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How to Improve your Portuguese Listening Comprehension

a discussion on portuguese listening comprehension

I understand a simple recording, but not people talking on the streets.”

When my students tell me that they want to practice their Portuguese listening skills, I invariably suggest they listen to more Portuguese. You know, exposing themselves to the language will somehow help.

But I have a confession to make. This does not always work.

And the reason is, this advice needs some qualification to go with.

And my students also know that. I tell him to listen to the language as much as they can, but I usually add the pieces of advice that I’m including this article today.

First, why does it not work to practice listening to Portuguese intensively?

As I said, it does require a qualification.

If you listen to a Portuguese podcast or something else that is way above your level, you might feel frustrated. And it is especially true if you just listen to it passively.

You know, it’s as if you were throwing darts at a concrete wall hoping they would stay. No matter how good you are at throwing darts you don’t stand a chance at making them stick.

The same goes for listening to Portuguese as much as you can without a plan. You might be exposed to a barrage of Portuguese sounds, and at the end of the listening session, you wouldn’t know any more than you did before it began.

Now that we know what doesn’t work let’s find out why you don’t understand what you hear.

When I was studying Chinese, I came across a simple evaluation to find out whether you couldn’t understand what was being said and why you couldn’t.

Basically, you have to ask yourself three questions to diagnose why you can’t understand what you hear in Portuguese.

A Quick Diagnosis — Portuguese Listening Comprehension Difficulties

First, when you listen to a short speech or a few phrases, can you write them down? If you were to take dictation, could you write down some words without the other person spelling them for you?

Second, you can repeat the words that were said to you but you don’t understand their overall meaning. Is that your case?

Third, can you understand whatever is being said the first time around? Do you understand it after a second round?

See in the discussion below what you should do in each case.

I can take dictation!

If you can write down the words that are being said to you — as when you take dictation and you recognize a word among other words, it means you are aware of the phonological correspondence between the written language and the spoken language.

And it’s already very good.

But if you can’t put down a single word from some listening matter, you should work on grasping the basic sounds of the Portuguese language.

Lucky you, I have a free pronunciation course and an extensive guide to the alphabet sounds in Portuguese.

Two Entirely Free Resources to Help You Understand More

The Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation course [new tab] is there to help you solve the most common problems English speakers have when they learn Portuguese. It will help you distinguish the difference between grandfather and grandmother, for example.

And the guide to the Portuguese alphabet [new tab] lists some of the common spelling-sound correspondence. And you will also learn how to spell words out in Portuguese.

Can you repeat what is being said but you don’t grasp its meaning?

It always amazes me when I see students ask me, “what does [a word I just said] mean?”

It tells me they can parse out a word from a sentence I said but they can’t understand it.

When that happens, it’s lack of vocabulary.

And if that happens to you, my friend, it’s about time you gave vocabulary a real hard look.

And generally, this is the biggest problem I see Portuguese learners grappling with. They know words but their vocabulary so limited that it doesn’t help in most situations.

How can you improve your vocabulary?

Well, first of all — read!

I’m a big proponent of reading to give you all your foundation of the spoken language.

I know, I know, there is this talk about how the spoken language precedes the written language and yak-yak…

And that’s true. For children. And if you want to emulate the way children learn you might as well be born again.

But if you want to use all the powers your fully-developed brain offers, you will read.

If reading native-level content isn’t an option for you, you can start with the graded readers. They are books written specifically for language learners.

(But here just a warning — most of the graded readers you will find on Amazon.com are but translations of an English book someone wrote first and asked to have translated into 20+ languages. Their stories usually commit the sin of didacticism — killing a good story for the sake of “teaching”.)

Or if you don’t like graded readers, how about taking up a few children’s books?

Whatever is the case, do something about your vocabulary.

You don’t understand what people say the first time but if you ask them to repeat you can understand it.

In this case, you’re not used to listening to speech at native level speed.

And that can be a nagging problem.

Brazilians are known to speak very fast, clipping off the end of the words and blending their sentences together in an unending stream.

I can offer you two solutions, but there is more to come.

First, memorize the most important phrase of your vocabulary bank:

  • Poderia falar um pouco mais devagar, por favor? Can you speak more slowly, please?

Most Brazilians will comply and happily so.

And you’ll be amazed at how much you can grasp.

Second, listen to native-level material — podcasts, news broadcasts etc. — and give yourself a specific task. You want to extract a piece of information from whatever you hear. It will help you because…

It’s active listening!

In Brazil, if you are of a certain age you know a TV cartoon called Wally (it’s Waldo if you’re in North America).

He’s a bespectacled dude with a bobble cap and a red-and-white-striped shirt who mingled with a crowd. Children watching this cartoon had to find where Waldo was, and they usually found him.

And that’s because children were giving the task their full attention. They were actively looking for Waldo among so many people.

And that’s what you have to do when you practice active listening. You give the task your full attention, and you have a clear goal when you do so.

General guidelines to practice active listening in Portuguese.

  • Choose an audio recording — or a video, for that matter — that’s not too long. Five minutes of recorded material will probably lend itself to 10 to 15 minutes of concentrated study, sometimes even more.
  • Listen to the recording more than once, ideally three times. The first time around just “bathe” in the sounds. In the second round, you go for more detail. And the third time you try to clear your doubts.
  • You can rewind the recording and pause whenever you want. But if you want to give yourself a little bit more pressure, try to emulate a real situation where you can’t really pause someone or ask them to repeat indefinitely (well, you could certainly ask them to repeat over and over, but…).
  • Integrate this Portuguese listening practice into your daily studies. You can’t go wrong if you do it for 5 to 10 minutes a day. You can diversify with the sources of material, but if I were you I would choose something I like and comprehend somewhat [and here’s some explanation why it should be comprehensible] and would stick to it (in my case, I watched all the 115 episodes of happy Chinese three times).

How to practice active listening as a beginner?

But Eli, I can hardly say my name in Portuguese. How can I practice active listening?

Well, I won’t say that it will be easy to find material adequate to your level (though you can use my YouTube videos). You have to find something suitable for you.

The materials might be a little bit harder, but not so much.

Let’s say you listen to an exchange between two women and they are spelling out their names. Perhaps, your task could be to write down their names.

Or you’re listening to a recording of someone introducing themselves in Portuguese.

Your task might be to find out what their name is and where they are from.

How to practice active listening if you are at the intermediate level?

Podcasts [it’s a list for you].

I can’t stress their importance enough.

First, listen to an episode at your leisure. In our Intermediate Portuguese podcast, we separate the segments — monologue, explanation, normal speed monologue — so that you can focus on one part at a time.

If you can, listen to the monologue three times. Your podcast player probably has a feature to rewind the recording. Use it to your advantage.

Write down the words and phrases that are said. Make a transcript. Then compare it against our own transcription. See what you missed.

If you do this every day for a month — you can take weekends off — you’ll see how great an improvement you’ll have.

And what to do if I don’t have time to practice listening Portuguese?

Default to extensive listening.

Choose something that is at your level — or slightly above your level — and listen to it without worrying too much. Go for a walk. Then, here and there try to repeat one phrase that you hear. And don’t give yourself too much pressure to remember them. Chances are you’ll be exposed to them more than once.

And where to find materials to practice my Brazilian Portuguese listening skills?

Well, if you are at the pre-intermediate or intermediate level, you can use our Intermediate Portuguese podcast.

And if you want to have the full transcripts plus a learning program to boot, consider joining our Continuing Education Program.

For beginners, we have recently launched a new podcast, Read Brazilian Portuguese Every Day. You can read how to use it here.

And what do you think? How do you practice your Portuguese listening comprehension skills? Let me know in the comments below.

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