Posted in English

My Favourite Language Hacks

It’s always a good idea to have some tricks up your sleeve for learning languages when you don’t feel like it, when you want to increase the density of [insert name of language here] in your life, or when you just want a change of pace. Here are a few of my favourites:


screenshot_2016-02-25-23-49-51.pngI found it pretty hard to find good apps for learning European Portuguese, but it’s relatively easy to find good quiz apps and many of them have other language settings. I have a copy of Trivia Crack which I’ve set on Portuguese so I can enjoy farting about playing games and still be learning new words, phrases and pop culture references and (crucially) facts about Brazilian football. It has its drawbacks of course: most of the questions are written by Brazilians so you get quite a lot of Brazilian grammar in there, but still, it’s more educational than Angry Birds.

If you’re feeling feisty, there’s even a “translate questions” feature that lets you translate Portuguese (or whatever) questions into English.

Change the Way You Use The Web.

If you spend a lot of time online (ha ha ha, sorry, I’m kidding – obviously you do! It’s the twenty-first century and you probably haven’t left the house in weeks!) you can massively increase the amount of language in your life by tweaking the settings on your most-used websites. The obvious one for me is my Google Account settings, which affects all my search results, plus the menus in Google Chrome, names of folders etc in Gmail, spellcheck in Google Docs, names of days and months in Google Calendar and half a dozen other things.

I’ve also changed twitter, but that doesn’t do much except teach you some stupid pretend words like “tweetar” (shouldn’t that be “pipiar”???). I daresay if you use Facebook you could get some mileage out of changing the language settings in that. I would love to change Windows and MS Word too but that’s surprisingly hard to do.


screenshot_2016-02-25-13-54-38.pngMemrise is really the only dedicated language-learning app worth having. What makes it different from other apps is that it keeps track of the words you’ve learned and returns to them a short time later, to jog your memory so that they really stick. There’s some science behind it apparently. I dunno. It works pretty well though.

The decks are made by users, so they vary in quality. Some are mildly irritating. For example, they will count something as wrong because you used a lower case letter instead of a capital, then in the next slide you’ll use a capital and it’ll mark it as wrong because now it wants a lower case. That doesn’t stop it being a kick-ass language-learning tool though. I usually have a go on it while I’m brushing my teeth at night and while I’m eating my breakfast in the morning.

As with most things, make sure you specify European Portuguese, not Brazilian.


If you’ve got some mindless task to perform, don’t listen to the new Kanye West album, listen to someone speaking your chosen language instead. Portuguese (as opposed to Brazilian) podcasts are hard to come by but you can find them if you look hard enough. Some of my favourites are:

  • Practice Portuguese These are produced by a native Portuguese guy called Rui and his Canadian friend Joel. They’re explicitly aimed at developing listening skills for the new learner. Unfortunately it doesn’t come out quite as regularly as I might hope, so I don’t think I can recommend you subscribe to the premium version [* UPDATE here *]
  • Caderneta De Cromos A series on Rádio Comercial about eighties pop culture, covering Star Trek, Pat Benatar, Ghostbusters, Space 1999, Rocky, Pac Man… What’s not to like?
  • O Novo Normal Bite-sized morsels of interesting things – you know, productivity tips, brain science and that sort of thing. Possibly not reliable but certainly interesting as a five-minute listen while the kettle boils.
  • Revista De Semana This is a podcast from RDP International, broadcasting to the Portuguese “Diaspora” and it’s interesting to me because it deals with the issues affecting Portuguese people around the world. The consulate in London comes up a lot (not in a good way) and recently there have been issues with some countries in Europe banning Portuguese children from speaking the language in the playground.

You could also look for “Grande História Universal das Traquitanas” which I’ve heard is very good but it doesn’t seem to be downloading when I try [*Another update: I’ve found a way of getting them: you have to open the page in Internet Exploder, not Chrome. .You still can’t subscribe, but you can download the episodes individually, so that’s my listening for tomorrow sorted out!*]

A lot of podcasts are quite hard to find in iTunes but I’ve found some interesting nuggets by looking on the websites of Portuguese broadcasting companies. Here’s Rádio e Televisão de Portugal’s for example. There is usually enough variety that you’re bound to find something that suits your interests and ability level.

Taking a left-turn at the traffic lights, there are some good, inspirational podcasts for language-learners in general. Have a look at “Actual Fluency” or “Creative Language Learning” in iTunes, for example. Personally, I can only take this kind of thing in small doses, but a little of it now and again is good. It reminds you that you’re not alone and it gives you some ideas from the hardcore language-ninjas.


If podcasts aren’t your thing, there’s always music. I’m a bit ambivalent about music as a learning method. A lot of people recommend it, including my wife, but I often find it’s like watching as a stream of syllables rushes by at speed. I think unless you’ve taken trouble to read the lyrics written down beforehand and compare with a translation, it’s difficult to pick the words out and appreciate them. Of course, you can still enjoy the music, but understanding the music adds a whole other dimension.

If there’s one thing Portugal has lots of, it’s music. I’ve already mentioned (here) my favourite song at the moment is by Deolinda. I also loves me some Mariza

Some of the old Fado music is pretty powerful, especially if you get the right singer, and singers don’t get much more right than Amália Rodrigues

Label Your House

I mentioned, last week, posting post-it notes all over my house with the names of things on them. That’s quite a cleaver way of bumping up your vocabulary a bit without really trying, although with hindsight I wish I’d written the words in larger letters with a big fat marker, as I find myself peering at the post-its instead of having the words thrust in my face.

Lindsay Does Languages has a brilliant variant on this theme. I came across it earlier today and decided to incorporate it in my life as soon as I get a free minute (2019, I think). While you’re at it, have a look at some of the other articles on her site. They’re pretty good fun.


20160225_135602.jpgIf you’re clever enough to understand films made in your target language, that’s a great way to learn more. Me, I’ve looked at a few – like “A Costa Dos Murmúrios”, “Capitães de Abril” and “Ossos” but I found them too hard to follow.

Easier fare would be an English-Language film you’re seen before, dubbed into your target language. That usually means children’s animated films, since nobody ever dubs live-action movies. If you’re like me and learning Portuguese, try and check that the actors doing the voice-overs aren’t Brazilian. The last thing you want is all that Eejy Beejy Beejy thing that Brazilians do. We have three dubbed films in the house (*points* at the picture at the top of this section) and it’s good because my daughter likes watching them too. Turn on English subtitles if you are very new to the language, or Portuguese subtitles if you just want written clues to help you disentangle the words.


Just a data nerd

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