensive with podcasts, recorded dialogs, vocabulary banks and a built-in spaced repetition flashcard system.
  • DuoLingo – free, turns language learning into a game with levels, awards, points. Good for quick and easy ‘downtime’ learning on your phone.
  • BRIC Language Systems – intensive online tutoring with real teachers and original course material
  • LiveMocha – social languag learning site which pairs you with English learners
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Web roundup: New portuguese resources

Novo Telecurso, dozens of 15-min lessons, completely in Portuguese, with subtitles, on a bunch of different topics from geography to history to science. They seem to be aimed at high school students, so the language is native speed but otherwise straightforward. Excellent listening practice!

Aulete, a Portuguese-Portuguese dictionary (h/t StreetSmart Brazil) with a nice looking iPhone app that includes a thesaurus. (for online Portuguese-English dictionaries, I use Infopédia online and Ultralingua on my iPhone. For online verb conjugations, I use Conjuga-me).

Words of Connection features a zillion little phrases to make your conversation flow smoother.

There is an effort underway to start a Portuguese language StackExchange site. StackExchange is a platform where people submit questions, others submit answers, and the best answers get voted up. I’ve used other StackExchange sites and have found them to be far more pleasant and useful than traditional Q&A messageboards. When there is a large enough user base, the quality of the answers is excellent. The Portuguese site is still in beta and needs a few more people to submit questions before it can move on to the next stage.

Memrise, a language learning platform based on spaced repetition. The quality of the lessons varies a lot, but it seems like a good way to learn some basic portuguese vocabulary.

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Semántica’s new Intensivo course is the next best thing to being in Rio

James This is James. He lives in Brazil and makes awesome videos for portuguese learners like me. You should be jealous of James, because he gets to live in Rio and follow brazilians around the city with a camera for a living.

What James does is simple: Take a bunch of talented brazilian actors, add some stories of everyday cariocas going about their lives, set it all on location in gorgeous Rio de Janeiro, then capture the colloquial language as it’s actually spoken in Rio. The result is Semántica, a Portuguese language program that is Brazilian to the core.

Semántica’s first video series was instrumental in helping me learn Portuguese back when I was a beginner, so when I created Hacking Portuguese, I highlighted them as one of the best ways to ease into learning this beautiful language. Since then, they’ve been producing um monte of new content, and James was kind enough to let me try out the new website which features their entire catalog of video lessons. In addition, he’s offering 15% off for Hacking Portuguese readers with the coupon code “hacking-portuguese“. Thanks James!

So I have tried a lot of online portuguese courses over the years. What makes Semántica stand out is their brasilidade. So many language programs offer portuguese as one of many languages, and tend to use a cookie cutter approach that teaches all languages in the same way, devoid of cultural context. I recall one site that teaches you the Portuguese word for “marmelade” — a food that is probably impossible to find in Brazil. I guess they were thinking that british tourists would want to know how to order it. Of course, what most people who visit Brazil want to know is how to do brazilian things in a brazilian way. And the best way to do that is to watch brazilians doing it themselves.

Series 2 is Semantica’s new offering for intermediate speakers, and it represents a truly ambitious series of 100 videos. The videos tell the story of Bianca, a working-class young woman who becomes bored with her life in a small city and decides to move to Rio.

semanticaSemántica gives you something that few other courses do, which is real local Rio flavor. James hires local actors and shoots on location in Rio de Janeiro. Thanks to the talents of these actors, the language feels spontaneous, and it has not been sanitized for educational purposes — it’s all there in its messy, beautiful glory. Neither has Rio been sanitized; the story takes us to some of the usual tourist landmarks, but also to places and neighborhoods that would be more familiar to average cariocas. The result is a documentary of life in Rio through the eyes of its residents. There is as much cultural education here as there is language education.

Semantica highlights the colloquial form of the language as it is spoken in Rio. Much of the charm of the videos comes in the small, unscripted moments where we get a glimpse into how brazilians express a range of emotions. We see Bianca cursing at traffic (Droga, vai cara!), arguing with her mother, quitting her job, flirting with guys, and basically doing normal everyday things.

Semantica’s format of  Story + Breakdown is one that I like a lot. The breakdown is like a post-game analysis where an american speaker and a brasilian speaker review the dialogue, with the american noticing interesting or unexpected things and querying the brazilian about them. This format was probably first used effectively for portuguese by the BrazilPod folks, and James’ decision to employ a similar format for Intensivo adds a great deal to the teaching power of the filmed story. The two hosts have a cute (occasionally awkwardly so) energy, and they are fun to watch.

Yet I wish the hosts were more knowledgeable about the language and astute in noticing what’s going on linguistically. There is much that is overlooked. In Lesson 10, a beautiful example of the future subjunctive slips by without comment. In Lesson 9, the hosts pick up on Bianca’s boss saying ‘teu uniforme‘ (as opposed to seu), and this leads to a discussion about tu vs. você forms. But they gloss over the fact that it is the social relationship of boss->employee (and also older person -> younger person) which allows teu to be acceptable here. Bianca would probably not use teu herself when speaking to a superior.

Elsewhere, the videos show brazilians doing some very interesting things: failing to use the imperative mood, conjugating verbs improperly, omitting object pronouns and clipping their words. For the astute viewer, there is much to be learned in the ‘wrong’ version of portuguese presented here. Some students might complain about this, but I actually appreciate seeing the language in its natural habitat. And while the hosts comment on some of this, it might be nice to have more commentary along the lines of “you might have learned that technically you’re supposed to say Eu os vejo, but here she just says Vejo because it’s totally okay to just drop the pronouns if it’s clear what you’re talking about.”

In my experience, Semántica works best the more you re-watch the videos. I found myself watching the videos 1 or 2 times with no captions just to see how much I could understand, and then turning the Portuguese captions on and watching again to catch any bits that I missed. I also kept Anki open so I could record any new words I learned — I now have a whole deck of new words to study. I can say from experience that watching Semantica’s advanced videos many times (>5) over the course of a few months left me with many words, expressions and phrases in my long-term memory, easily recalled even after three years.

Each video has a comment thread, which constitute a whole resource in and of themselves. From what I’ve seen, the Semántica staff have been pretty good about answering questions about grammar and usage and comments about the videos.

Ultimately, what Semántica comes down to for me is just having a vast archive of material where you can watch how native brazilians use portuguese in their everyday interactions. If you pay close attention to the videos and rewatch them several times, you will learn an immense amount, regardless of your skill level.

All three series — beginner, intermediate, and advanced — are now offered on a subscription basis. Check them out, and don’t forget to get your 15% off with the “hacking-portuguese” coupon code.

Posted in Reviews, Things to watch/listen to | 4 Comments

StreetSmart Brazil has a new website

…and it’s beautiful! ssbYou should go take a look.

 

If I had to recommend just one resource for someone who wants to get serious about learning Portuguese, it’s these folks.

I started taking Skype lessons with Luciana, the founder, in 2010. I was a pretty independent and self-motivated learner and I did a lot of other study besides StreetSmart. Even so, having a real teacher to spend an hour with every week was crucial because it got me comfortable having conversations, which I never could have done by myself. Thanks to SSB, I never experienced the fear of conversations that a lot of people report. In fact whenever I encounter Brazilians I use any excuse to talk to them and often have a hard time shutting up :)

I’ve had several teachers with SSB over the years. All have been professional, fun, and wonderful to work with. Luciana started me out and got my pronunciation on point, rapidly building up my grammar and vocabulary. Larissa Garcia, who has since moved on to doing other things, was particularly great. She prepped me for my trip to Rio, role playing different situations that I might encounter, and I never felt like she dumbed down the language for me — she taught me ways of speaking that were warm, natural and colloquial. She also tailored each lesson for me, finding Portuguese articles on environmental issues in Brazil. And knowing that I liked music, she introduced me to Caetano Veloso, Seu Jorge, and Chico Buarque through their lyrics, which has had a lasting impact on my love for Brazilian culture.

After a certain point, I became less interested in lessons and just wanted someone to talk to regularly to keep my skills up. The small group classes with Daniela Ávila were perfect for that.

Finally, I’ve really been enjoying SSB’s facebook feed of late and it’s one way I keep my skills sharp, by making sure I encounter a little Portuguese every day.

In short, if you’re looking for flexible, personalized lessons with real brasilidade, StreetSmart Brazil is as good as it gets.

Luciana has been kind enough to continue her offer for Hacking Portuguese readers: Use the coupon code 10%offssbshcrtsts when you purchase your first subscription as a new student, and you’ll get a 10% discount.

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BrazilPod launches Língua da Gente, new series for beginners

We are very lucky to be living in a golden age where high quality portuguese instruction is now abundant on the web. When I started learning Portuguese just 5 years ago, it wasn’t so great. One of the few good things I stumbled onto back then was BrazilPod, a UT-Austin project lead by Dr. Orlando Kelm and an expert team of Brazilian professors.

BrazilPod hosts some of the best Portuguese materials on the web:

  • Tá Falado – portuguese for spanish speakers, in a podcast format. The podcast that helped me achieve near-native pronunciation (and I don’t even speak spanish).
  • ClicaBrasil – intermediate portuguese course with video interviews, readings and exercises
  • Conversas Brasileiras – native-level video dialogs with outstanding commentary, one of the very very few things out there for advanced learners

Until now, though, there was really nothing at BrazilPod for beginning Portuguese students who don’t speak Spanish. Their new offering, Língua da Gente, now fills that gap.

Língua da Gente takes the tried-and-true BrazilPod formula — an English speaker and a Portuguese speaker dissect a dialog together — and applies it to some short and simple dialogs. I’ve long been convinced that this bilingual dialog approach is a winning format for language instruction. It combines the advantages of both English-only and immersion instruction without thrusting beginners into an intimidating full immersion environment. Many courses have tried to copy this formula (e.g. PortuguesePod101), but few seem to do it as effectively as they could because they miss out on the key elements that make it work (and I urge other language courses to listen up here):

1. The Portuguese instructor speaks almost entirely in Portuguese during the lesson. Whenever they explain a point of grammar or usage, they do it in-language. This provides extra exposure to the language and develops listening skills in the context of a real (i.e. not contrived) conversation. While beginning students will not understand everything the native speakers say, Kelm jumps in often enough to translate their main points that it’s not a problem.

2. The Portuguese speakers are expert instructors who can comment intelligently on their own language. I’m tired of seeing an english speaker ask about why someone said something one way vs another, and the portuguese speaker says “Oh, it doesn’t matter, you can say it either way” when in fact there is a subtle but real difference. BrasilPod’s Brazilians are all professors who all understand the language and have experience teaching it, and when Kelm asks a question, they give smart, insightful answers.

3. The English and Portuguese speakers have good rapport. A hallmark of BrazilPod’s commentaries is the relaxed, fun atmosphere between the instructors. This is something you often don’t get when you hire actors merely to provide native pronunciation.

Let me also comment on the structure of the Língua da Gente / Tá Falado lessons. I think it’s important to point out what they’re doing here in some detail because there is a lot to be learned for those who want to produce genuinely good language materials. The lessons all follow the same structure:

1. Preview. The professors offer a preview of the dialog, talking about the content and giving the student a handful of words and phrases — no more than 3 to 5 — to listen for (eg. Que horas são? in a dialog about waking up early). This part is key and encourages active listening to the dialog.

2. Dialog x3. They play the dialog three times so you get repeated exposure without having to rewind.

3. Language commentary. The instructors comment on the interesting points of the dialog. The English-speaking instructor’s job is to highlight the interesting, to clarify the confusing, and to ask lots of questions of the other instructor. The Portuguese-speaking instructor’s job is to offer expert opinion on what is and is not acceptable in the language, to explain the grammar and usage in-language, and to provide native pronunciation. Note that both instructors need to have good knowledge of both English and Portuguese grammar/usage for this to work well.

4. They play the dialog another three times. This gives the student a chance to integrate the new vocabulary and catch the parts that they didn’t understand previously.

5. Cultural commentary. To learn the language, you have to become a little bit Brazilian, and this means acquiring cultural as well as linguistic fluency.

The only thing that is missing from Língua da Gente is lots and lots of practice producing (speaking) the language. Unless you’re living in-country, I still think you can’t truly internalize the language without a ton of spaced recall and prompted response, and I credit Pimsleur, old-fashioned and anodyne as it is, for getting me to that point.

Still, it has never been easier to learn real Brazilian Portuguese on the web with beautifully produced courses like BrazilPod, Semántica, and StreetSmart Brazil. Why would anyone prefer the sterile algorithmic environment of e.g. DuoLinguo when there is such rich, engaging and above all human instruction out there?

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