Switching Language Gears

There's been a bit of a change of plans. I'm now learning Portuguese instead of Spanish. As mentioned previously, I found that a combination of Pimsleur and Duolingo was working pretty well. With the switch to Portuguese, I needed to re-evaluate. I can share with you what's worked and what hasn't as a result.


They say that the best way to learn is to be completely immersed in a language. I can attest to learning a lot more in an immersive environment, and finding it very difficult to learn while not. I think that there's three reasons for this:

  1. Context. Our brains are very context sensitive. If I'm used to speaking to a person and or in a particular place in a particular language, that cues my brain to use that language.

  2. Multi-modal learning. Listening, speaking, reading, writing, and images are all different modes in which your brain operates. Optimal learning happens with a mix of all of them.

  3. Motivation: there's nothing like needing to speak a language to get dinner to motivate you to figure it out.

  4. Opportunity: the more opportunities you have to actually use the language instead of just doing drills, the more you have a chance to work the "mental muscle" (well, pathways but the analogy holds) that drive the language.

Immersion hits all of those, but it's not the only way to manage it. There's lots of language resources around, the tricky part is blending them so that you get all of those elements in the right proportion that works for you.

Not having any native speakers has made this necessary for me, though I'm hoping to address that soon. In the short term, here's what I've worked out for me:

  1. Context: as sad as this may be, my car is actually a big context. I use Pimsleur on the drive to and from my office and it's just right. I could probably do better with context, but that's the best I have right now.

  2. Multi-modal: this has been a big win. The combination of Pimsleur and online tools has proven to be great. More on this later.

  3. Motivation: got that in spades. I'm going to be doing business with Portuguese-speakers and there have been a bunch of meetings in which I really wished I spoke Portuguese already!

  4. Opportunity: this is another part that multiple tools helps with.

Multiple Tools

An analogy that my friend Sean came up with: when you work out, you don't just do one exercise, or even one type of exercise. Why would you do only one thing to learn a language?

The combination of Pimsleur and Duolingo is really good, but there's more. I use Google Translate all of the time to try out combinations and see what's going on. For a while, I didn't do the reading exercises from Pimsleur, thinking I would pick up the knowledge elsewhere. While getting other input was good, I could have also done the readings.

Moral of the story: the best way to get over the immersion hurdle is to use a bunch of tools at the same time. Try a bunch of things out, see which ones work for you, and stick with those. In my case, it's still Pimsleur and Duolingo.

Pimsleur and Duolingo, again

With Pimsleur, I feel like I’m talking with people, which is highly motivating. The pace is also just right for me, and it lets me make mistakes and nothing is judging except for myself. That's really important. It gets me to learn and try new things, without worrying about screwing up.

Duolingo fills in the gaps. Pimsleur teaches very broad concepts, but can’t do anything visually and so you end up missing some of the grammar nuances. Duolingo hits those very squarely, and it’s easy to work into 5 minute breaks in the day. It can be frustrating sometimes, but working ahead of it with Pimsleur makes it seem less like guessing.

Rosetta Stone

When I first switched to Portuguese, I thought Rosetta Stone would be the answer. They use the immersion technique, and it should cover everything listed above. Slam dunk right? Not quite.

Before I get started, keep in mind that just because it didn't work out for me doesn't mean that it won't necessarily work for you. Rosetta Stone is a well polished product with a lot going for it. I didn't drop it because it's bad, but because I have better options. If I were learning Arabic, I would probably go for it because I haven't found anything better in Arabic.

So what went wrong? The short version is that it was too slow in some ways and too fast in others. I'm a very quick learning and expect to be challenged. When that doesn't happen I get bored.

The immersion technique they use is great in theory, but the implementation of it lacks the ability to describe detail or nuance. It might be possible to get to that eventually, but when trying to build a critical knowledge base, it just feels pedantic. It seemed like really simple things were explained very slowly (e.g. that metal is "metal". Really, I could have guessed that without being shown it 5 times in a row), while getting any real practice at forming sentences or using the words learning never really happened.

It's possible that with hobby learners, kids, or people with a different learning style that Rosetta Stone would work better. I don't think I've lost a month - I learned a few things from Rosetta Stone - but in the end I've gone back to Pimsleur and Duolingo.

I'm also looking for people with whom to practice Portuguese. Message me if you'd like to chat!


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