Can We Learn Portuguese in Two Months?

A project by Along Dusty Roads x Rosetta Stone

Love Actually is a staple Christmas film in the Along Dusty Roads household. If Emily had her way, we would probably watch it in spring, summer, and autumn too, but Andrew has thus far managed to hold firm against this.

Two years ago, as our Christmas day was ‘celebrated’ in an empty Argentine hostel in the middle of nowhere with a dirty pool and drizzly weather, watching the film together on our laptop was the only thing that gave us a sprinkling of the Christmas spirit. In amongst the school play, the airport chase, Bill Nighy’s gyrating hips, the PM’s rousing speech, and every Rowan Atkinson scene, there is however only one of Love Actually’s criss-crossing love stories which is guaranteed to bring at least one of us to tears each and every Christmas.

If you haven’t already seen it (seriously, where have you been?), then it’s the one between Jamie, the English writer, and Aurelia, his Portuguese housekeeper. Unable to speak each other's language, or to share a common one, they fall in love with the other secretly and silently. Jamie, played by Colin Firth, returns to London and begins to hastily learn Portuguese, culminating in the wonderful final scene where he, accompanied by her family and half the village, asks her to marry him in her mother tongue.


Portuguese, as evidenced by Jamie’s mangling of it, is a tough language. Its pronunciation is full of unexpected z’s, j’s, and nasal twangs, which conspire to make it feel altogether more removed and distant to the English speaker’s ear than Spanish or French. In fact, it wasn’t until we went to Brazil in 2016 and actually tuned into Portuguese, that we realised we had mistaken whole swathes of Portuguese speakers in London for Russians or Eastern Europeans.

But, with two trips to both Brazil and Portugal coming up in the next few months, it was time for Along Dusty Roads to do a Jamie and try to learn some Portuguese quite quickly! A marriage proposal may not be on the horizon, but it would make a seismic difference to our travel experience. Using a new language in the real world on any adventure opens up so many wonderful interactions and moments, as well as helping a traveller to navigate a new environment with confidence, and we wanted to arm ourselves with that ability in a language spoken on three continents.

And so, partnering with Rosetta Stone, we set ourselves a very personal challenge; to get to a good level of Portuguese in only two months exclusively using their online learning programme.


The Learning Process

As our waistlines can attest to, living a life of near-constant travel can make building a positive daily routine really difficult; learning a new language offered us the opportunity to change that.

Our aim was to do thirty minutes of dedicated learning each evening, with spontaneous bouts throughout the day on breaks if we felt the urge. Way back when, Emily used a Rosetta Stone CD-learning pack to get her basic Spanish; to you youngsters reading this, it may surprise you that that’s how we all used to learn languages for a very long time (in fact, that’s what Mr. Firth does in Love Actually). The tech and digital revolution has, thankfully, also disrupted the linguistics sector and it’s something which Rosetta Stone has fully embraced (can you imagine carting a box of 24 or so CDs in your backpack with you in 2018?)

All of Rosetta Stone’s twenty-four language courses can be accessed via their mobile app, and this offered us the ability and flexibility to learn wherever we were travelling. Thankfully, as each of the units which compose a course can also be downloaded in full for offline use, our routine wasn’t disrupted during our stay at a cottage in the Latvian countryside, when on a road trip in the Scottish Highlands, or on several plane rides.

As we both speak a good level of Spanish already, we had a bit of a head-start with Portuguese as many words and grammatical structures are similar. However, as we mentioned, it was the peculiar Portuguese pronunciation which saw us flummoxed in the past, and a real hope for the app was that it would show us how to improve our speaking and listening abilities rather than just give vocabulary lists (ironically, trying to say that ‘the pronunciation is really difficult’ is a bloody difficult phrase to pronounce in Portuguese).

A key feature of Rosetta Stone is that, according to their website, it has “the most advanced speech technology” in the form of TruACCENT™, which is speech recognition software to help you sound like a local. Judging by the amount of times we have had to repeat some sounds again and again until we get it right, this has certainly helped us. In Spanish for example, the ‘-do’ at the end of a verb has a very different sound to the ‘-do’ in Portuguese. Gradually, and with the app’s ‘speech recognition sensitivity’ settings now permanently at ‘hard’ rather than the default ‘easy’, it is paying dividends (and, quite eerily, our voices sound really different when speaking our new language).


The aspect we like most about our Portuguese course on Rosetta Stone however is how it has completely removed the learning by rote aspect of language which many of us have been brought up on and, unfortunately, only seen negative results with i.e. just remember this phrase if you want to do this, here’s a table of verbs to memorise, here are thirty words which you need to learn today even if they aren’t relevant or useful.

Instead, across each unit, you are instantly and solely immersed in the language which you wish to learn. Building blocks around key verbs and grammar, slotting in a few nouns around this and repeating back single words or short structures, it feels more akin to how a child learns language which is, we suppose, the most natural way that we all can learn a new skill. The emphasis is not on simply providing tourist phrases, but gradually providing a more innate and internalised understanding of how the language works so that you have more flexible real world usage in all manner of contexts.


Some people may really struggle with this aspect at first. For example, translations of words are never given, there is no teacher to explain away inevitable questions you may have about why certain words appear in certain structures, and no hand-holding ‘when you are in an airport, here are useful six really useful phrases to know’ sections. The lengthy repetition across a unit can also become a little frustrating at times.

However, it works. It really works.

You have to trust that the boffins who have devised the pedagogical technique and course journey have designed it so the areas which are unclear do eventually become quite revealed later on in each unit (they do). Similarly, the feeling that units could be shorter and a little less repetitive is obviously there for the same reason; you simply have to trust the technique will bear fruit in the end even if you do not want to confirm over and over again that ‘yes, the socks smell bad’ in Unit Three.


And so, as we write this, we are one month into our two month plan.

We would have hoped to be a little further along than Unit Five of Twelve (appropriately, it’s the ‘Travel’ unit we are now studying), but our schedule and lack of rigid discipline has meant we haven’t always kept to the expected routine (another reason for those expanding waistlines!). Each unit also takes more time to complete than we expected initially.

Most importantly however, now that we have arrived in Portugal, we are able to put what we’ve learned to the test.

Has it worked?

What Rosetta Stone has taught us thus far has allowed us to do the following in the past five days: take a taxi from the airport, order ice creams (priorities right?), ask a bus driver for directions, order at bars and restaurants, buy bus tickets, introduce ourselves, ask where to find some items in the supermarket, and understand any number we come across when asked to pay for something.

In stark contrast to what we did in Brazil two years ago, we are most certainly no longer speaking Spanish with just a bit more of a nasal twang and throwing in a z every now and again - we are confidently speaking beginner’s Portuguese to actual Portuguese people.

Certainly, at this stage in learning any language, our ability to communicate is still strictly limited to what we know. Situations have presented themselves where we simply do not have the vocabulary to continue the conversation or express what we really want to say; this is not a surprise however and we are really hoping that the next month will see our progress really skyrocket as we make our way through the course whilst being based in an immersive learning environment as we travel the Algarve.

This morning, to test how far we had actually come in speaking and understanding Portuguese, we found a video on vimeo with all the relevant scenes of the Jamie and Aurelia love story. It didn’t have any subtitles - and we were able to understand about 45% of everything she said and almost all of what he garbled through in his marriage proposal. One half of us still got a tear in their eye.

After just over a month of learning, we’re delighted with that.

Portuguese is definitely difficult, but if we keep this up it may just be a language we can love, actually.

Learn More About Rosetta Stone

We are learning Portuguese with this Rosetta Stone course, which you can purchase in monthly, multi-month, or annual memberships.

Rosetta Stone also offer courses - including the app, website and all the software we have used this last month - in twenty three other languages, including Spanish, Italian, and Chinese. They also have an additional seven languages available via desktop, making 30 total languages to choose from!

For more information, visit their website.