I like reading, and reading in Portuguese seemed like a good way to increase my vocabulary, but do you need to be fluent to read a whole book? I mean, there are a lot of words in a book, right? Well, no is the short answer. The trick is to think about what kind of book you want to read, and to have a flexible approach to how you read. Here are a few thoughts. Here are a few thoughts about different types of book.
Books Like “Spot’s First Walk” (in Portuguese “O Primeiro Passeio Do Bolinha“) or “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” (“Vamos à Caça do Urso“) are a good way for children to learn, for sure, because they have a lot of pictures, which not only makes them more interesting, but also give valuable context to help children (and you!) crack the code of the words and their meanings. There’s also a lot of repetition, which can be helpful. They are a bit limited though. In an average children’s book you’re only really getting a few dozen words, so you will probably want to move on to something a bit meatier fairly soon.
Comics and Graphic Novels
Now we’re talking! Comics retain the main benefit of children’s books – the illustrations – but they tend to be longer and have more variety in subject matter, meaning you can read horror stories, comedies or adventure stories this way. When I was learning French at school I cribbed a lot of good words and phrases from Tintin and Asterix comics, and I have continued that habit in Portuguese. Now, there are those who would tell you that Asterix books are children’s books and belong in the previous section. These people are fools and don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m pretty sure Goscinny and Uderzo only started writing the books as a gift to language-learners the world over.
I’ve really been enjoying the Walking Dead series in Portuguese. The european portuguese versions are easy enough to follow but be careful because there are some brazilian translations out there too, including on Kindle (serves me right for trying to read a comic on a Kindle, I suppose)
Novels You’ve Read in English
This can be a pretty good line of attack. You’ve read the book so you know the story and hopefully there won’t be too many surprises and that will save you a few trips to the dictionary. Be careful though: one of the unhappiest reading experiences I had was trying to read P G Wodehouse in Portuguese. I love P G Wodehouse, but what I like best is his playful use of language, and of course that doesn’t survive being translated slowly from Portuguese. It was a complete bust and I stopped after a couple of pages. Likewise, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a book I enjoyed but I’ve seen the movie too and I found myself getting bored quite early on. Matadouro Cinco (Slaughterhouse 5) by Kurt Vonnegut, the first book I managed to finish in Portuguese, is another favourite book, but it’s a novel of ideas and I hadn’t read it for years and years, so it was easy to follow along but I still had a few nice surprises along the way.
Why not? You’ll have far fewer clues along the way, so it’ll be tougher going, but if you feel up to it, it might be a fun thing to do, and just as exciting as reading any other new novel. Just make it a good one.
Reading a basic introductory book about a subject you enjoy can be a very good way of starting out in reading. I recently finished “Do Primeiro Quilómetro à Maratona” (“From the First Kilometre to the Marathon”) by Jéssica Augusto. It’s a running book, and I’m a runner, so it had a few advantages:
- I was familiar with the jargon so I could get a lot of words from context.
- I learned a lot of words that I can use in my everyday life when discussing my interests
- I actually learned some new things about running too
- It’s broken down into easy, manageable sections that I could read in a lunch-hour without having to worry about following the thread of a novel
Non-fiction can cover a variety of topics, of course, from car-maintenance to three-volume histories of the world, so maybe this section needs to be broken down more, but I haven’t tried to read Das Kapital or “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” (hm, what would that be? “Come, Tire e Parte” I suppose, but I bet there isn’t a translation) so I can’t speak with much authority.
Classics From the Language You’re Learning
I have shied away from this so far but it is definitely on my list of things to do when I am a bit stronger in the language because it’s a good way of getting to know more about the culture as well as the language. Are the two even separable? Discuss.
In Portuguese, I think the big four (as far as my limited understanding goes) would be
- Luís Vaz De Camões, author of “Os Lusíadas“, and very much the Portuguese equivalent of – say, Shakespeare, Dante or Cervantes. If that sounds interesting but daunting, there’s a children’s version you could try. There’s even a sort of graphic novel version but it’s brazilian.
- Fernando Pessoa, author of The Book of Disquiet (O Livro Do Desassossego), who wrote as four different people, any of whom, on their own, could rank among the best poets in Europe.
- Eça de Queirós, author of “Os Maias“. He isn’t well known outside of Portugal these days, as far as I know, but he certainly was once . I just looked at his Wikipedia page, and it says that Zola once regarded him as greater than Flaubert, which is pretty high praise.
- Jose Saramago, author of Blindness (, among many others, and a recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I’m definitely going to read all four eventually, but I’ll stick to the poems of Pessoa and the novels of Saramago at first. E de Q can wait a while, and Camões… well, I don’t know that I’ll ever be up to reading his stuff, I’m afraid. As for The Book of Disquiet, I believe it’s quite existentialist, so I am probably going to wuss out and read it in English. There are braver souls out there though, and there’s a guy on Memrise who has made a course based on new vocabulary he has learned by dictionarying his way through it.
I have some other books written by Portuguese writers too, like “Bichos)” (“Beasts”) by Miguel Torga and Bifes Mal Passados by João Magueijo, and m’lovely wife has a lot more. If there are any Portuguese people reading this, I’d love to hear your suggestions for other books to try.