Radio Days, Days of Radio

It’s been a while since I’ve posted something. It’s been another busy year. So, here’s a quick post to get me back on track. Recently at a work dinner, I was speaking about language learning and a shared ambition to learn new languages with colleagues from other universities. After reflecting on the many reasons for learning languages and listing off the languages we want to venture into next (and why), we started to compare learning tips. The one I want to share is simple, especially if you are a radio fan. Put the radio on in the language you want to learn. So far so obvious, you may think. However, for me, I have only ever thought of using radio as a way of active listening, which means parsing what has been said and puzzling over meaning. All of which can be useful, but sometimes frustrating and stressful. The suggestion is to play radio in the background of your everyday life and let the language slowly make sense to you. Let the rhythms, cadence, and musicality of it wash over you, and observe how it starts to become more than sounds and to form meaning. For me, to understand radio was to be fluent and was something to leave until you were confident. Instead, this trick is a way of letting the words find you and not to stress about the detail. Although, I’ve now found my way to a pretty good comprehension of Portuguese, I’ve taken this tip on board and done some casual listening whilst carrying out everyday tasks. It was quite pleasurable and, rather than seek out words, I found myself hearing patterns, revising linking words and connectives, and just enjoying being immersed. Try it, no matter your level.


From Lists to Listicles: Reading and Revising vocabulary

I have written before about the need to revise basic vocabulary as I advance my language skills. It can be difficult to find opportunities to practice everyday language without getting bored with reviewing lists of words, as my reading standard is pretty high because I already read Spanish fluently. One way I have discovered is the commonly found best of listicles. This recent one on why Portugal is having its moment is good for this purpose and reminded me of their usefulness. Some of the type of jingoism and priorities in the article are of its place and moment. The list includes types of food, which provides insight into region-specific foods and naming the lack of terrorist attacks as an upside to a country says a lot about current world security. Here are another two specifically on Porto and Lisbon that have less text and more local information.

Sticking with the travel theme, I figured that it is probably worthwhile reflecting on responsible travel and presumed that there would be plenty in this vein. Curiously, I found several by Brazilians on travelling in Brazil and elsewhere. Here are three: advice from a newspaper, a blogsite, and another from three world travellers. Curiously, while it is easy to find lots of listicles with advice on “turismo sustentável” (sustainable tourism) by Brazilians, there are very few from Portugal. Those that I found do not fall into the infotainment listicle genre, but could prove good vocabulary builders these are: a report, a dissertation, and a dull site from a tour company.

The nature of listicles are that they are quick and easy insights into a time and place and they reflect much about the author and/or outlet in which they appear. The impression I get from the absence of listicles on responsible travel/eco-tourism is that it is not a fully developed sector in Portugal nor a major concern for Portuguese travellers. That being said, there are plenty of other listicles on travel that can help revision of those everyday words and prove another alternative way of reading about Portugal, Brazil, and Lusophone reflections on travel.

Podcasts: Portuguese for those with Spanish

I am always looking for good podcasts. I recently tried out Tá Falado, a podcast for those le
arning Portuguese who have previously learned Spanish. I download the podcasts via Overcast. It is not for Spanish native-speakers, although it may well be of use to those who also speak English fluently. There are times when I have to concede that some
resources are only available in Brazilian Portuguese and are still useful for my current goal. I highly recommend it for beginners and those at intermediate to advanced level keen to revise or perfect some elements of pronunciation and grammar. There are four individuals on the podcast: the host, Orlando R. Kelm, a professor at University of Texas, Austin; two Brazilians, Valdo Oliveira and Michelle Schreiner Lima; and a Spanish-speaker, José Luis Montiel from Venezuela.

FullSizeRender (6)The format is straightforward. Speaking in English Prof Kelm introduces the linguistic element being covered in that lesson, provides a few pointers, and sometimes from the out discusses with the others how it compares to Spanish. This last bit can come later in the podcast. There is a dialogue, which is spoken at natural speed, slowed down, and translated into Spanish. These dialogues are usually built around cultural differences between the US and Brazil. This is fascinating, because I often learn much about both cultures. For example, there is a dialogue about how parties are timed in the US and Brazil. In the US, we are told that you are expected to arrive punctually and leave at a given time. In Brazil, you arrive late (maybe 2 or more hours late) and leave when the mood takes you. Both Valdo and Michelle reckon that the average Brazilian would be affronted if they were given a finish time for a party and would just ignore it. From what they say, on the party front, at least, the Irish have more in common with Brazilians than folk from the US. Other dialogues cover sitting on the grass on campus, studying in cafés, being automatically served water in a restaurant, and so on. It makes for an interesting approach. These are everyday details about difference that are useful to know, but are often asides in textbooks.

The podcast is delivered in a friendly, lighthearted style and prof Kelm has an easy manner. The group appear to have an easy rapport, it is well paced, and there is plenty of repetition. I like the way that they highlight certain key elements to supplement the core focus of each lesson. As well as the audio content, there are other resources available on the website that are very useful. Most of the podcasts are between 10-12 minutes, which is a great length to completely focus on one area, to supplement other learning, or for revision. My only wish is for there to be another made using Portuguese from Portugal. But, I find this a useful resource that I’m working my through as well as returning to certain sticky elements time and again.

Writing: Creativity and Translation

I am trying to write more. This is a way of revising my vocabulary and trying to find imaginative ways of getting beyond testing myself with flashcards. Recently, I came across this post on Flash Fiction suggesting multiple ways of getting you writing. It occurred to me that with my flashcards I am in possession of something akin to those fridge magnet poetry sets. So, I set myself the task of writing some flash fiction or micro-stories (200-300 words) build around my flashcards. For example, I used my food vocabulary to write a story about a mother daughter relationship and clothes vocabulary to write about a trio of yoga friends and their wardrobe changes. It was quite fun and got me away from the purely issue driven style of language exercises. It also helped me practice my vocabulary.

To further my food practice I have taken to translating some recipes I regularly make. This involves deciding whether to use the imperative (and practice that) or just using the infinitive as some cookery writers tend to do. It is a useful way of looking up vocabulary that seldom comes up in lists (pomegranate, hazelnuts, parsley- thank you, Yotam) and revising more frequently used words (spoon, parsley, vinegar). There is a complexity to recipe translation that I don’t want to undermine, and there are elements of this that make it more than simple word matches (as my colleague Lyn Marven can attest to), but it is a useful exercise.

For the first exercise it is probably useful to have a reader. For the second, it is a reasonably straightforward exercise for self-correction.

Curating Reading: News Media

It is difficult to get specific recommendations for newspapers in another language. They are so connected to personal politics that many don’t necessarily want to direct you to a specific one. Also, press readership in Portugal is very low. Having looked before I have happened upon newspapers, but not stuck to any one in particular. Too much energy can go into the search, so I’ve often not read newspapers in favour of novels or blogs.

With the recent Panama Papers scandal it occurred to me that here was a way of figuring out a paper of record in Portugal. This does not necessarily indicate political leaning, but can indicate quality – a term that is heavily loaded in its own right. I discovered that Expresso was the Portuguese paper that collaborated on this in-depth international investigative project. The text part of the newspaper allows a limited amount for free before it asks you to subscribe. They do have to find means of making money, I guess. Although the amount of advertising on the site would suggest that they get ample support there.

What is amazing is a series of short videos on current news items. For example, this is the one explaining the Panama Papers and here is another on the future of Europe and the refugee crisis. These are high-end productions and excellent for language learning. The format is straightforward. A journalist from the newspaper (simply dressed) speaks to camera explaining a current issue while referring to animated images and graphs that serve to help the viewer to understand the concepts and facts involved. These animations really help comprehension and the videos are brief and attractive. As a tool to understand contemporary news items and Portuguese speakers it is really useful. I will add it to my regular viewing/listening practice.


Food Glorious Food

Food is a complicated thing. There are basic foods that are easily translated from one language to another, and then multiple local versions. Look at the variation in the breads of Portugal or types of coffee servings and you get a sense of how complicated it can be figuring out what you are asking for or how to ask for what you want. IMG_0840So, learning the words for foodstuffs can be challenging and I find it difficult to move from having a passive knowledge to an active memory. At the moment I am sticking to learning the version of foodstuffs from Portugal. But, even then it is proving a stretch to embed words in my long term memory.

As with much vocabulary, I have had to revise food time and again. I learn words, use them, feel temporarily confident, then not use them for a while, forget them again, thus lose confidence. Certain words pop up all over, such as bread, milk, tea, coffee and have stuck. Others, such as names of fruits and vegetables are learnt and forgotten. For this, I think that I have to start following food blogs, gather a selection of aggregate sites, and regularly watch TV chefs. This should get me into the habit of reading and seeing the words, and remind me to revise this area frequently. My choice is pretty random with two broad criteria: they are food related and from Portugal.

  1. For traditional omnivore eating I’ve chosen to tune into RTP’s (Portuguese national TV) A Praça, which has a food segment, often with different chefs.
  2. For an insight into how the clean eating movement/vegan eats is adapted to Portuguese tastebuds, I’ve chosen Sociedade Veganwhich, despite its name is run by a single individual.
  3. Some restaurant pages are useful, especially when they have menus. The Fork is a useful aggregate site and this top 10 has reviews and links.
  4. I don’t want to forget some regional choices since many of the above are Lisbon-centred. Here is a list for the North and South of Portugal.
  5. For another approach to food, Fruta Feia is an organisation based in Porto working to get more consumers to think about food waste in the distribution chain. There is an English and Portuguese version of the site. As well as information about the organisation on the site, there are recipes.

This is intended as a list to help with my revision and learning. I would love to know what you use to revise food vocabulary.



When learning a language vocabulary is learnt and taught thematically: food, clothes, house, body, etc. In books and in class, they are sometimes taught in clusters (colours fit well with clothes) or with related grammar (house and prepositions of place). Most of this is covered in the beginning, then you build. You learn the word for hand, fork, and jumper, and hopefully retain these when you travel to the country, read a book or watch a film. Or, inversely, any of these things prompt you to remember them. Depending on what you are using the language for, some of this vocabulary may be inadequate (what is the word for that fruit that appeared at breakfast and you have never seen before?) or is so seldom used that you forget (I have a sudden pain in the back of my knee, how do I describe that to the pharmacist?). Additionally, if like me, you get little opportunity to go to the country (or countries) where they speak the language you are studying, you can forget the basics even while you are mastering complex grammatical features. At this point it can be difficult to go back to beginner books, or, you may have discarded them. So, what do you do?

I have found an interesting solution. It involves online shop browsing. This has two advantages:

  1. You can get up-to-date language as used locally.
  2. You can get an insight into what is available and/or popular in the local market.

This is what led me to use IKEA* as a language learning tool. I had used it before with students asking them to describe a room. I wanted them to revise the vocabulary for the house, but, mostly, I wanted them to practice using prepositions of place. IKEA has colourful images with ample opportunity to describe what is beside, on top of, or to the left of another item. It proved useful then and useful for my vocabulary update more recently.

As you could imagine, on the IKEA website the word ‘arrumação’ [storage] features strongly. My browsing revealed that it is a great way of getting a lot of repetition of the same words, with some variations. I tried describing rooms using as many descriptors and prepositions as I could muster. I found this useful. Whilst doing this, something else struck me. I took the opportunity to compare the Irish (where I currently am) and the Portuguese sites, and, apart from odd disparities in prices (some items are cheaper on one site than the other), the layout and descriptors are different. Comparisons of these sites has potential in class as a way of exploring cultural translation and localisation.

Bouyed by this experience, I decided to revise clothes through online browsing. These are more complicated. I looked at Stradivarius* and Zara* because they are large multi-nationals with considerable range and turnover of stock. As it is the beginning of the new Spring Summer 2016 season it means that scarves, hats and gloves are not to be found, but other season appropriate items such as, jumpsuits [macaçãoes], swimsuits, and waistcoats [coletes] featured on the sites. There is a disadvantage to online browsing on clothes shops for the language learner: the a tendency in fashion to use the English word and descriptors: t-shirt, jeggings skinny, calças biker, or gymwear [sic], which does not advance learning much. Also, I was muddled as to the interchangeable usage of jeans and calças de ganga on the same site. This is a less successful means of revision, but could be an interesting discussion into how and why English is the language of fashion in Portuguese for intermediate to advanced students or students of translation, when French is often the go to language in English. The sites are inconsistent in their use of Portuguese and English words, which is interesting in itself and could be another avenue of exploration.

Such code switching can also be found on fashion magazine sites. A quick look at Portuguese Vogue takes me to an article entitled, “Rolling with My Hoodies”. The article itself is a masterclass in fashionista code switching, with the words ‘look’, ‘too cool for school’ and ‘hoodies’ amongst the English used. Again, it teaches much about how fashion in Portuguese may use English, but does not teach the Portuguese words for clothing.

I might have to find better means of revising clothing**, but online browsing works well for furniture. Both prove interesting means of looking at cultural shifts, localisation, inter-cultural translation, and code switching, and have a range of potential uses in the classroom.

*I’m not getting sponsored by any of these sites, therefore I am not linking to them. These should be just counted as sample site. I’m sure that other similar clothing and furniture sites could be used instead.

**Recently, I have been using handwritten flashcards, but am going to look into exploring some of the tips on the Hacking Portuguese site including some of the online flashcards.





Verbs – practice

This is a quick post. I want to recommend this site which has proven really useful for me to practice conjugating verbs. In particular, despite my flashcards, reading, writing down lists and textbook exercises, I struggle to remember all the irregulars. I have used this site regularly. It is simple, with basic graphics and is all about repetition and instant feedback. I really like it.


Listening Part II: Tips, Talks and TV

Here are some tips, talks and TV resources I have found useful.

Tips There is a comprehensive list of talks in a great blog I recently came across, Hacking Portuguese. The site’s author, Lauren, has excellent tips, links and resources. The link I give is to the listening advice. It is varied and helpful. They are also mostly Brazil-focused. This is something the author is very open about, but she occasionally provides Portugal-related links. As well as Portuguese-specific supports, she has great practical advice that is transferrable to learning any other language. I found her section on Portuguese for Spanish speakers very illuminating. Some of it I had already stumbled upon, but she has laid it out very clearly.

Talks One of the sites Hacking Portuguese mentions is TEDx Talks. I recently listened/read one and found it useful. One of my frustrations with a textbook I have for the DIPLE (the Portuguese exam I’m preparing for) is that the listening exercises lack a transcript. So, if I am studying by myself and don’t catch a word, there is no way of finding out what I missed. The TEDx Talks often have transcripts. Recently, I listened to this one by a maths teacher from Brazil, on failing. The transcript is beneath the video and highlights where you are. So, if you miss your place you can catch it again. This video had few graphics, which was just as well because it had subtitles in English that were very prominent. So, instead of watching the video, I read and listened to the speaker. Listening and reading helped me build vocabulary and work on my listening. There is also a TEDx Lisboa. Some of these have transcripts. For example, there is this illuminating one on being a Black woman in Lisbon that has a transcript and subtitles only in Portuguese. TED talks have their detractors, but as a language learning tool, they have distinct advantages. As well as the transcripts, they are varied in accent and pace, which is very helpful.

TV I recently downloaded the app for RTP, the Portuguese national TV and radio station. It is a curious thing trying to navigate TV stations when you don’t have a frame of reference for the channel. There is a degree to which parallels can be made to BBC1 and BBC2 or RTE1 and RTE2 with RTP1 and RTP2, but there are also programmes that are unfamiliar and ways that the Portuguese versions (cookery programmes, for example) have particularities that give an interesting insight. As ever, language learning is about embracing another’s culture(s). So far, I’ve only surfed some of the programmes and more attentively watched Sexta às 9, a news and current affairs programme. News is a good place to try and push language learning. There are always similar ‘global’ events and then local news that stretch comprehension. It is frequently presented in a pacy fashion. Watching news is an interesting insight into cultural nationalism (pace Benedict Anderson) and encourages you to think in terms of a comparative analysis with familiar modes of media presentation, a kind of Media 101.

Audio-visual material is useful. The images usually provide prompts for the content that should help in comprehension. I try and mix it up between different forms, resources, and locales. Also, active listening (see the link on Hacking Portuguese) is tiring. So, I try and do it regularly and not much more than the average 20 mins of a TED talk.