Best Books for Learning Portuguese

I’ve used quite a lot of different study guides since I started to learn portuguese. The quality is pretty variable, so I thought it would be useful to put some reviews on here. I probably haven’t scratched the surface of what’s available so if you’ve got any recommendations (or warnings!), feel free to tell me about them in the comments.

Portugal: Lingua e Cultura (Tom Lathrop & Eduardo M Dias)

Format: One textbook, one exercise book, two audio cassettes . Level: Beginner

This one has a special place in my heart since it was the first one I ever got into, recommended by my first ever formal teacher. She used to use it with younger students. Its main attraction is that its look and feel are very much like familiar old school textbooks I used to use in school language lessons, like the much-missed Cours Illustré de Francais. It’s copiously illustrated and very informal. On the downside, it has a very slow pace. You might remember learning french and basically the entire first year was just in the present tense. Well, this book is the same. If you aren’t used to learning language and want to take it slow with plenty of explanation and plenty of time to learn vocabulary before worrying about grammar, this might be a good approach, but if you want to dive straight in and tackle the hard stuff within a few weeks, you might be a bit frustrated at the leisurely pace.

The biggest problem by far, if you want to buy this book, is that it’s out of print at the time of writing and as far as I know hasn’t been in print for over a decade so copies are scarce. The same authors have a brazilian portuguese book that’s still available on the publisher’s website and Amazon, but not this one. You can still snag a copy on second hand sites like Abe Books (search page here) but you should probably ask yourself questions like “Has the previous owner filled in the spaces in the exercise books?”, “Does the book price include the tapes?”, “Do I even own a tape recorder?” and of course “What’s a tape recorder, grandad?” Even if you get a copy, you might be annoyed by some aspects of it, such as all the sections on money listing escudos as the currency of portugal. The fact that there are two footballers on the cover and neither of them is Ronaldo is a giveaway too.

Portugues Actual 1-3 (Herminia Malcata, Marta Silva)

Format: Textbooks, each with two Audio CDs. Level: Basic – Advanced

This traffic-light of books is designed to hit all the key grammar structure required for the 6 exams – A1 to C2. They’re non nonsense, focused exercises, which should address any grammatical gaps you might need to fix before the exam. (disclaimer – I haven’t used the A1/A2 version and have only recently started the C1/C2, so I’m extrapolating from the content of the orange book.

Portuguese (Michel Thomas, Victoria Catmur)

Michel Thomas Portuguese Audio Course

I swear by Michel Thomas – or rather Virginia Catmur, who does his portuguese course. She really draws you into the lesson and covers a huge amount of ground in a short space of time so that you go from zero to complete sentences in just a few hours. This was the method that really “unstuck” me and got me on course to make real progress, so if you’re just starting out, give it a go and see how you get on. There are a couple of ways of getting it: Audible have 8 volumes altogether:

or if you prefer to use CDs, Foyles has them and I’m sure other book shops do too. At the time of writing, these are the ones that are available, but there are some others marked as not currently in stock so if this sounds interesting it might be worth searching the site for other versions at other learning levels and other price-points.

You can download a free one-hour taster from the Michel Thomas website, and in fact you can buy the courses there too but they seem to be a little bit more expensive there than elsewhere/

Gramatica Aplicada (Carla Oliveira)

Format: Books only. Level: A1-C1

Like “Portuguese Atual”, these books are really systematic, hitting one topic per page, straight from the exam specification, with practice exercises on the facing page. The format of the book is larger than Português Atual, near A4, with illustrations so it feels a bit more friendly. So if that’s a factor for you, you might like these better. They are broken up in an odd way though. The first one goes from super-basic A1 level right through to the end of B1. The second covers the intermediate certificate and the first level of advanced.

Português Empresarial (Margarida Neves)

Format: Books only. Level A1-B2

These books aim to introduce words, terms and phrases used in business settings, computers and so on. They don’t really try and introduce the grammar, but you’ll find that the grammar is pitched at a level that supports your revision for the appropriate level. I don’t really think any of this vocabluary is going to be much help with an exam, so if that’s what you’re aiming for, I’d suggest looking elsewhere but iof course if you want to work in Portugal it’s probably going to be a big help.

A Actualidade em Português (Ana Tavares, Herminia Malcata)

A Actualidade em Portuguese (Contemporary issues in Portuguese)

Format: Textbook only with exercises inline. Level: Intermediate (B2)

This book uses moderately complex texts as the basis for some comprehension exercises. It doesn’t try and instruct the reader in grammar per se, but it brings in a lot of idiomatic phrases, highlights things like synonyms and antonyms, and other tricky aspects of the language. It’s quite challenging in places.

There is a lot of discussion of contemporary issues that will test your descriptive powers. It woud be good for someone aiming at a B2 exam, and it’s well-suited to being the basis of a series of 1:1 lessons with a teacher who can help with some of the difficult bits and keep you on the straight-and-narrow with the spoken exercises!

I can’t find a source for this in the UK but you can buy it from Bertrand (Portugal)

BBC Discovering Portuguese

BBC Discovering Portuguese

Format: Textbook with exercises, Casstte tapes. Level: Basic.

I got hold of a copy of this from the Oxfam Shop in Ealing and tried to teach myself to speak using it. I wouldn’t bother though. Even if you can find a copy second hand it’s a bit basic and a bit outdated.

Exam Practice

Exames de Português CAPLE-UL (Portuguese CAPLE Exams)

The main exam practice book I’ve used is “Exames de Portgues CAPLE-UL” by José Lino Pascoal and Teresa Brandão Oliveira. You can get it online from Bertrand and download the audio files here by entering the ISBN number (9789897524622) and publisher (Lidel).

Bertrand also sell a book of B2 test papers with an accompanying CD from the same company called Exames de Portugues B2, Preparacao e Modelos which might be useful if you are looking at intermediate level, but bear in mind that it covers several different flavours of B2 level test including DIPLE Escolar, which is the test given to school-age children, Celpe-Bras, the brazilian equivalent of DIPLE and half a dozen others I don’t even recognise. It’s not specific to the standard CAPLE test framework, in other words, so although it is quite chunky, it may not be as useful as it seems.

Reference Books

Aside from the study materials, I also use Essential Portuguese Grammar from Amelia Hutchinson and Janet Lloyd, which is pretty thorough. You couldn’t sit down and learn it all from cover to cover (believe me I tried!) but it’s good for an occasional check. I had a look around the internet and was surprised to see it selling for over a hundred quid in a lot of places. Bertrand is the only shop that seem to have it for anything like a sensible price.

I use Porto Editora’s dictionaries. The edition of the monoligingual dictionary I have isn’t available now but I think the modern version is here at Bertrand. I also have a portuguese-english dictionary for when I can’t understand the definition in portuguese. This is the closest equivalent I can find in Foyles.

The Final Word

I’m not going to talk about the two vocabulary audiobooks I’ve tried. Absolute waste of time. Nobody can learn a language by memorising lists of vocabulary read out in a monotonous voice. You need the context or it’ll never stick.

God, now that I’ve finished this page, I am horrified at how many books I’ve used for so little effect due to my ever-advancing senility. Oh well, never mind – my brain may be addled by old age, crosswords and gin but I’m not doing too badly, I think!

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