Back in April, I didn’t even consider learning Portuguese. Three weeks later, I’m calmly watching Abralin Ao Vivo – online series of lectures and seminars in linguistics – in that very same Portuguese. I perfectly follow the speaker’s train of thought, although I do still miss a joke here and there. I managed to pick up another language in these last three weeks just by watching YouTube with no subtitles.
That was the result of a short language learning experiment in which I tested how fast and how well I would extend my knowledge of Spanish to a related, but unfamiliar to me language.
15 hours on Spanish-Portuguese transfer
My learning of Portuguese began rather randomly. One late evening I crawled to YouTube in search of an easily-digestible video on la théorie d’énonciation (study-related stuff). YouTube ignored the fact that my search query was in French and just suggested to me Teoria da Argumentação. It was dangerously close to midnight, and my brain didn’t notice the fraud.
When I realized that something was off (a different language? a different topic?), my brain just went “Ok, surprise me“, and I stayed watching – just for the heck of it. By the end of a 30-minute lecture, I’ve got the gist of the argumentation theory despite it being explained in a language I haven’t heard before. So I decided to stick with such practice and see how far it can get me.
Pick up another language by merely watching lectures on YouTube with no subtitles – should be fun, right?
So I’ve set myself a goal to spend at least 30 minutes/day watching lectures in Portuguese on Canal USP (the YouTube channel of the University of São Paulo). Already by the fourth day, it felt as if I were listening to Spanish. Now, after three weeks and about 15 hours of (already) comprehensible input, I have no problem understanding Portuguese.
How it works: lexical similarity
There were two reasons for such an effortless “learning” of Portuguese:
a) I knew Spanish
b) Spanish and Portuguese share 89% of the vocabulary
In other words, I already had a substantial knowledge of Portuguese lexicon, thanks to Spanish. All I needed to do was to “remap” the auditory representations of already familiar to me words.
There isn’t a huge difference between conocimiento and conhecimento, educación and educação, simplicidad and simplicidade – both in writing and in speech. Your brain doesn’t need much time to derive general rules and deduct that the Portuguese analog of Spanish introducción would be introdução. You won’t necessarily be 100% accurate (ciudad – cidade) – but compared to how much you gain from this thinking by analogy, these failures are negligible.
And it’s not just about Spanish and Portuguese. As a speaker of one language, you have “privileged” access to learning other languages of the same branch. If you’re a Spanish speaker, you can quickly pick up another Romance language, be it Portuguese, Catalan or Italian. If you speak Norwegian, you will learn to understand Swedish, Danish or Icelandic quasi-perfectly in almost no time. Being a speaker of one Slavic language (Russian, for example), you can do the same trick with Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Serbian and alike.
Not a foolproof method
Not all language pairs from the same language branch would work equally well. Historically, some languages changed faster and thus “strayed” further away from their genealogical relatives.
Take French, for example.
Lexical similarity coefficient between Spanish and Portuguese is 0.89, yet it drops to 0.75 for the Spanish-French pair. “Well, it’s high enough”, one would think – and be wrong. French has its own dark secrets, the main being a very deep orthography.
French orthography is so opaque that it hardly reflects the actual pronunciation of words at all. In other words, with French, what you see is not what you get – ever. So if I were to learn French the same way (i.e., watching YouTube and exploiting my knowledge of Spanish), I would have failed. There is hardly any similarity in how these two languages sound, although on writing they are two peas in a pod:
Los barcos de turistas perturban el canto de las orcas. (Spanish)
Les bateaux de touristes perturbent le chant des orques. (French)
Os barcos de turistas perturbam o canto das orcas. (Portuguese)
How to approach different languages: spoken vs written similarity
There is, of course, a way to exploit the lexical similarity between Spanish and French. It’s just that it exists between written rather than spoken forms of these languages. Thus, to use your knowledge of Spanish vocabulary for learning French, you would have to see French words, not just hear them.
So with language pairs that have mainly written lexical similarity (Spanish-French, German-Dutch, Italian-Romanian), your learning method should always have a visual component to it. Try:
- Simultaneous reading
- Watching YouTube – but only with (foreign language) subtitles
- Narrow reading
A different, “listening-oriented” approach would be more effective with language pairs that have spoken lexical similarity. Although “visual aid” always aids comprehension, with languages like Spanish and Portuguese or Spanish and Italian, you can do well without. Try:
- Watching videos – with or without subtitles
- Listening to podcasts/audiobooks
- Simultaneous reading
Wonder what method would work best in your case? Go to the list of mutually intelligible languages on Wikipedia and check the type of lexical similarity.
Alternatively, go to WIKITONGUES. Search for a language you want to learn (similar to one of the languages you already know) and watch a short video in that language. If you got the gist of it, caught some words here and there, and understood a few passages, you will pick up this language fairly quickly. To determine which learning strategy to apply, first, try watching the video without subtitles, then turn them on and see if they help at all.
Next steps: how to pick up a language in a matter of hours
Once you found a language that you can understand with some effort it all comes down to getting enough input.
Don’t stop half-way with a thought “I can understand some Portuguese, huh!“. Get it to the point where you can actually use this language in your life.
I started learning Portuguese having no conclusive thoughts on how exactly this language is ever going to be useful to me. Two weeks later, I stumbled across that online workshop in linguistics launched by the Brazilian Linguistics Association, with topics presented in both English and Portuguese. For a linguistics student like me, it was a real gem. And this is where my freshly acquired Portuguese finally came in handy.
It took me just about 15 hours of input to get to that point. All I did was watching YouTube for 40-45 minutes a day. I found an exciting USP course in Epistemologia e Didática with Nílson José Machado and watched one lecture after another, day after day. But before you go there, reflect upon the main rule of language learning:
Keep it relevant
15 hours is not a lot. But when it comes to input it’s all about quality, not quantity. It must be interesting. It must relevant. And, above all, you must enjoy it.
I love watching lectures in philosophy and linguistics. If you would rather do something else – please find the content that is relevant to you.
Never ever watch/read/listen to anything just because it is in the language you want to pick up. Be strategic. In these times, you can find almost anything in almost any language. So why not align your language learning goals with your other interests?
Think of a topic you want to explore. Find relevant books, lectures, videos, podcasts, and audiobooks in your target language. Then delve into this topic. As long as there is a large lexical overlap (70-90%) between the language you already know and the language you’re learning, your existing lexical knowledge will support comprehension. Finally, your interest in the topic will help you to stay engaged with the task both short- and long-term.
It should be self-evident that with such training you’ll have a uni-modal knowledge of your target language. In other words, you get what you trained for.
I mostly watched YouTube (with no subtitles), so I have a good understanding of spoken language – but nothing else. I haven’t read anything in Portuguese, so I’m not that confident about my reading comprehension. What should be my next step?
Right, I should switch modality and get some written input in addition to spoken (simultaneous reading, for example). Given that Spanish and Portuguese don’t differ much in writing, I can expect to become relatively good in reading at Portuguese after having read one or two books.
But will such practice result in great speaking skills and flawless writing?
Inter-linguistic lexical similarity helps with comprehension – but not with production. It’s hard to keep similar languages apart and stick to one code when speaking or writing. One language always interferes with the other. An attempt to say something in Portuguese when you’re brain is fried will result in a beautiful Spanish sentence (peppered with fricatives, to add some Portuguese flavor to it). So what do you do?
All the same: you practice and you practice deliberately. We learn to read, write, and speak by reading, writing, and speaking – there is no other way.
Resources and tools:
ROMANICA INTERCOM: This website is invaluable for speakers of Romance languages who wish to pick up another Romance language. You will find there a comparative grammar for Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, and French – a huge shortcut in detecting phonetic and grammatical similarities between these languages. Check out some noun suffixes, for example.
WIKITONGUES: This channel can be used to estimate the degree of mutual intelligibility between the language you know and the language you want to learn.
USP canal (YouTube): Free online lectures in Portuguese from the University of São Paulo. There is a number of introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses in Humanities, Social Science, and Natural Science.
Image Credits: Photo by Vali Sachadonig on Unsplash