Guide to Spanish for Portuguese speakers

Here’s something a bit unusual. Elsewhere on Hacking Portuguese I’ve pointed readers to resources for Spanish speakers wanting to learn Portuguese, but for those strange folks going in the opposite direction (like me), I recently stumbled across Guia do espanhol para quem só fala portunhol, a 100+ page pdf. It moves fairly briskly through the points of difference between the two languages in terms of pronunciation, spelling, grammar and usage, and seems like an excellent introduction to Spanish for those who already speak Portuguese well.

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BRIC Language Program

As you may have noticed, I’ve been incommunicado for the past few months. The reason is that I started a graduate program in environmental science and that’s been taking up a huge chunk of my time. But it’s also given me a new Portuguese goal. You see, I’d really like to get an internship with a Brazilian NGO working on water management, and to do that, I’m going to need to up my fluency between now and this summer. In the meantime, I’ll be restarting my lessons and that will mean more material for Hacking Portuguese.

A commenter brought this (new?) language program to my attention:

BRIC Language Program

They are offering lessons for emerging economy languages, though so far it’s just Portuguese, Chinese and Spanish. At $45/lesson, it’s pricey. That is, unless you buy in enormous blocks of 24/48 hours, in which case it comes down to $27-29/hour — competitive, but who really wants to drop that much up front? It looks like they have 3 Portuguese instructors, all based in Brazil, and they use WebEx rather than Skype to conduct remote lessons, which I imagine gives you access to a shared whiteboard and document view in addition to the video conference. If you’ve taken lessons with BRIC, please share your experience in the comments!

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Coming soon: a new Hacking Portuguese

braP.203a10000CruzeirosND1984PrefixA3011BAMay was a big month for Hacking Portuguese as we hit 10,000 monthly visitors for the first time. That’s not very many as the webby world goes, but it’s a long way from where we started in November 2011. What began as a blog for me to share my accomplishments and frustrations has become a clearinghouse for those who love the Portuguese language and want to speak it better.

Now that it’s the summer for us norteamericanos and I have some more time, there are some changes in store. First of all:

You can now get HP posts delivered straight to your news feed on Facebook. Click the Like button on the upper-right side of the sidebar, or just visit our Facebook page.

I already follow StreetSmart Brazil and Learn Brazilian Portuguese on FB, and I think it’s a marvelous way to engage with the language in small doses everyday, not to mention an un-intimidating way to do some writing (in the comments). This means you can now also ask a question or make a suggestion on FB instead of in the comments.

I’m also planning a refresh to the entire site, including:

  • updated design
  • less wordy posts and more advice for beginners
  • a comprehensive video series that will teach Brazilian pronunciation
  • interviews with Second Language Acquisition experts
  • a new page for European Portuguese resources

Most importantly, I’ll be rewriting and reorganizing the most popular pages with a focus on how to use all these new resources together. The landscape of language learning on the web has changed quite a bit since 2011, and although I’ve made updates here and there to stay current, students need a better guide through the confusing clutter of sites that are out there. Here’s just some of the new resources that have appeared recently that I plan to review:

One of the things that happens when you learn Portuguese is that you fall down the deep rabbit hole of Brazilian culture. I’ve been indulging this side of myself (and practicing my Portuguese writing skills) with posts about Tropicália music and travel, but they don’t really belong here. All of these posts will be moved to a sister site, Brazil Made Me Smart, so that we can stay focused on the language.

Also going up on the new site will be a travelogue about my time in Rio, provisionally titled Deriva: Rio for musicians, introverts and flâneurs which will uncover a more intimate side of Rio. You will learn such things as how to ascend Corcovado on foot (both the sanctioned and unsanctioned routes), how to enjoy the views from the Morro da Urca without waiting in line for the tram, how to get lost in the alleys of O Centro, and how to stumble into impromptu rodas de capoeira in the becos of Lapa. We’ll talk about the neighborhoods that reward undirected exploration, the hidden stairways and museums of Santa Teresa, the winding mountain road that is a biker’s paradise, and the park full of creepy ruins in the forest that is hands down more exciting than the Jardim Botânico. We’ll consider the ethics of favela tourism, and whether it is really wise for a solo gringa to be doing all these things.

So, fique atenado (stay tuned)!

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the impasse: moving from B2 to C1

I’m back in LA for the summer and looking for some Portuguese speaking opportunities. While I did quite a bit of writing and conversation this spring, I feel like I’ve plateaued again. Looking at the CEFR scale of language aptitude, I feel pretty solidly in the B2 camp:

  • Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation.
  • Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
  • Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

But I also feel I have been at this level for well over a year now. Yes, yes: patience, grasshopper. I have no illusions of ever getting to C2 without living in Brazil, but I would really love to be at C1:

  • Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning.
  • Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.
  • Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.
  • Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

The common wisdom at this point seems to be, watch movies – listen to music – converse as much as possible. And I’m doing all of this. My plans for this summer include going to more Portuguese meetups, and getting the most out of Verbling.

Yet reading an entire novel is still a slog. Listening to fast speech I get the gist but lose the details. Speaking I can get my point across fine but I yearn for a richer, more relaxed expression. I can write in an academic mode but I fear I use too many structures that parallel my writing style in English, and perhaps sound awkward in Portuguese. I’m not sure if there’s a way beyond this impasse that doesn’t involve moving to Brazil, but if there are any tutors out there that want to give it a shot with a dedicated student, you’ll get a fantastic writeup (and money of course).

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You are the product: A critical look at Duolingo

Another day, another person trying to solve (and monetize) the online language learning conundrum. This time it’s Luis von Ahn, MacArthur Grant winner and ReCAPTCHA founder, who has been all over the Internet talking about his latest project Duolingo.

Luis, who has made a fortune wielding a giant hammer called “CROWDSOURCING!”, has unsurprisingly come to see language learning as a giant nail ripe for striking. He figures that he can develop some online language courses, encourage people to practice their skills by translating content from the web, and offer the courses for free by selling the translations that users generate in the process. (I have now helped him with this endeavor by translating two news articles on the violence in the Central African Republic).

By making everything free instead of, say, $500, Duolingo is aimed squarely at undoing the tyranny of Rosetta Stone, which I can only applaud. Democratizing language learning is a worthy goal. But it’s worth remembering the old adage that if a web service is free, you are the product being sold.

When Duolingo’s Portuguese course came out of beta a few weeks ago, I signed up. Besides looking at the Portuguese course, I also worked through the German course so I could experience the platform as a true beginner.

Duolingo has done a few things right, and one of them is that it’s taken language gamification to new heights. It’s about time someone leveraged the addictive power of games to help you do something productive, and Duolingo delivers, giving you a slick eye-candy interface, lots of points and trophies and badges to earn, “level-up” moments, and motivational emails when you don’t log in for a few days. There’s even a world map of sorts that lets you chart your own path through the courses. The mobile app looks just as good and allows you to use your downtime during the day for a quick study session.

There is real depth to the courses, too — the Portuguese course that I tried out takes you well into high-intermediate territory (though I never found out how far, exactly, due to the irritating requirement that you take a quiz to demonstrate mastery before skipping lessons). I liked that every single exercise linked to its own discussion thread where there were often knowledgeable native speakers on hand to answer questions. And the integrated memory schedule flashcard app that gets automatically populated with the words you’ve learned is a nice touch.

Every language system has its guiding metaphor (Pimsleur: the Conversation; Rosetta: the Multiple-Choice Test; Memrise: the Flashcard). The metaphor in Duolingo is Translation. And this means that almost everything in Duolingo happens in the context of a sentence, which seems at first like a good idea. You are either translating sentences from English to Portuguese, or from Portuguese to English, and learning new vocabulary and grammar incidentally along the way via Rosetta Stone-style multiple choice activities. All the sentences have good audio pronunciation, and some activities challenge you to transcribe a sentence from the audio alone, which is a very good exercise.

But the way the system harvests its sentences from web content leads to a dry learning experience. Some of the sentences appear to have been created by stringing random words together, so you will find yourself translating awkward things like “The teachers have water” or “We watched tons of coffee” or “That’s not the way people are treated” instead of, I don’t know, “How are you? Which way to the beach? Is there a library around here where I could check out a Pimsleur course?” The sentences are so far removed from anything that you might actually want to use in conversation that I doubt how much value there is in rote translation. Many sentences are flat out wrong. I eventually tired of sending so many error reports.

Duolingo requires that you unlock earlier lessons to get to later ones, but it gives you some choice in the order in which you work through them

Another problem is the basic challenge of having a computer validate a human translation: there are so many possible correct translations for a given sentence that a very complex algorithm is needed to determine whether what you have entered is acceptable or not. They have obviously spent considerable time developing this algorithm, and it is indeed impressive, but impressive is just not good enough here. I often entered perfectly valid translations that the system judged as wrong, and in some cases I had to just guess at the particular phrasing that would count as a correct answer. This is no way to learn a language as fluid and nuanced in its sentence structure as Portuguese (or German for that matter).

In forcing you to give only ‘correct’ responses, Duolingo deceives you into thinking that only certain translations are possible — “algumas moedas” but not “umas moedas”, for example, or “seu vestido” but not “o vestido dela”. This might not be so bad, but after three incorrect answers you are forced to restart the lesson at the beginning, leading to frustration and, ultimately, me giving up on Duolingo.

I did learn a few German pronouns and conjugations. It was addictive, for a few days. But very quickly it became boring — there’s little joy in translating awkward sentences plucked at random from the Internet, completely devoid of any interesting context. Die Lehrer haben Wasser. The Portuguese course was the same — different sentences, but no life, no brasilidade.

Yet, the biggest problem with Duolingo is that there is no provision for gaining an oral fluency with the language. This is important because most people learn a language because they want to be able to have conversations in that language. And for that you need to practice listening, speaking and pronunciation above all.

In terms of pronunciation, Duolingo leaves you to glean what you can from the recordings (there is a 1/2 speed option that helps with this). But this is backwards! Oral fluency has to come first, or else you haven’t really acquired the language (in the Stephen Krashen sense of the word), you’ve simply learned to manipulate visual symbols. Certainly, I do think grammar ought to be taught, and it is possible to be conversant in a language by symbolic manipulation alone, but how much more delightful it is when you have truly internalized that grammar by its sound, and that can only happen — in the beginning stages at least — by copious listening and speaking. Reading, I think, is the least useful mode for learning because there is no sound input, and sound is the basis for acquisition (though the LingQ folks will surely disagree). Speech comes prior to writing in language, but it comes last in Duolingo. [If you need an “ah-ha!” moment on what genuine acquisition and ‘comprehensible input’ feel like, check out Krashen’s two mini-lessons on German — granted, it is much easier to make the input comprehensible with a closely related language like German, but the point stands]

This preference for reading over listening and verbal production is a fundamental problem with most online language courses, so I don’t mean to pick on Duolingo specifically. Pimsleur is the only solo course I’ve found that comes close to replicating the experience of acquiring language through listening and speaking in conversation. And Pimsleur could be much better than it is. Yet no one has set about making a better Pimsleur because, my goodness, what a lot of work to script and record all those hours of conversations, make them progressive and engaging, incorporate the memory schedules…! Much easier to just build a flashcard app, or a multiple choice quiz, or a crowdsourcing engine. And so instead we get Duolingo.

I’m sure some people will like Duolingo a lot, and I’m all for whatever keeps you motivated and coming back — small, consistent, daily practice is the only way to really learn. The best thing about Duolingo may be its ability to get people interested enough in the language that they seek out other resources — first and foremost, a good teacher.

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