I've recently become motivated to learn Portuguese. Mulheres bonitas sao muito motivado. It's not the first time this has happened to me - in the past I've attempted to learn Spanish, Farsi and Konkani. But it is the first time I've made significant progress and it's the first time that I feel the goal is achievable. I lived for many years in the United States, trained for almost two years at a Mexican gym, and as a result I've picked up bits and pieces of Spanish. But after only a few months of study, I already speak more Portuguese than Spanish.

I believe the fundamental difference this time is that I've started using Spaced Repetition Software. So treat this post as testimonial and anecdotal evidence rather than hard science. I'll link to reviews of the science at the end. The main purpose of this post is to make my readers aware of SRS, and two great apps in particular.

Spaced Repetition is a cognitive science concept - it's based on the premise that each time a person actively attempts to recall a fact, that fact will remain in their mind for a longer duration. I.e., if I try to remember that "cachorro" is "puppy" 10 minutes after learning it, I'm likely to remember it for a day. If after one day I try again, I'm likely to remember in 2 days. No study scheme or tutor could possibly keep track of such a system, but software can.

So I'm going to describe the two software systems I've been using, and how I've used them to make significant progress.


The first app, duoLingo, is a free phone and web application for learning foreign languages. At the early stages it's broken up into lessons on using simple words. There are a few variations on the exercises - typing translations of phrases you see written, hearing a phrase and typing the Portuguese into a textbox, and similar things. Playing recordings of the speech is very helpful in picking up pronunciation. It's a great way of learning new words.

DuoLingo is interesting in it's own right. It's the brainchild of Luis Von Ahn, and the business model is very interesting. The app teaches introductory language learners for free. Even at the advanced levels, learners never pay anything. Instead, payment is performed via HITs or Human Intelligence Tasks. What this means is that most of the time, the user will be practicing foreign language tasks assigned by language experts. But a fraction of the time, they will be translating fragments of actual Portuguese (or whatever other language) - in essense, DuoLingo is a semi-professional translation service.

Apparently a study was done comparing DuoLingo to a college course in Spanish, and it found that DuoLingo was more effective. I haven't read it carefully since the result is not that important to me - I don't have time for a college course. I do have 10-15 minutes/day to practice Portuguese during a subway or auto rickshaw ride which makes DuoLingo perfect for me.


Anki is the second app I've been using - desktop, web and mobile versions of it exist. It's a plain and simple spaced repetition program. You type in a card in the form of a Question and an Answer. At some later date, Anki will ask you the question. You then try to remember the answer and rate how difficult it was for you to come up with it - e.g. "I forgot" or "very easy". Anki will then ask you the question again at a later time, the exact time depending on how easy or hard it was for you to remember.

Here is how it works in practice. I learn a new word or phrase of Portuguese, either from DuoLingo or Bonita Professora. I typically put the Portuguese phrase in as the question, and the English phrase in as the answer. Most of the time, I find that once a fact gets into Anki, it's only a matter of time before it's in my brain permanently.

Due to the source of most of my conversational practice I've learned quite a few words that DuoLingo probably considers less than family friendly ("sua rabos e bonita"). Many are also fairly niche, but useful to know - e.g., "rain" or "octopus". Anki is great for adding new words to my vocabulary.

Give it a shot

For anyone who takes a subway, bus or auto rickshaw (i.e. anything besides driving or biking) on a daily basis, or otherwise has 20-30 idle minutes/day, I heartily recommend trying out spaced repetition. It's great for learning a foreign language, but other topics are also quite approacheable - I know a lawyer who is using Anki to memorize assorted niche regulations, and a medical student using it for all the insane memorization doctors must do.

For anyone looking for more scientific information, there is of course Gwern's review on the topic. Strongly recommended.

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