Listening Part I: Music

I struggle with understanding Portuguese from Portugal. Brazilian Portuguese has an accent (sotaque) that is easier for the Spanish speaker, but the same cannot be said of Portuguese from Portugal. I can understand individuals who speak to me, because they often modify their pace and there is a certain degree of predictability to conversational flow. I’m also perfectly fine with intermediate-level listening exercises. This often means that I get the gist, but not all of the detail.

It is in trying to get to the next level that difficulties arise. As with most of Portuguese learning, I am frequently frustrated in my search to find exercises to get to that next level. It is in this quest, I have found (or have been guided towards) a few workarounds that I want to share. This will be in several parts. The first is music.

I have been going to classes, again. They are one-to-one with a different teacher because I aspire to sit the Portuguese language proficiency exams, and the group classes available where I’m living don’t have that focus. In class we did a reading comprehension about the Fado singer Mariza, who has considerable success beyond the Fado circuit. My teacher suggested I try and transcribe some songs by Mariza. I struggle to understand lyrics in English, but I tried. By chance my starting point was a song called ‘Maldição’ the video on YouTube was a recording of a concert in Portimão. Recording of concerts by audience members are rarely clear and I found it difficult to comprehend. So, I went in search of an official video of the song by Mariza. Not able to find one, and after some reading around and surfing of alternative performers, I came across a version by Gisela João, a relative newcomer on the fado scene. She has several high quality videos online and, for the language learner, has both clear enunciation, and the lyrics are easily found for most of her songs.

I listened to the songs, transcribed as best I could, and then checked it against the lyrics online. It was an interesting exercise in active listening. I then bought her album and have been listening back to it having actively engaged with the lyrics. It is proving a good listening and vocabulary building exercise. I want to share what I learnt and a few ideas for those keen to use music for learning.

  1. Persevere. I got frustrated at how little or how far from actual words I recognised in some of what I thought I was hearing. But, this proved useful. Some of the lyrics I heard were new words, and others were mis-recognitions that proved constructive in my learning.
  2. Find a friend. Cut and paste the lyrics from an online source into Word. Get someone – they don’t necessarily need to understand the language – to remove random words from the online lyrics before you look at them. Then use it as a fill in the blanks exercise.
  3. Cultural learning. I found in this getting lost and finding my way through the music that I learnt something about Fado that I wouldn’t have otherwise. When I was in Lisbon some years back, I visited the Fado museum, which provided me with some sense of its history and significance. But, listening to several songs at once and paying close attention to the lyrics gave me a better understanding of the patterns and tropes of Fado, both musical and lyrical.
  4. Impossible songs. There may be songs that prove too difficult. In Fado, every fadista seems to have a my Fado song, “Meu Fado”, which draws on the long past and traditions and situates that person within it. João’s version is not on her album and has no lyrics online, yet (I transcribed it and my teacher has corrected it, so I plan to upload it soon). There is another category of impossible songs. While many Fados are slow, drawn out accounts of lost love or yearning, there are some very fast-paced songs. João has one, “Antigamente“, that is very pacy. Even the folks online who put up lyrics failed to capture this one. However, I did enjoy trying.
  5. Music and memory. Music can be a quick way to help the memory and improve recognition or retrieval of certain words and phrases. It is also very pleasurable. So, I went from frustration to enjoyment and even bought João’s album.

I promise to share the song lyrics soon for “Meu Fado”. I will continue this listening theme in future posts.

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