Listening comprehension is by far the hardest of the four modes of communication to acquire. Long after I felt comfortable reading a newspaper, writing an email, or asking someone for directions in Portuguese, I still struggled to understand even simple sentences of spoken Portuguese. It’s important to realize that listening, like any other part of language learning, requires regular practice. It requires a specific type of practice, actually – one that I had been neglecting.
A lot of people say you should just watch a lot of movies or listen to the radio to acquire listening comprehension, but I think that’s a bit naive. Passively listening to something that is way beyond your level or much too fast for you to process will not magically improve listening comprehension by osmosis, it will only make you frustrated.
The solution is to do a lot of what is called active listening. To do active listening, you need your full attention, you need some type of dictionary at your disposal, and you need media that is appropriate to your level. Something slow enough and simple enough that you can process at least part of the content. Ideally, it would be something just a little more advanced than where you are now, though in practical terms it is hard to find resources for every stage of learning, particularly for beginners.
So for a beginner, this might mean just concentrating on picking out familiar words at first. Intermediate learners will focus on picking out phrases, and then entire sentences. It’s definitely ok if you don’t understand every word.
When you are actively listening, you should find a recording that is short (1 to 5 minutes), and you should listen to it at least three times. The first time, listen to it all the way through without stopping. Even if you don’t understand a lot of it, focus on understanding the major themes or the gist of the piece. The second time through, work your way through slowly, stopping and rewinding as needed – sometimes I have to listen to a phrase 10 times before it clicks and I recognize the words. Look up important words that you don’t know. As you work out the phrases, write them down and try to create a transcription. It’s ok if there are holes in your transcript, but write down as much of it as you can. Then listen to the whole thing again a third time, without stopping. If there are still missing parts you’d really like to understand, consider submitting your clip to have it transcribed on RhinoSpike.
Make this kind of exercise a regular part of your studies. Find a news site, podcast or youtube channel that you like and commit yourself to actively listening to one program/song/video a day. It’s easier to stay focused when you find media that appeals to your other interests. Keep it up for a year, along with your other portuguese studies, and your listening comprehension will improve dramatically.
Here’s a few more tips, and then I’ll suggest some places where you can find interesting audio and video to practice your listening:
Mais devagar, por favor! (Slower, please!)
Brazilians love to speak fast – and this can make listening comprehension really tough, because words tend to run together in an unintelligible stream. Much like English speakers, Brazilians also tend to clip off the ends or beginnings of words (Witness how “Você está indo para o mercado?” becomes “Cê tá indo pro mercado?” or how “Deixe eu ver” becomes “Xô ver”). This is extra frustrating because even if you know all the words a speaker is using, you could wind up not recognizing them in practice.
During a face-to-face conversation, sometimes the magic key is simply to ask a speaker to slow down. A simple “Desculpe, não entendi. Podia falar mais devagar, por favor?” is a great phrase to have ready on the tip of your tongue. When you ask Brazilians to speak more slowly and clearly, you’ll be amazed how much more you understand.
Sotaques não são todos iguais (All accents are not the same)
Another thing to consider is that some regional accents are easier than others to understand. When I was in Rio for the first time, I found the thick Carioca accent to be particularly unintelligible – even though I’d been specifically studying the way people from Rio talk! I would ask someone a question in very natural-sounding unhesitating Brazilian Portuguese, and then look at them apologetically when I couldn’t make heads or tails of their response – even when it was something as simple as “No, you pay over there”. But when I would meet a Brazilian from São Paulo or Curitiba, it was like they spoke a whole different language, one which I could actually understand and converse with them in.
You’ll probably find that you understand some speakers easily but with others you can’t understand a word they’re saying. That’s natural, and it’s important not to get frustrated, and to search for media with speakers that are easier for you.
On that note, one suggestion I have is to search for media featuring female speakers. This might seem like an unusual suggestion, but I’ve noticed that Brazilian women often speak more slowly, and they intonate more — sometimes a lot more. Their speech cadence tends to draw out every syllable, which can make it easier to understand them. Brazilian men, on the other hand, frequently speak in a fast, mumbled stream, clipping off the unstressed ends of words so that it becomes difficult to recognize even words that you already know.
Retardá-lo! (Slow it down!)
One great way to slow down recorded speech to an intelligible level is to use software like the Amazing Slow Downer (very simple to use, but costs $50 for the desktop version or $15 for the iPhone app) or Audacity (more complicated but free), which can slow down the speed of any audio file without changing the pitch. I often use ASD to slow down audio book mp3s to a more manageable rate. You can use it for youtube videos too, but first you have to grab the audio and turn it into an mp3 – there’s a bunch of free services that will do this for you.
Legendas em português (Subtitles in Portuguese)
Try to find videos and films with subtitles (legendas) in Portuguese, not English. This will give you a crutch to help you process what you’re hearing, but it will keep you focused on the sound of the language, without allowing you to cheat as with English subtitles.
14 Resources for Listening Practice
Thanks to the web, there’s more ways than ever to practice listening when you don’t have a native speaker available. The important thing is not to get overwhelmed by options. Find the ones that appeal to your interests and commit to actively listening to one thing every day. Here are some resources that I have personally used:
1. For beginner and intermediate students, the publisher’s website for the textbook Ponto de Encontro has dozens of audio clips with speakers speaking at a very leisurely rate. There’s no need to own the book to access the clips.
2. The Semantica Series 1 and 2 videos are great practice for beginner and intermediate/advanced speakers, respectively. The conversations are scripted but the acting and production are very good. Shot on location in Rio, these videos are a great opportunity to hear the distinctive carioca dialect spoken by residents of Rio. Every video is transcribed in both English and Portuguese and intermediate-level grammar is highlighted.
3. UT Austin’s BrazilPod team has two sites filled with videos of native speakers conversing and speaking in a very unscripted manner. The videos are transcribed in both Portuguese and English and interesting usage points are highlighted. ClicaBrasil (see my review), is designed for intermediate students and features a comprehensive set of exercises, readings, videos and grammar instruction. Conversa Brasileira (see my review) is for quite advanced students and contains videos of Brazilians conversing with each other. Also check out their video archive of Portuguese Communications Exercises.
4. You can listen to almost any Brazilian radio station streaming online, either from their website or via an iphone app like Radio X3. Brazilian radio djs tend to speak very fast and colloquially, so it might be a challenge to keep up. Also, don’t be surprised to hear more American music than Brazilian music on many FM stations. I personally enjoy listening to Rádio Cultura, part of the wonderful Cultura Brasil family, which has interviews and music segments featuring Brazilian musicians and artists in all styles.
5. CBN has standard AM news radio fare, including coverage of futebol games.
6. There are many ways to watch Brazilian tv over the internet. The site wwiTV has 64 different Brazilian stations you can watch. The aforementioned Cultura Brasil has great tv segments, but I also particularly like Globo Rural, which has hundreds of news segments on environmental and agricultural issues from the rural parts of Brazil, as well as tasty recipes. The anchor and reporters all speak fairly clearly. BBC Brasil also has world news videos with very clear speakers. And the Globo.tv iPhone app lets you watch hundreds of short clips from dozens of shows – documentaries, telenovelas, news programs, reality shows, cooking shows, you name it.
6. PortuguesePod101.com has hundreds of podcast-style audio lessons that provide excellent listening practice. I especially recommend the intermediate and advanced lessons. The intermediate level lessons contain dialogs that are presented at normal speaking speed and at half speed, followed by an explanation of the vocabulary and the grammar in English. The advanced lessons are spoken ‘essays’ about Brazilian culture, entirely in Portuguese. A subscription is required to access most of the upper level content.
7. LibriVox hosts free audiobook versions of 49 public domain books in Portuguese
8. RhinoSpike is a website where users submit written texts that they would like to have read aloud by a native speaker. At first I didn’t think this would be terribly useful to me, but while browsing the list of recorded texts, it occurred to me that this is actually an amazing resource for listening practice! Where else can you browse a large list of recordings in Portuguese, spoken slowly and clearly by native speakers, with a perfect transcript available (perfect since the speakers are reading the text word for word)? Advanced students could listen to just the audio, only consulting the transcript when necessary. Intermediate students can read the text while listening to the audio, which is a great way to build comprehension. The texts vary from song lyrics to short sayings to longer passages from websites. There are about 200 recordings available as I type this. Another neat feature of RhinoSpike is that you can submit audio that you would like to have transcribed by a native speaker.
9. Português com Humor is a podcast/blog that advanced students might enjoy, though it isn’t designed specifically for PLE (português como língua estrangeira) learners. It’s an interesting look into the sort of language issues that confuse native speakers — accent marks, onde vs aonde, eu vs mim. The podcast discussion is native-level, but I still found the two speakers pretty easy to understand and fun to listen to.
10. Check out the TED Talks São Paulo videos for listening exercises on some fascinating topics. The speakers have various accents but they tend to speak clearly, and you can turn on Portuguese subtitles on the youtube versions.
11. Floresta faz a diferença, a campaign to stop the gutting of a law that protects forests in Brasil, has a youtube channel full of short clips on environmental subjects.
12. The Brazilian airline TAM has some good videos about air travel on youtube.
Música popular brasileira (MPB) is a genre of music written by Brazilian artists from the late 1960s up to the present. MPB songs tend to feature well-known singer-songwriters; they mix rock, pop and samba influences; and they contain meaningful, well-crafted lyrics. For all these reasons, I think MPB music is a great vehicle for learning Portuguese, as well as quite beautiful in its own right.
13. letras.terra.com.br is one of my favorite sites for listening to this type of music. It has a huge collection of songs, and you can watch the video and read the letras (lyrics) all on the same page (and get the chords if you’re a musician). Some of my favorite musicians in this genre are Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Cássia Eller, Ana Carolina, Seu Jorge, João Gilberto, Jorge Bem, and Gilberto Gil. Chico, Caetano, and Jorge in particular produced a number of classic albums in the 1970s that defined the sound of MPB. Some of Chico Buarque’s most haunting songs (Cotidiano, Cálice, Construção) were masterful critiques of the harsh life under the military dictatorship, with poetic lyrics designed to evade government censors using word play and metaphor.
13. National Geographic hosts a large channel of music videos by Brazilian MPB/pop artists.
Speaking of music, on Fernando Nonohay’s Fun with Brazilian Portuguese blog, he regularly features music videos which he has transcribed and translated.
Writing for me is one of the most fulfilling ways to study portuguese, because it’s where I get to spend time really engaging productively with the language. For me it is where all my dúvidas (doubts) about the language pop up, all those little nagging grammar and spelling and usage questions, and it’s only while writing that I get to take the time to investigate and resolve them.
If during a conversation it’s important to not worry too much about making mistakes, then during writing it’s important to pinpoint those places where you think you might make a mistake and do your best to resolve it. If you don’t have any portuguese-speaking friends or teachers handy, an indespensible book to have on hand is Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar by John Whitlam, which is one of my Top 10 resources.
Writing doesn’t have to be a major production – emails to portuguese-speaking friends, blog comments, and facebook posts all provide an opportunity to do a little bit of informal writing.
Writing can also be a way to acquire new vocabulary. Even if you have a great vocabulary, there’s something about sitting down and writing on a topic that makes you realize how many words you still don’t know. But the good news is that those words you end up looking up and then actually using in your writing – they stick with you, far more than words you encounter when reading.