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When it comes to language learning these days, there’s Rosetta Stone and there’s everything else. Or at least, that’s what Rosetta Stone would like us to think. They have spent a fortune in advertising trying to convince us that if we just spend enough money, we can have a computer program hold our hands as we move from step A to step B to step C and so on, eventually achieving our dream of being fluent in a new language. Of course, it will cost us a few hundred dollars. Like most luxury items, Rosetta Stone trades on its high price and slick marketing to create a perception of quality.
I think Rosetta Stone is a good, well-produced product. But it’s not a magic key. Actual language study is a messy thing, one that requires motivation, a diversity of approaches, and hard work. Rosetta Stone is well beyond the budget of many people who would like to learn a language, and its one-size-fits-all approach ignores the fact that different people learn in different ways, and at different rates. Rosetta Stone also sells us the idea that achieving fluency can be easy if we just spend enough money and then let a computer program take responsibility for our learning. But achieving fluency is not easy! It requires dedication, enthusiasm, discipline, and several years of work (a lot of which can be fun).
So let’s take a look at some of the alternatives to Rosetta Stone. One of the most popular alternatives is the Pimsleur audio course. I got hooked on Pimsleur early in my Portuguese journey and ended up completing all 90 of the Pimsleur lessons. I found my increasing ability to say ever more complex things to be completely addictive and it kept me going through the whole course. Pimsleur worked so well for me that I have a pretty strong bias towards it, as I’ll explain below. But I acknowledge that everyone learns in a different way and may need different tools. I have not gone through the entire Rosetta Stone Portuguese course, but I have used Rosetta Stone French Level I previously and have received feedback from others who did use RS Portuguese.
With so many language programs available, it’s worth making a distinction between methods that try to be truly comprehensive versus those that address only one part of the learning process (like learning vocabulary or memorizing common phrases). I think a method that is truly comprehensive should ideally integrate vocabulary learning, grammar practice, and all four modes of language communication: speaking, listening, reading, writing. But in reality, nothing like this exists; every method has strengths and deficiencies in these areas. So it’s necessary to create a well-rounded study regimen that includes a diversity of different resources and activities. See the Roadmaps page for some suggestions on creating a complete plan.
- Type: Computer software, online app, supplemental audio, social website
- Best for: Reading, listening
- Not so good for: Speaking, writing
- Dialects: Brazilian only
- Cost: $200-600
Rosetta Stone comes in two forms, a very expensive software product that you install on your computer, and an online version that is cheaper but requires an internet connection. They also offer supplementary products like audio cds and a social website with access to native tutors (which can bring the bill up to $600, quite expensive when you can get a great affordable tutor locally or from StreetSmart Brazil instead). Rosetta Stone only offers Brazilian Portuguese, so if you’re learning European Portuguese you may want to go with something else.
Here are Rosetta Stone’s strengths compared with Pimsleur:
- Larger vocabulary. You’ll come out of RS having a significantly larger vocabulary than with Pimsleur (which is limited to about 500 words).
- Interactive and engaging. The interaction and greater variety of activities makes RS a better choice for visual learners, and for those who get bored or are easily distracted.
- Go at your own pace. Pimsleur often doesn’t give you enough time to respond to the prompts, which can be frustrating. Rosetta Stone lets you take as much time as you need.
- More reading practice. Since Rosetta Stone is more visual, reading is a part of most activities. Pimsleur offers very little reading practice.
- More comprehensive. While neither RS nor Pimsleur will get you anywhere near fluency, RS through Level III has enough material to take you farther toward that goal.
The main weakness is that Rosetta Stone emphasizes the receptive modes of communication (reading, listening) over the productive modes (speaking, writing). True, it does have some speech recognition capability to help you with your pronunciation, but from what I’ve seen this doesn’t work as well as I might like. And while it encourages you to repeat words and short phrases, it doesn’t give you much practice producing complete thoughts as you would do in a real conversation. The writing excercises teach you correct spellings but don’t give you much practice doing substantive writing. However, I give RS credit for at least trying to incorporate all four modes, so I think it comes close to being Comprehensive.
- Type: Audio course, mp3 or cd
- Good for: Speaking and listening
- Not as good for: Reading and writing
- Cost: $0 – $180
- Dialects: Brazilian and European
Pimsleur is an audio-only method consisting of 90 half-hour lessons that will theoretically take 3 months to complete, if you do one lesson roughly every day. In my case, it actually took me 7 months because I ended up not doing them every day and had to repeat them occasionally.
Unfortunately, there are a confusing number of different Pimsleur products out there. The only difference between them is how many lessons each product contains – the lessons themselves are identical from product to product. If you’re planning on doing the whole course of 90 lessons, the ones you want are called “Pimsleur Portuguese (Brazilian), Comprehensive, Revised 2nd edition, Levels I, II and III”. (You can also choose to study the European dialect, although unfortunately there are only 10 lessons offered). Each level (I, II, or III) contains 30 lessons. Make sure the product you’re getting says “Comprehensive” – that’s the only series that has all the lessons.
What Pimsleur has going for it is that rather than asking you to just memorize and repeat phrases like so many other courses, it actually prepares you for conversation by training you to quickly turn English thoughts into Portuguese speech. This means you’re actively involved in remembering the vocabulary that you’ve learned, and you’re engaged in putting the words together in new ways.
Everything in Pismleur happens in the context of a mock conversation. During the conversation, the narrator might prompt you in English, “How would you ask the clerk, ‘What are the directions to the hotel?'”, then there’s a pause of a few seconds for you to respond, and then the speaker will give the answer, which you repeat a second time trying to make your pronunciation match the speaker’s. You can try the first lesson for free on their website to get a feel for how it works.
In each lesson new words are introduced. You are asked to use them in your responses, at first frequently, and then as you move them into long-term memory, less so. This is what’s known as spaced repetition, and Dr. Paul Pimsleur developed it in the 1960s. This solves a common problem with language programs, which is that when you move on to a new section, you end up forgetting what you’ve learned previously. Pimsleur doesn’t let you forget, by constantly asking you to recall the words that you learned in previous units.
I’ll admit, the prompt-and-response format can definitely be tedious and unexciting for some people. But I would suggest at least trying the first 5 lessons of Pimsleur. If you’re like me, you might find that the thrill of being able to say ever-more-complex things in Portuguese makes you stick with it, even when it gets boring. But it does require some teeth-gritting.
So here are the main advantages of Pimsleur over Rosetta Stone:
- Much better conversational practice. Pimsleur trains you to quickly translate thoughts in English into speech in Portuguese, which is exactly what you’ll be doing during conversation, in the early-intermediate stages of learning at least. You’ll come out of Pimsleur much more capable and comfortable with carrying on simple conversations.
- Emphasis on language creation rather than memorization. With Pimsleur you won’t be just memorizing and repeating back phrases, you’ll be actively involved in using the words and grammar you know to create new sentences and express new ideas on your own. This means you actually have to focus and use your brain during each unit. Grammar is never explicitly taught, but is introduced gently by way of example, without you even noticing that you’re learning grammar.
- Better pronunciation. Because Pimsleur is so focused on listening and speaking, I think students will come out with clearer pronunciation. You get instant feedback from a native speaker after each of your responses, after which you can try a second time to perfect the response or the pronunciation. And being more secure with your pronunciation gives you greater confidence during conversation. Pimsleur is the obvious choice for aural learners.
- Cheap! Many libraries have a language learning section where you can check out Pimsleur cds, in which case it’s absolutely free. I completed the entire course this way and didn’t pay a cent.
- You don’t have to be sitting at your computer. You can do a Pimsleur lesson while driving, cooking, or even taking a bath. But unlike Rosetta Stone, you do need privacy, unless you don’t mind people wondering why that strange person is talking to themselves in Portuguese.
Pimsleur does have its weaknesses:
- The Pimsleur series is starting to show its age. It’s only available on cd (unless you download from Audible.com), so you’ll have to rip it to mp3 in order to get it into a more portable format. The narrator and speakers sound a bit … old fashioned. A lot of the scenarios revolve around “an American businessman” in Rio, and you’ll find yourself in some corny conversations about golf and trade shows. And it’s not as much fun as clicking on colorful photos on the computer.
- Limited vocabulary. Pimsleur teaches you a very small, though well-chosen, collection of about 500 words. This is one area where Rosetta Stone outdoes Pimsleur in spades. But in my opinion, having a huge vocabulary isn’t all that important when you’re just starting out. What’s important is internalizing the sounds of the language, the sentence structures, how to form questions, etc. On the Roadmaps page, we’ll see how it’s possible to combine Pimsleur with other resources to supplement your vocabulary while you work through the course.
- Not enough focus on reading. Pimsleur does include some reading practice, but these are nothing more than short lists of words in a little booklet that you are asked to repeat as a speaker reads them. This means you get little actual practice connecting the sounds you are learning to the written words. This is an important consideration for Portuguese, because like French (and unlike Spanish!), words are not always spelled like they sound. In fact, words are rarely pronounced in the way an English or Spanish speaker wants to pronounce them. So you need to get your reading practice another way, perhaps through Tá Falado, Semantica videos, or a textbook. And if you’re a visual learner like me, you might find it easier to remember words by their spelling rather than just the sound alone.
- A final thing I should mention is that Pimsleur teaches you an overly formal way of speaking, especially in the early lessons, that would honestly sound pretty weird to most Brazilians if you spoke like that in everyday conversation. Imagine the Queen of England trying to have a conversation with a random New Yorker on the street and you get the idea. Portuguese is a language that is very sensitive to social register, and the formal structures you are often taught to use in business-oriented courses like Pimsleur can sound very out of place in casual speech.
But here’s the thing: Despite all these shortcomings, Pimsleur still works beautifully. It gets you listening and speaking the language immediately, it gets you thinking in Portuguese sentence structures, and it drills the basic skeleton of the language into your brain until it becomes second nature. By the time you finish the whole series, you’ll have a strong foundation on which to expand your vocabulary, learn new verb forms, and make your speech more colloquial.
Some people get hung up over the lack of reading practice in Pimsleur. Let me just say that language is at heart about stringing together sounds to produce meaning. Reading and writing are just ways of manipulating symbols that stand in for the sounds. What is your mind doing when you read? It’s mentally vocalizing the sounds. When do you really know a word? When you recognize it by its sound, not by its visual transcription. What this means for language learning is that speaking and listening have to come first. Once the sounds are internalized, reading becomes a piece of cake.
Of course, no one program is going to do it all. No matter what you choose, you should round out your studying by using several different types of resources. But I still think Pimsleur offers the best value for the price. If you think of Pimsleur as your first gentle introduction to the language rather than a magic key to fluency, and if you have a well-rounded study regimen to make up for the shortcomings, then these disadvantages can all be easily overcome.
On a final note, in winter 2012 Pimsleur released a new product called Pimsleur Unlimited, which is a software program clearly designed to compete with Rosetta Stone. It looks like this product will address many of the weaknesses I mentioned and turn Pimsleur into more of a comprehensive system, adding tools for reading and vocabulary learning. Unfortunately, it is only available for Spanish, French, German and Italian right now. I have no idea if they plan to release a Portuguese version, but I imagine that if the product turns out to be competitive, they will gradually roll out other languages.
- Type: Video lessons featuring on-location storytelling
- Good for: Listening and pronunciation
- Not as good for: Reading and writing
- Cost: $15 – $30 per month. Use coupon code ‘hacking-portuguese’ for 15% off any subscription.
- Dialects: Brazilian
Semántica is the brainchild of James Hall, an american living in Rio who produces incredibly stories of life in Rio designed to teach Portuguese at the beginner-intermediate level. I consider them one of the gold standard Portuguese programs on the web because of their focus on Portuguese as it is actually spoken in Brazilian cities. Semántica was crucial in helping me develop fluency. See my reviews of Semántica’s beginner and advanced series’ here and their new intermediate series here.
I’ve used PortuguesePod101 for a year, and I think it’s fantastic. There is so much material here at so many different levels that this could keep you occupied for a couple years at least. There are audio dialogs, written texts, exercises, spaced-repetition flashcards, wordbanks. I recommend signing up for their email list, because they have sales quite frequently.
Other Audio Courses
- Type: Audio course
- Dialects: European only
- Good for: Listening, speaking
- Not so good for: Reading, writing
- Cost: $50
The Michel Thomas method is similar in approach to Pimsleur, but the teaching is more engaging, with more explanations in English since you are listening to a teacher instructing a live group of 2-3 students (there is very little explanation in Pimsleur). The explanations are interesting the first time around, but many people find them annoying when they re-listen to lessons. This method encourages you to relax and let the teacher be responsible for your learning, which they do by using spaced repetition and prompts which are all rather similar to Pimsleur. I’ve only done a cursory evaluation of this method, but from what I’ve seen it seems like it is more thoughtfully designed and less cookie-cutter than Pimsleur. On the other hand, you will have to listen to two other student learners which can be distracting.
The same strengths and weaknesses I discussed with Pimsleur also apply to Michel Thomas. There are two levels, beginning and ‘advanced’. There is no reading or writing practice. Also, some people don’t like hearing the other students’ responses because their pronunciation isn’t perfect; on the other hand, it can be instructive to learn from their mistakes when the teacher corrects them.
The one caveat I’ve noticed is that the teacher and speakers have a strong European accent, and therefore I assume that they teach European Portuguese grammar and vocabulary as well. If you want to learn European Portuguese, that’s wonderful, but if you really want to learn Brazilian Portuguese, Pimsleur may be a better option since it offers you the choice of either dialect.
Foreign Service Institute
- Type: Audio course with written guide
- Good for: Listening, speaking, reading
- Not so good for: Writing
- Dialects: European/Very formal Brazilian
- Cost: Free
The so-called “FSI tapes” are a series of language courses developed by the US Foreign Service Institute in the 1950s-1970s for the purpose of training diplomats. They are now in the public domain and are available on the internet as audio files accompanied by poorly scanned pdfs. You can download all 48 units for free here. Watch out for shady companies trying to sell you these courses at cost by advertising “the same courses used by the US State Department” or similar language. The courses are public domain and should be free.
I know that many people swear by the FSI course for helping them achieve fluency, and obviously at one point it was good enough to train US diplomats to communicate well. And I’ve heard that the FSI course take you much farther towards fluency that either RS or Pimsleur, which at best are mere introductions to a language. Unit 48 seems to get into the subjunctive, which is fairly advanced. But having worked through a bit of the FSI Portuguese program, it seems to me like an outmoded way of learning that few people today would have the patience for. You have to continuously pause and unpause the audio, as if you were sitting in front of a tape recorder. The course is very dry and teaches a pretty formal way of speaking, consistent with its intended audience.
Book-based Comprehensive Portuguese Methods
In addition to the courses mentioned above, there are a few other popular courses that try to be comprehensive. The two courses below are similar in their approach in that they use a book supplemented with spoken dialogs on a cd. They differ from regular textbooks in that they are designed for self-study rather than classroom use — this generally means more explanatory text in English, more written grammar exercises to provide opportunities to practice on paper, and more listening exercises, but few exercises based on group interaction or speech. These courses could be a great option for those who prefer to study more from a book and are less concerned about conversational skills.
- Type: Self-teaching book plus supplementary audio
- Cost: $30
- Dialects: Brazilian / European+Brazilian
I recommend this book + 2 cds for beginners who are going it alone, as a supplement to a more audio-focused course like Pimsleur. There are several versions of this well-respected course available. “Complete Portuguese: A Teach Yourself Guide” by Manuela Cook attempts to teach both dialects at the same time, which I find confusing. A better option, if you’re learning the Brazilian dialect, is “Complete Brazilian Portuguese: A Teach Yourself Guide” by Sue Tyson-Ward. In either case, make sure you are getting the most recent edition from 2010.
- Type: Self-teaching book plus supplementary cds with dialogs
- Good for: Reading, writing, listening
- Not so good for: Speaking
- Dialects: Brazilian only
- Cost: $22
This is a very reasonably priced course that consists of two books, Level 1 and 2, along with supplementary cds that contain spoken dialogs. It’s almost more of a self-study textbook, which makes it quite different from RS or Pimsleur. I like that it’s designed specifically for self-learners, that there are lots of exercises, that it’s specific to Brazil, and that it’s of fairly recent vintage (Level 1 was published in 1997, Level 2 in 2008).
Like many textbooks, it’s divided into thematic units like Education, Work, Sports, Holidays, etc. (which is an excellent way of learning vocabulary, in thematic chunks) and grammar is sprinkled throughout but is not foregrounded. The exercises are all written and some involve listening to a spoken dialog; there’s little chance to practice speaking or fine-tune pronunciation. The text can be a little dry and unengaging, moreso than the Teach Yourself book.
- Type: Desktop software, online apps, iPhone apps
- Good for: Vocabulary learning, pronunciation, reading (depending on product)
- Not so good for: Speaking, writing
- Dialects: Brazilian and European
- Cost: Depends on product
Transparent Language offers a whole page of different products, most of which I haven’t tried and can’t vouch for. It seems like many of their products, though, are based on the Byki platform, which I’ve used on my iPhone, and which is little more than a fancy flashcard app. As flashcard apps go, it’s actually one of the better ones out there, with an extensive database of premade vocabulary lists, a few games, and good recordings of each word to help with pronunciation — but still, I question whether any product relying heavily on this platform is really a comprehensive method rather than just applied vocabulary learning. At best it might be a good supplement to expand your vocabulary, or a gentle way to introduce yourself to the sound of the language by learning a few words and phrases. In the early stages of my learning, I did successfully use Byki to learn a bunch of verbs and the names of things like vegetables, so it has its uses. Transparent’s Portuguese blog is pretty good, by the way.
- Type: Online course
- Dialects: Not differentiated
- Good for: Reading, writing
- Not so good for: Speaking, listening
- Cost: Free
Read my complete review of Duolingo.
- Type: Online
- Dialects: User-defined
- Good for: Primarily reading and writing for beginning and intermediate learners
- Not so good for: listening, speaking, advanced learners
- Cost: Four levels of membership, from $0-$79 a month
LingQ is less of a comprehensive language system than a tool designed to solve one specific problem. As you progress in learning a language, you eventually want to seek out reading material on the web that both challenges and interests you – newspaper articles, blog posts, etc. This is a great way to introduce yourself to new vocabulary in real-world contexts. The problem is that every time you encounter an unfamiliar word, you must stop reading, look up the word either in a dictionary or online, perhaps write it down in a notebook, and return to your reading. Then, you need some way of keeping track of the words you have looked up so you can review them later and eventually move them into your long-term memory. Thus your reading experience becomes painstakingly frustrating.
LingQ is designed to make this process as fast and seamless as possible, by bringing together several different tools into one interface. It works like this: you find a text you would like to read online. You then import it into LingQ, at which point it scans the article and highlights in blue any new words that it thinks will be unfamiliar to you. As you read, you can click on one of these unfamiliar words to bring up an instant dictionary definition. Another click will save it to your collection of vocabulary flashcards, which you can review according to an Anki-like memory schedule.
How does LingQ know which words are new to you? Well, at the beginning it assumes you don’t know anything and every word is new. As you add words to your vocabulary stack, it remembers each time you encounter them in a text or review them, and eventually they become ‘known’ words. Over time, your collection of known words increases and you will see fewer and fewer unfamiliar words highlighted in blue. This provides a nice psychological sense of your progress.
But what this also means is that you only get the full benefit of LingQ by using it frequently. For the process to work, it needs to have an accurate picture of which words you do and don’t know, which requires the time and investment on your part to read lots of texts, flagging the words you already know, and ‘LingQing’ the ones you don’t. For a beginner starting out from scratch, who has just a small vocabulary, this works quite well. But intermediate or advanced users, unless they have been using LingQ from the start, will soon tire of loading up a text filled with blue words and having to teach LingQ the hundreds of words they already know. For these users, it would be helpful to let them select their own starting point, automatically marking the 100 or 500 or 1000 most common words in the language as known.
LingQ also provides some social aspects, allowing you to participate in Skype conversations and have native speakers grade your writings, but the real meat of the system is reading.
Verbling is a system that pairs you with language exchange partners and lets you video chat instantly.
- Type: Social language websites
- Dialects: Numerous, depending on the user base
- Good for: Reading and writing in chat-based conversations, proofreading writing, asking complex usage questions
- Not so good for: Listening, speaking
- Cost: Free to register and use limited features; some courses may cost extra
Livemocha and Busuu are part of an emerging trend of websites that offer “social language learning” by connecting you with native speakers of your target language who are themselves learning your native language. So, as a portuguese learner, you might be partnered with someone in Brazil who is learning English. There are partnered activities like chats and games where you complete tasks by helping each other learn your native languages. There are also places where you can have native speakers review writing that you’ve done.
I haven’t used these sites much, but I think they could be great for more advanced learners who have usage questions that only a native speaker can answer. I’d be interested to hear about the experience of a beginner using them. It’s also very satisfying to help another person learn your native language, too. As for the online beginner classes that these sites offer, my hunch is that they are mostly an incentive to get people to register to use the site, and probably don’t take you very far.
- Type: Online tutoring via Skype
- Good for: Listening and speaking in actual conversations, pronunciation, grammar
- Dialects: Brazilian only
- Cost: Contact SSB for current hourly rates
I’ve reviewed StreetSmart Brazil elsewhere on this site, and even though they are a tutoring service rather than a product, I can’t fail to mention them here. None of the other courses on this page offer the same opportunity for learning conversation, grammar, pronunciation and all four modes of communication at once. The wonderful thing about Streetsmart is you get to interact with a professor who can customize the lessons according to your ability and interests. Your lessons could include any of the following: conversing with your professor, studying grammar using their proprietary materials and materials from other textbooks, reading news articles or blogs, listening to songs on youtube, or going over a writing exercise. It can be as structured or as unstructured as you want. Plus you’re constantly getting instant feedback from a native speaker.
Besides all of the courses mentioned here, there are dozens of other websites, phone apps, desktop software, and companies out there with products claiming to teach you Portuguese “quickly and easily”.
My experience is that 90% of these are claiming to be comprehensive programs for learning Portuguese, when really they are nothing more than phrasebooks, lists of vocabulary, poorly-done videos, or flashcard-type apps. Most of them are of terrible quality with no thought given to pedagogical approach, the difference between European and Brazilian Portuguese, or teaching proper pronunciation. And most of them take a cookie-cutter approach, using the same approach for every language.
My advice is to stick with one of the respected courses above: Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, Michel Thomas, StreetSmart Brazil, Teach Yourself, or Colloquial Portuguese of Brazil as the foundation of your learning, and supplement it with the other resources mentioned on The Top 10 Resources for Achieving Fluency in Portuguese.
If there are other courses or products you would like to see reviewed here, let me know in the comments.