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Fluent in a Year: How I Learned Portuguese for Free and Without Immersion Abroad

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Janisa has always had a passion for languages and enjoys unconventional ways of learning them. She can speak 10 languages to various extents

Becoming a polyglot isn't as impossible or expensive as you may think!

Becoming a polyglot isn't as impossible or expensive as you may think!

Learning Languages

I'll start with a bit of a background about me to explain how I started all this and why I'm interested in languages. I guess this whole passion for languages started when I was around 7 or 8 when I would collect a lot of these multilingual guest brochures that are given out to visitors at botanical gardens, parks and other touristic areas. Then I would write out some of the words from one of the foreign language brochures and write out a phrase from the English version hoping it was the translation. My goal was to be able to speak every language in this way and unfortunately, that didn't work. I never got further than learning a few words in a bunch of languages.

Learning for Free

Ever since I was 12 or 13 I had an objective to learn a language completely for free. Whenever I searched for free materials, I always came across numerous supposedly free sites that required a credit card to join or had a free trial that ran out the next week. I also didn't want to take courses because from my experience, as soon as there is a responsibility to complete homework and attend class, the language learning process becomes more of a burden and less fun and I tend to lose the motivation to learn it.

I knew that it was definitely possible to learn a language for free and I found numerous language learning textbooks online. The problem with this was that I wanted to have fun while learning a language, so solely using a textbook wasn't going to get me far. I have to admit that I was quite tempted by all these "Speak in a week" and "fluent in 3 months" programs. However, I didn't want to pay to take part in such programs. I also suspected that there was a bit of a trick involved. Sure, you'll be able to speak some words of a language after a week, but the program doesn't state how many words and whether or not you'll be able to hold a conversation. I guess you could become fluent in a language after three months of serious learning, but maybe you've been passively learning it for years prior to this.

This was when I got the idea to someday develop my own similar language learning method that works every time. For now, I'm just experimenting with what works and what doesn't to help me achieve my goal of becoming a mega polyglot.

I also do have to admit that the title of my article is somewhat misleading as well. I didn't reach fluency 1 year after first coming into contact with Portuguese. I got to a fluent level 1 year after I set a goal and decided to study it. Prior to this I already knew some words and phrases and had very passively studied the language for a few months.

Methods Used

The following are the methods I used when learning Portuguese and also use when learning other languages. They are all free to use and the most you'll ever need to pay for is your internet connection. However, you can just migrate to the nearest public library and learn completely for free. I will list the methods here and then explain and describe each one further down.

The methods and resources:

  1. Duolingo
  2. LyricsTraining
  3. Exercise book (I will clarify which one when I write about it)
  4. Watching Cartoons
  5. Finding a penpal
  6. Reading
  7. Making the language a part of your life
  8. A language-related hobby
  9. Learning vocab
  10. Speaking
  11. Word games
  12. Movies and longer videos

Some of these language learning methods may seem very obvious and straightforward at first and some may appear useless, but hopefully, you will understand why and how they work as you read along. Also, these are the ones that worked for me and since everyone learns differently, you may find that some of my suggestions really are useless for you and that's perfectly normal; you may discover methods that are completely useless for me but work for you.

1. Duolingo

Duolingo is my go-to resource whenever I start learning a new language. The large selection makes it suitable for practically any language I may decide to learn, even some less common ones such as Czech and Ukrainian. Duolingo also offers the majority of popular and widely spoken languages such as French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Chinese, and, of course, Portuguese. It is also possible to learn from different source languages, which enables speakers of other languages to benefit from the tool as well as giving English speakers an opportunity to challenge themselves to complete reverse courses.

So, How Does Duolingo Work?

Duolingo is based on translation, using a gamified approach. The user is given a sentence, phrase or word, usually in their target language and asked to translate it to the source language (their native language). New vocabulary and grammar are given in context so that users don't have to focus on memorizing separate rules, but instead learn everything as they go along. There are also grammar explanations and tips, which are more common in earlier lessons and tips. Those who have already studied the language previously have an option of taking a placement test to start with harder material. Now, that the new 'levels' feature is in place, upon completing a skill for the first time, users can redo it to level up, being presented with harder content every time they complete a lesson.

Why I Chose Duolingo?

It is a great place to get an introduction to the language and learn some basic words and grammar. While Duolingo definitely cannot get one to fluency on its own, it is a vital stepping stone for moving on to outside resources, without being a complete beginner when you do so. I also like how Duolingo lessons don't focus on grammar, so that you can effortlessly move through the lessons, retaining the important stuff.

How I Learn With Duolingo

Like I mentioned above, everyone learns differently, so follow my suggestions with caution; if you don't feel that something is helping you improve, stop doing it and try something else.

What Helps Me

  • Writing out new vocab in a notebook. I also do this with whole sentences when I first begin the language. This way you have some sentence structure examples for when you want to produce your own sentences. This method also helps me remember new vocab and verb conjugations. Also, since Duolingo is translation based, you have the translation for any given word or sentence almost immediately after seeing it.
  • Using new things you learn. What better way to remember something than using it in "real life"? You can use your newly learned words and phrases with your pen pal (which I will write about further down) or in writing (which I also will discuss later).
  • Reviewing before learning something new. Reviewing is a bit different with Duolingo's new levels system, but it is still possible and now things get more challenging the more you review them. Depending on the difficulty of the material I just learned or will learn, I do 1-3 lessons of review and then around 1-2 new lessons
  • Participating in the sentence discussions. Upon finishing an exercise, users have the option to discuss the sentence and ask for clarification on things they didn't understand. This feature is especially useful if the course doesn't have many tips and notes since it is a great way to get your questions answered.
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Duolingo Pros and Cons


  • 100% free to use
  • Great way to introduce oneself to a new language
  • Learning is fun and the lessons are quick
  • Large selection of languages offered
  • Translation-based learning, no need to spend time memorizing grammar bits


  • The majority of the exercises ask users to translate to their native language
  • Nearly no emphasis on speaking
  • The TTS doesn't always pronounce things properly
  • The lack of explanations makes some concepts hard to grasp
  • Can't become fluent using Duolingo alone

2. LyricsTraining

LyricsTraining is my favourite tool not only for practicing foreign language listening skills but also for finding new music to listen to. It is free to use and offers music in popular languages that use a Latin script (or have a romanized version of their script). Some of the languages that LyricsTraining offers are Portuguese, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Finnish, and Japanese.

How Does LyricsTraining Work?

First, a user must choose a language that they're learning. This language can be easily changed at any time with the click of a button. A selection of songs then appears in that language. Some are rated as easy and others are said to be more challenging, but the difficulty of the song is evaluated by the person who made the song available on the site, so it isn't always accurate. Any user is able to upload a song (from YouTube) add the lyrics to it as subtitles and then release it to the general public to benefit from them.

Why I Chose LyricsTraining

Like many people, I enjoy listening to music, so I decided to turn this hobby into an opportunity to improve my language skills. A great selection of songs for different levels and music tastes are available on the site, so everyone will find something they'll enjoy.

How I Use LyricsTraining

When I first began using LyricsTraining, I was finding it too challenging to type in new words as the song played. Instead of giving up, I decided to switch my game style and selected words from a word bank. Now, depending on the level and language I'm practicing, I select either the "Easy," "Intermediate," or "Advanced." For Portuguese, I now always begin with the advanced version and sometimes even decide to challenge myself by filling in 100% of the song.

What Helps Me

There is almost always at least something in the song that I don't understand. Instead of googling the entire song's translation, I often search up a thing or two that I really don't understand and then guess the rest. The phrase I search often helps me understand what the song is about. Sometimes, I translate the title and expand my vocabulary this way.

LyricsTraining Pros and Cons


  • Free to use
  • Numerous languages and levels are available
  • Lots of different songs
  • Anyone can contribute a song
  • Practice listening to the language while having fun


  • It's possible to find spelling mistakes and wrong words in the lyrics
  • No translation
  • Not all languages have a diverse selection of songs

3. Exercise Book

I usually don't enjoy using textbooks to learn languages because they make the process seem too much like a chore. I make exceptions when I'm able to find textbooks that will make me enjoy learning the language. "Ler, Falar, Escrever" was one of them. The exercise book was designed by Brazilians for Portuguese learners and it is entirely in Portuguese. It teaches grammar bit by bit so that the learner doesn't get overwhelmed. There are also interesting stories at the end of each chapter and some allow you to learn more about Brazilian history and culture. The activities are fun and challenging and this book greatly helped me improve my writing and grammar skills. It is also beneficial to have a native speaker friend who is willing to correct your exercises and offer explanations.

4. Watching Cartoons

Cartoons are a great place to start when you want to begin exposing yourself to media in your target language, but want to take it slow. Cartoons are made for children, so they tend to use easier-to-understand vocabulary and characters speak slower.

5. Finding a Pen Pal

In addition to it being cool to have a friend on the other side of the world, a pen pal can also help you with your language learning journey. They can correct your exercises and answer your questions about the language. Once you feel you're ready, your foreign friend could also speak with you in the language to help you practice.

6. Reading

Similar to digital media, you should also start slow with reading. Begin with material created for children, such as picture books. There you'll have the drawings to clarify the plot for you if you don't understand something. You may also be lucky enough to find multilingual books. These are great because this way you'll have the text in your target language and native language side by side, without having to take out your dictionary.

After you improve, you can begin to move on to harder books, such as short novels. At this step, you should still focus on easier material and try to find bilingual books. Another good option is to read something you've already read in your native language before so that you have an easier time understanding what's going on in the story.

© 2018 Janisa


Liz Westwood from UK on July 31, 2018:

I like learning languages and get frustrated when I'm unable to communicate when abroad. This is a really useful article. My problem is not so much translating from the written word into my native language, but expressing myself adequately to make myself understood.

Janisa (author) from Earth on July 30, 2018:

@threekeys I wish you luck with your language journey! :)

threekeys on July 30, 2018:

Janisa-your way of learning a language may finally get me to learn a language. Your way seems so much more like fun. I love it!

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