The Postcard
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The Postcard

How to Learn a Language at the Last Minute

I tried to learn Portuguese in one day.

Photo by Tiff Ng from Pexels

When I went to Portugal for the first time, I booked my trip eight months in advance and told myself, quite confidently, “I’ll be able to speak Portuguese by then!”

And cut me some slack — I gave it a good shot.

I did some Duolingo, made a couple of flashcards, and I even signed up for a Beginner Portuguese course at my college. Only to later realize that the course was teaching Brazilian Portuguese, and I was aiming for European. Oops.

Fast forward to 5 days before my trip. To make a long story short, I knew next to nothing. Obviously, fluency was never really the goal, but I feel like such an interloper going into a country and not knowing how to say anything other than “Do you speak English?” I’ve never been the kind of person to go for those 1-week “guaranteed fluent” audiobooks and app subscriptions. I knew I needed real one-on-one language instruction with a native who could make sure my pronunciation was on point.

But where and how was I going to get that with less than a week before boarding my plane?

After a brief bit of research, I sent an email to the Lusa Language School in Lisbon. They got back to me right away and I was able to schedule a 1-day crash course in Portuguese for me and my friend within the first few days of my 2-week trip.

What could I learn in just 1 day?

When Day 1 (of 1) came, I entered a brightly-lit room with my notebook, pen, and customary bica (coffee) from the lobby. I paid 40€ for four hours of instruction, which was pretty good if you ask me. The first two hours were in-class instruction with the language tutor. I learned a lot of the things you’d expect to get in a beginner level course. Basic greetings, masculine and feminine articles, question words, etc.

However, because the course was extremely short-term, we jumped straight into survival and navigation phrases. Rather than learning how to talk about families and houses, we learned how to buy tickets, ask how much things cost in a shop, ask about departure and arrival times, and a lot of other tourist-friendly phrases. The instructor was great about answering our questions, as well as providing translations for random phrases we thought we might need.

After the in-class portion of the lesson, our teacher took us on a 2-hour tour of Lisbon. In addition to giving us some background knowledge of the city, she put us to the test by accompanying us to a café so we could actually use what we had just learned to order our food and drinks. It was a wonderful touch that made the experience much more personalized and practical.

So did it help?

Absolutely! While I still couldn’t dream of having a meaningful conversation in Portuguese, the course definitely gave me the tools I needed to navigate my travels more comfortably. I didn’t struggle to order in restaurants or buy train tickets, thanks to the phrases I learned. It also helped to take the class about two days after I arrived in the country. By then I really knew what kinds of questions I needed to be able to ask and the key phrases I would want to hold onto.

My favorite method of communicating was pointing at things and going: “O que é isto?” (What is this?)

I definitely intend to take more language crash courses in the future, especially in places where I don’t have the intention to become fluent. It makes me feel better and more respectful of the country to know a little something here and there.

So to all my fellow procrastinators, I urge you to look up similar programs and language schools in your destinations. Better late than never, right?


What language(s) have you put off? What’s it going to take for you to be fluent?



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