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Why Learning Brazilian Slang Now Is a Good Idea

According to research by the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, human beings can have up to 150 stable relationships at any given time. In other words, 150 “friends.” But we all know — at least I do — that we don’t usually have that many friends. If I have five, I count myself lucky.

And even among such a small group of friends, we all have that one friend with whom we are connected as if by telepathy. We say one word or two, frown or smile, and that’s it. That’s all we needed to convey a message.

It’s very hard to try and reproduce that same connection with other people later in life. If you’re above 35, you know what I’m talking about. Relationships tend to get more superficial. We are more tired. And, in general, it takes more effort to do something we did naturally in the past.

Now, imagine trying that in a foreign language, like, say, Brazilian Portuguese.

You’ve probably tried. And I hope you didn’t come away from it scarred. If you did – or if you want to try and succeed — there is a way to make that connection faster in both your native language and Brazilian Portuguese:

Slang.

Why would you use Brazilian slang? How is that any good?

When I was younger, I heard quite a few teachers saying that we should avoid slang — it was just a fad and showed we were “immature” for using “bad language” and “nonwords.”

I don’t know if you’ve had this kind of experience. Many people have. And some of them come away with the impression that they should avoid slang — in whatever language they speak.

And when they learn Brazilian Portuguese, they avoid learning Brazilian Portuguese slang terms because they don’t want to sound “uneducated.”

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Slang is a tool, and as such it has its place. It’s the terms we use to identify as belonging to a group, or even to a nation. Slang words spring out of necessity, and they are part of the time they were born in. By ignoring them, you’re ignoring the whole culture they’re associated with.

But do Brazilians use Brazilian slang all the time?

Not everyone uses slang all the time. Although it’s not impossible, finding a slang term that corresponds to a regular expression for everything you say in a conversation is challenging.

But you don’t need to think only of the immediate use of slang. Many of the words that we have today started out as slang. Apparently innocuous words like “ficar” (for “necking”) and “pintar” (for “showing up unexpectedly”) that Brazilians use in everyday conversations came from the realm of Brazilian slang terms.

And most of the Internet slang that came about in the early 2000s made it to all Brazilian Portuguese dictionaries like this article shows [in Portuguese].

Also, if you have watched any Brazilian telenovelas and felt that you could understand the words, but not their sense, it’s probably because of their heavy use of slang. We frequently have articles like this to explain to people the meaning of new slang used in telenovelas – some of which become mainstream.

Where and how can I learn Brazilian Portuguese slang?

I need to be frank with you even though it might make you sad.

Unfortunately, there is no single way to go about learning Brazilian Portuguese slang. Paper dictionaries are not updated as often as new slang pops up. Although serviceable, crowdsourced Internet resources such as Dicionário Informal can sometimes give wrong definitions and be worthless. And —

People are creating new words every day.

Although I can’t give you one single solution, I can tell you what I do.

As a language learner, I like keeping in touch with the language all the time, whatever the language is. I watch media (TV, YouTube), listen to modern music (even though some of them fall out of my preferred styles), and select one or two major newspapers to read articles and reactions from.

Perhaps you could do that, too. Especially if you don’t have the time (or budget) to travel to Brazil on a regular basis.

You can follow guides like this one I wrote about slang terms related to drinking (click here for the guide). Or you could look for the most commonly used slang in articles like this one I wrote about the jack-of-all-trades expression “E Aí” (click here for the article).

Whatever your choice is, you must consider talking with a native speaker or someone who lives in the culture. By speaking, you’ll cement your knowledge of slang, receive immediate feedback on how you use the new expressions you learn, and pick up new Brazilian slang terms for your repertoire.

If you don’t have the luxury of living in Brazil or traveling here frequently, you can have conversation classes with a teacher like me or look for conversation partners on the Internet.

As you can see, you need to be proactive. And the fact that you’re reading this article shows me that you already are.

So, are you convinced yet that learning Brazilian slang will help you?

You see, slang works not only to make yourself clearer — it helps to bond with people in a way that cold, formal language doesn’t. Since you learn because you want to form connections, meet new people, and bond with family and friends, having such a great tool is of great help.

Do you use a lot of slang in your native language? And in Brazilian Portuguese, do you try and learn slang? Tell me in the comments below.

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