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How I Increased My Portuguese Fluency by Watching a Soap Opera

By:  Evelina Silveira, President Diversity at Work in London Inc.

It’s 9:00 pm and I have given up my regular date with Peter Mansbridge on the National News preferring to watch the Belmonte family:  Jose, Carlos, Lucas, Joao and Pedro navigate their business deals in the beautiful town of Estremoz, Portugal.  The Belmonte’s came into my life quite by chance one day when I was flipping channels, just wanting to relax.  Alas!  I heard a familiar language spoken on the television –Portuguese.  This was my first language that I have lost due to lack of practice.

Out of curiousity, and out of a deep appreciation for the visually appealing men I saw on the screen, I decided to give it a few minutes of my time.  Before long, I was fully engaged and not superficially either.  It became an intellectual exercise where I challenged myself to understand, by linking linguistic similarities to English.  When I started watching Belmonte about two months ago, I only understood about 60% of what I was hearing.

I have never studied Portuguese formally.  However, I had some exposure in my family of Portuguese immigrants. I decided some time ago that I wanted to learn it better but I am not someone who enjoys taking classes or listening to tapes.  I want it to be fun and not a lot of extra work.  Voila!  Belmonte to the rescue!

Sixty days later of watching 5 hours a week, I understand about 98% of what I am hearing and my vocabulary has expanded exponentially!  This isn’t your average run of the-mill American-style soap opera peppered with affairs botoxed beauties and beaus all living in their massive homes.  Albeit, the Belmonte’s do own a vineyard, a marble quarry, an olive oil business and a park, but not everyone in Estremoz is rich or perfect.

So what have I learned from this captivating, suspenseful, picturesque, award-winning soap opera?  A whole lot such as:

  1. Some business vocabulary.

  2. Slang expressions.

  3. Many similar idioms like:  “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”.

  4. Vocabulary related to criminal investigations as one of the major plots has to do with “ o trafico de mulheres” or trafficking of women.

  5. How Latin based words like “horrible”, “impossible” “incredible” etc are very similar to the Portuguese words but the “b” gets dropped for a “v”.

  6. If you listen carefully many of the verbs have a Latin base and you can easily figure out what they are trying to say.

  7. Portuguese is a very formal language and there are higher standards for politeness and respect for hierarchy and status.  Even the Police Sergeant uses formal titles to address suspects.  And when the characters are exchanging insults they still manage to add an:  “Desculpa”  (Sorry)  or “Boa Tarde’  (Good Afternoon)  Imagine that!

  8. There are a lot of English words that have become part of the Portuguese lexicon.  For example in business:  “off-shore”; “dealer” (as in drug dealer); “okay”; “strippers” etc.

Besides increasing my vocabulary and comprehension, Belmonte has also given me a greater understanding of contemporary Portuguese issues.  For example, there are many references to how a few of the characters have lost their faith in God and don’t go to church anymore. Portugal has for centuries been one of the bastions of the Catholic faith and now it appears that even that is dying.  Po