The University of Texas at Austin’s BrazilPod continues to impress me with its wealth of materials for students at all levels. I’ve already reviewed their beginner-level podcast Tá Falado, which was one of the first resources I discovered when I started learning Portuguese. Although it claims to be for speakers of Spanish, I had no trouble following along knowing very little Spanish, and it helped me develop good pronunciation and a solid Brazilian accent that I’m quite proud of even today.
I’ve also briefly mentioned an advanced-level resource, Conversa Brasileira, as a good resource for listening practice. While looking around for some good listening exercises today, I noticed that Conversa Brasileira has added some new annotated conversations since the last time I visited. In this post, I thought I’d revisit CB and give it a thorough review, as well as highlight a cool new Brasilpod resource for intermediate speakers.
No doubt about it, this is for advanced speakers. The conversations go flying by at light speed, and I find them challenging to follow even with the on-screen transcript. Caramba, qual lingua é que eu ando aprendendo por todo esse tempo? Essa não, com certeza. Watching these videos, you really get a sense of how different the everyday spoken language is from the language you learn in textbooks. It’s a language filled with diminuatives, expressions of affection, exclamations, slang, nonstandard grammar, and of course muito palavrão (though not in these videos). It was certainly intimidating, my first time in Rio, to suddenly find myself confronted with this bizarre language, a language that bears almost no relation to the language I had studied in the US. Since then, I’ve been trying to listen to as much colloquial language as possible. Conversa Brasileira is a fantastic resource for this kind of practice.
I really like the way they present the ‘teaching moments’, with professor Orlando Kelm interrogating (in English) a team of native speakers, who reply with explanations (in Portuguese). Kelm plays the role of mediator between the student viewers and the native experts, picking out the most interesting or unexpected bits from the conversation, asking questions of the Brazilians, and clarifying their answers. The combination is very effective and I only wish that more language programs would adopt this kind of format. (Semántica uses a similar approach in their Series 2 videos, though I think CB does it better). It helps that the Brazilians are obviously trained educators and have a knack for explaining Portuguese in ways that English speakers can understand. Orland Kelm, for his part, is not shy about embracing the language as it is spoken, and always defers to the judgement of the native speakers, no matter how ‘wrong’ something might be by the book. His enthusiasm for the language is contagious and is one reason why I enjoy both Tá Falado and Conversa Brasileira.
In the course of the conversations, Kelm’s team picks up on some very unusual and subtle points of the colloquial language — occasionally grammar, but more often what I would call ‘usage’ questions.
The only quarrel I have with CB is that the Flash interface doesn’t always behave itself. The actors speak so fast that it can be difficult to follow along with the on-screen transcript, especially when there’s a lot of cross-talk, and I find myself rewatching each section many times trying to catch everything that was said. When you move the scrubber bar to jump to another part of the video, though, the transcript doesn’t always sync perfectly with the dialogue. It would also be nice to have a “Rewind 10 seconds” to make it easy to go back to something you may have missed.
If Conversa Brasileira is too advanced for many students, I was excited to discover today that Vivian Flanzer from UT Austin has put together a new website specifically for intermediate speakers, filling a huge gap in the listening resources available on the web. From the ClicaBrasil website:
Here you will find Portuguese language lessons that highlight aspects of Brazilian culture. These lessons are designed for intermediate to advanced students, but are accessible to everyone. Each includes videos of Brazilians from all walks of life speaking naturally about their lives and their country, and numerous activities and exercises available in PDF files. ClicaBrasil recognizes that intermediate students are ready to tackle more challenging readings and complex aspects of the language, but at the same time may still need to review some grammar topics in greater depth. All lessons integrate reading, writing, listening and comprehension, grammar, vocabulary, oral communication and cultural activities with the videos.
I haven’t explored ClicaBrasil fully just yet, but so far I am very impressed. There are seven thematic lessons, each containing four parts: an introduction, a reading, a grammar lesson, and a follow-up featuring dozens of videos. Some lessons are centered around personal themes, such as daily routines, weekend activities, or career trajectories. Others focus on the cities of Rio and Salvador. While this is a common way to teach Portuguese, I’m pleased to see that these lessons go beyond the usual surface treatment of culture that is given in textbooks. For example, the lesson on Rio explores the differences between the Zona Sul of every tourist’s postcards, and the vast northern parts of the city where samba was born, which often gets little attention.
Each lesson first presents some background material about the theme and then introduces a reading — some drawn from content available on the web, like magazine articles and song lyrics, others written specifically for ClicaBrasil. The reading for the Rio lesson is a short story by LuisFernando Veríssimo, one of my favorite authors — one whose humorous, down-to-earth writings makes him ideal for students. Unfortunately (I assume for copyright reasons), you must buy the book to read the story. Nonetheless, I really like the diversity of sources used for the readings.
After doing the reading, you can then watch specially produced videos of Brazilians talking about how the theme relates to their life. This is where ClicaBrasil shines, because there are dozens of videos of Brazilians from all over the country, so you get to hear their specific accents and manner of speaking. Because the videos are done as first-person testimonials, the speakers tend to speak slightly more clearly than they do in Conversa Brasileira, and of course there’s no cross-talk to confuse things. But, they all still speak at their natural pace, — some slowly and clearly, others very fast and mumbly. I found some speakers easy to understand and others very difficult, and in almost all cases I had to rely on the transcriptions to clarify certain parts that I didn’t catch. I would bet that many intermediate students will find these videos challenging, at least without consulting the Portuguese transcription. Of course, challenging is good, because as students we’re always aiming to study materials that are a little bit beyond — though not too far beyond — where we are presently.
I have two criticisms of ClicaBrasil, one relating to the cultural presentation and the other to the grammar presentation. Both of these are really ‘missed opportunities’ for some deeper exploration that might have been perfect for students at the intermediate level.
The first criticism relates to the first lesson, whose theme is daily routines. This lesson appropriately features Chico Buarque’s marvelous song Cotidiano, a song that is superficially about the unchanging routine of a married couple. The first thing I noticed is that while there is a link to the lyrics, there is no link to an actual performance of the song, several of which are easily available on the web. This is too bad because the mechanical way that Buarque sings this song, and the slightly terrified look in his eyes in every version that I’ve seen, reveals the character of the lyrics very nicely.
The authors, having explained Chico Buarque’s troubles with the dictatorship in the 60s, and then having encouraged the student to engage with the lyrics in a fairly literal way in the accompanying exercises, then miss a great opportunity: to ask the student to consider the political subtext of the song. This is a theme which cannot be ignored in Buarque’s work. Buarque was a master wordsmith, and were I teaching this song, I would surely ask students to think about how the language that he uses allows him to present a political critique of life under the dictatorship, while being metaphorical enough to evade the eyes of the censors.
For example, the narrator of the song is more often the object rather than the subject of the verbs, placing him in a passive role in which he has little control over his life. The verb calar-se is featured quite prominently in another Buarque song, and it’s worth considering the meanings that it takes on when he uses it, especially in the context of censorship and repression. (For those who are interested, here’s a fascinating analysis in Portuguese of the meaning of Cotidiano). This could have been a neat exercise in which the meaning of the song would actually be revealed by looking at the grammar, word choice, repetition — but after considering all these elements in turn, the authors fail to take the final step that would allow students to synthesize all these apects into a complete understanding of the dual meanings of the song.
Beyond the videos and readings, each lesson also features a grammar lesson. The topics covered in each lesson are:
- the present indicative
- the preterit
- the imperfect
- the future preterit (aka the conditional)
- the present of the subjunctive
- the past perfect (tinha feito, etc)
- the imperative
The first three topics are probably presented more as a review of something the student is assumed to already know. I would guess that anyone who is able to keep up with the videos and readings in ClicaBrasil probably has a good handle on these topics already. The basic difference between the preterit and the imperfect is straighforward, and 90% of the time it’s obvious which one to use. Yet many students, including myself, still struggle with using the correct tense in those 10% of situations where it’s not at all obvious. There are many hidden complexities and exceptions that most books do not address, especially concerning the verbs estar and ser. Sometimes, either tense could be used, but with a subtle difference in meaning (Ele foi o grande amor da minha vida vs. Ele era o grande amor da minha vida). These situations, it seems to me, are fertile ground for exploration with intermediate level students, so it’s a bit disappointing that the ClicaBrasil authors opted for a cut-and-dry explanation that probably will not address the lingering dúvidas of students at this level.
As for topic #4, it’s always interesting to me to see how various teachers treat the conditional mood, since it serves many functions and can be analyzed in a number of ways (see this post and this post for my take on it). In this case, the authors opt to treat it mainly as the ‘future of the past’ (futuro do pretérito), which is an unusual approach but a useful one. Unfortunately, only a brief footnote mentions that the future of the past can also be expressed using the imperfect and the [ia + infinitive] construct, the latter being the form I hear Brazilians use most often in speech. Nor is it mentioned that these choices imply different registers or levels of formality – important information for the student to know when presented with different options for saying the same thing.
In a similar vein, the section on the Imperative only briefly mentions that sometimes the imperative is replaced by the present indicative, without acknowledging that many Brazilians use the imperative only rarely in informal speech. Again, I feel it’s important for students to have an accurate picture of how language is really used in various contexts, even if reality does not conform to the so-called ‘correct’ usage. I would prefer to have it spelled out for me when it’s appropriate to use different registers of speech so that I can sound formal or polite when I want to be polite, and casual when I want to be casual.
But I’m digressing, as I always do, talking about register. One thing I do really like about each lesson is that there are pdf worksheets with exercises to test your comprehension of the videos, to help to practice the grammar, and to get you doing some writing.
All in all, ClicaBrasil looks like a great resource that I’m looking forward to exploring more thoroughly. Personally, I’m most excited about having an archive of transcribed videos to do some active listening practice. And again, it’s phenomenal that these kind of quality materials are available on the web for free thanks to UT Austin and their great team of Portuguese educators. As with the other UT Austin sites, ClicaBrasil may eventually wind up on the Top 10 Resources page. Until then, go take a look at all the great opportunities to improve your Portuguese fluency at BrazilPod!