Finding Context In The Unknown In Brazilian Portuguese
In my last article, Mastering The Concept Of Word Gender, we looked at a
table of word-endings in Portuguese.
This table included an example for each word-ending and also listed its
gender. Obviously in real life conversation you will rarely stop someone to
ask them what the gender of the words they are speaking is.
In my experience from my travels in Brazil, I never once encountered anyone who
gave me too hard of a time for getting the gender of my words wrong. It’s
really one of those things where you just do your best and learn as you go.
There are a lot of words that simply do not follow the rules that are
established. Just like how in English we have particular rules for spelling
and grammar but there are always a few words that break these rules and
make it just as hard to teach someone English as it would be to learn
The best thing you can do for yourself, is to memorize as much as you can,
and then use context mapping to connect the dots. This is one of my best
techniques that I used to finally get a handle on the language.
It’s not so much about knowing everything by heart as it is about using context to
Let’s go over some examples of what I mean.
Let’s pretend you are talking with a friend, and they are telling you in
Portuguese, the following:
“Estou atrasado para o meu teste. Perdi o ônibus e já deveria estar na
Let’s imagine that when you hear this sentence, you are already pretty
fluent and so you know what your friend is saying.
They are telling you:
“I am late for my test. I missed the bus, and I should already be in class.”
You understood what your friend said but when you heard the word, “aula,”
at the end of their sentence, you thought to yourself, “I wonder if aula is a
masculine or feminine word.”
Given that your friend is already late, you don’t want to ask them
and so you dissect their sentence a bit by yourself.
You notice the word they used before the word, “aula,” was the word, “na.”
We’ll imagine, at this point, that you already know that the word, “na,” is a
contraction for the two words, “em,” and, “a,” meaning, “in,” and, “the.”
Based on this understanding, you conclude that, “aula,” must be a feminine
word because the definite article, “the,” that preceded it used the form, “a.”
Let’s look at another example of using context to guide you toward
understanding. This example is not related to word gender, but just using
context in general.
Let’s assume that you are in a market in Brazil and you bring your product
to a cashier. She tells you your cost by saying the following:
“Um real, por favor.”
Let’s say you didn’t understand what the cashier said but you are excited to
buy your product. We’ll pretend that you were under the impression that
you could use American money in Brazil, and so you pull out your wad of
American dollar bills. You hand the cashier a 1-dollar bill.
The cashier looks back at you and says:
“Não. Preciso de um real, não de um dólar.”
Puzzled for a moment, you stop and consider the context.
The cashier is refusing your money, for some reason, and so this should be
a clue that something you are doing is incorrect. The next thing you realize
is you heard “não de um dólar.” You realize that this phrase sounds an
awful lot like English for “not one dollar.”
Immediately it dawns on you that you are paying in the wrong currency.
You conclude that, “um real, por favor,” must mean something like, “one of
our currency, please.”
And just like that, you used the context of the situation and word sounds
to get you to a place of understanding.
One of the best pieces of advice that I can give you regarding finding
context in the unknown is to remember, always, that Portuguese and
English, at their core are very common languages due to their common
There are many, many words in Portuguese that have a relationship to an
English word, even when it is not immediately apparent.
One of the best tricks you can do, when you encounter a word and you
don’t know its meaning, is to scrutinize it and weigh it against all the
English words with similar stems and roots that you can think of.
For example, to say, “chewing,” in Portuguese, we say, “mastigando.”
Now, at first, you may see this word and think that it has nothing in
common with the word, “chewing.”
In a sense, you’d be right. But it does have a common root, “masti-,” with a
particular English word, “masticating.”
Masticating is a technical, scientific way of saying, “to chew,” in English.
In other words, it is a synonym. And, if you happened to know that, then
you would be able to perhaps make this connection based on the context of
where you encountered the word, “mastigando.” Context helps a lot.
A lot of times, you will learn a new word in Portuguese and think, “oh wow,
that’s just like the English word.” These are known as cognates, and the
two languages have tons of them. So, always take the time to compare
unknown words and sounds to similar English words and sounds that you
already know. Very often, it will lead you to the correct translation, or a very
Once I got a handle on how to look for clues in the surrounding context of a
word, I realized that I was able to use logic and reason to teach myself
much faster. I want you to start thinking this way, as it is the best way to
expedite your learning. In every situation you are in, there will be clues all
around you that can help you piece together what is being said.
One of the major differences between those who are successful at learning
a new language and those who are not, is the ability to accept that they are
going to make mistakes. I know I have talked about this before, but it is
important to bring it into focus here before you go any further.
Some concepts in Portuguese get a little tough and you will not remember
everything immediately. But you must go into this knowing that this is
normal, and ok.
Making mistakes is part of the learning process. In fact, in a way, it is just
as important as learning itself. When you make mistakes, those mistakes
often stick out to you the next time around and help you get better at
remembering certain rules and concepts. The very best thing you can do
for yourself is just to keep going forward. Don’t stay hung up on anything.
Just keep going.
If you would like to continue learning at an accelerated pace,
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I am sure you will find something interesting.
Until next time,