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The Secret To Use The Simple Past And The Imperfect In Portuguese
April 03, 2013
Olá! Tudo bem?

Como vai?

If you look into the way you talk to other people, you'll realise that communication is all about sharing experiences through stories of different kinds. It's all about listening to other people's experiences and telling them your own stories as well. Communicating in Portuguese is no different.

When you tell a story in Portuguese, one of the first things you need to learn is how you can make it interesting and how you can attract other people to listening to you.

This is not an easy task at the beginning, but if you grasp the concepts I'll give you here in a few minutes, I'm sure you'll feel more confident when you tell the stories you've experienced to other people.

I'm sure you also realise that knowing how to recount a story in Portuguese can be challenging, and sometimes frustrating as well.

The fact is, being able to express yourself in Portuguese doesn't usually happen by accident. It requires a bit of concentration, and a previous control of certain rules and vocabulary.

If you don't know how to speak in the past in Portuguese, then nothing you do will work. In fact, most native speakers know whether or not you can speak Portuguese within seconds of first meeting you. You know this is the cruel truth!

So, what shall you do? WHAT ARE THE SECRETS and how can you learn to tell a story in Portuguese?

I thought you'd never ask...! ;-)

I call this language "The Connecting Communication". - which is the language of getting people attracted to your story.

One of the first secrets is a combination of your voice tone, your facial expression and the energy you put into your conversation.

Introductory phases like "Deixa-me dizer-te uma coisa" in informal European Portuguese, "Deixe-me dizer-lhe uma coisa" in more formal European Portuguese, or "Deixe eu falar uma coisa para você" in Brazilian Portuguese - ["Let me tell you something"] - will arouse interest straight away.

In other words, this is a kind of flirt that creates interest and patience in people to listen to your story. Full stop.

Communication is all about interaction, as you know, so if a native speaker tells you a story, and if you have shown them that you have been interested in the story they were telling you before, then big chances are that they will be interested in what you have to say too.

Everything in the world is energy flowing, so if you give, you'll receive as well. Languages are no different.

The first thing to do is LEARN YOUR VERBS WELL.

Choose the verbs you will need to use to tell one short story and learn both, the Simple Past and the Imperfect - This verb table here will help you out - the 2nd and 3rd columns in black and green respectively.

You can also choose a picture you have, or even one from your phone, and start to imagine what you could be saying about that picture and the experience you had when that picture was taken.

"Uma imagem fala por mil palavras" - "an image speaks for a thousand words", so, normally people get more attracted to what you want to say if you have some kind of evidence to illustrate your story.

Then, in order for you to say something about the experience you want to tell, you will need at least two things:


You need to locate your story in the time line first - Normally by using the SIMPLE PAST: e.g. Eu TIREI esta foto quando FUI visitar o meu amigo Artur em Luanda- [I TOOK this photo when I WENT to visit my friend Artur in Luanda].

As you can see, by using the SIMPLE PAST here, you are situating your story in the time line, so the person who is listening to you automatically engages and gets interest in what is coming next!

The SIMPLE PAST gives you the idea of a ONE-OFF situation. So when you VISITED your friend Artur, you did it ONCE at that particular time.

The SIMPLE PAST normally translates to English as "DID" or "HAVE DONE", e.g. "Eu VISITEI" - (I visited), or "Eu VISITEI" - (I have visited).

Sporadically you may want to distinguish these two by using either "" or "AINDA", to give the idea of either "already" or "YET" respectively - "Eu VISITEI" - [I HAVE already VISITED"] or "Eu ainda não VISITEI" - [I HAVEN'T VISITED yet].

But remember, the tense in Portuguese is still the same - the Simple Past!

Are you following me so far?


OK. Before you carry on with your story, you may want to add some more information by giving some more details which also occurred just ONCE. Say for instance "Eu CONHECI o Artur a primeira vez que eu VISITEI Angola". [I MET Artur the first time I VISITED Angola.]

You see, here again you are adding some more information that occurred ONLY ONCE and which have STARTED and FINISHED in the past - so you are using the SIMPLE PAST again.

In addition, you are automatically limiting the situation in the time line with a BEGINNING and an END by saying "... a primeira vez que..." - Well, you have only ONE first time when you do something, don't you?

You can use this Simple Past with other introductory expressions like "Ontem..." [yesterday], "A semana passada..." [last week], "Hoje de manhã..." [this morning], "Ontem à noite..." [last night], and so on and so forth.


Bang! By this time my friend, you are on a roll!


Once you have added all the detailed information - that have occurred once - in order for you to keep on telling your story, you will need to DESCRIBE the scenario. So, to describe the scenario you'll need the IMPERFECT.

Learn it well, by heart, with the help of this table here - the 3rd column in green.

As you may have noticed, the Imperfect Past is very easy to remember because the first person ("EU" ) and the third person ("ELE, ELA, VOCÊ, A GENTE) are the same.

So you have very little to remember because normally when you are telling a story you either use the first person ("EU"), as you are the starring of the story, or the third person (ELE, ELA, A GENTE) when you talk about someone else.

Each one of them needs to be clearly expressed in every single phrase you utter.

Isn't this great?

The IMPERFECT is the verb tense that you will be using to DESCRIBE what was happening in that story.

But... What do you mean when you say "to describe what was happening", Rafa?

Yes, I can read your thoughts! ;-)

OK, let me explain:

When you are telling your story to someone else, you will use the IMPERFECT tense in Portuguese specifically in 4 situations:

1. When you are DESCRIBING a situation that OCCURRED MANY TIMES in the past giving you the sense of "I USED TO": e.g. "Lá, eu JOGAVA futebol na praia com o Artur e os amigos dele" - [There, I USED TO PLAY football with Artur and his friends".

You see, here you are using the IMPERFECT because you are DESCRIBING an action that you did many times in the past.


"Quando eu ESTAVA em Luanda, ele IA à praia de manhã cedo" - [When I WAS in Luanda, he USED TO GO to the beach early in the morning".

Here again both verbs "ESTAVA" and "IA" are describing the past, aren't they? So, let's use the Imperfect my friend!

OK. Let's carry on to the next situation.

2. When you talk about AGE and TIME in the past you must use the IMPERFECT as well.

But... What on earth is that?

Check this out.

Every time you start a sentence by saying "When I WAS a child..." - "Quando eu ERA criança…", or "When I WAS five years old..." - "Quando eu TINHA cinco anos..." these verbs are in the IMPERFECT as well!

So no more mistakes when you are talking about your AGE IN THE PAST.

Is that a deal? Good!

But what about talking about time?

When you want to express an idea which took place at ten o'clock for instance, you will also use the IMPERFECT. e.g. "ERAM dez horas quando o restaurant fechou" - "It WAS ten o'clock when the restaurant closed". (Well in current English you'd rather say "The restaurant closed at ten o'clock" but sometimes you know you have to adapt a bit the way you say things in Portuguese.)

3. When you need to differentiate in a sentence two actions in which ONE IS LONGER THAN THE OTHER ONE.

The previous example already exemplifies this case, but let's imagine another situation: "O Telefone TOCOU enquanto eu ALMOÇAVA" - ["The phone RANG whilst I WAS HAVING LUNCH".]

As you can see here, the Imperfect tense in Portuguese also gives you the sense of "I WAS DOING" something - a LONG ACTION. So, every time you need to build a phrase with a similar construction, say "He WAS ASKING the price when..." you can surely use the Imperfect tense in Portuguese - "Ele PERGUNTAVA o preço quando...".

A simpler way to express the same idea could also be by using the verb ESTAR all the time, for instance, "Ele ESTAVA a perguntar o preço, quando o amigo dele CHEGOU." (in European Portuguese), or "Ele ESTAVA perguntando o preço, quando o amigo dele CHEGOU."

So here you have the verb ESTAR in the Imperfect, to describe the longer action, and the verb "CHEGAR" in the Simple Past - Perfect , to identify the short event.

But let's admit it, when his friend arrived, it was an one-off situation, wasn't it?

Another example you'd use the IMPERFECT TENSE when you are narrating a particular event is for instance: "She WAS already in the party, when we CALLED her." - "Ela já ESTAVA na festa quando lhe LIGÁMOS." (in European Portuguese), or "Ela já ESTAVA na festa quando LIGÁMOS para ela." (in Brazilian Portuguese).

You see, everything makes sense, doesn't it?

Right. Let's see the last but not the least case where you will use the Imperfect.


Oh yeah baby!

As far as I know, Portuguese is the only Latin-based language that allows you to do that!

So, in most cases where you need to use the CONDITIONAL (normally expressed by the word "WOULD" in English), you can use the Imperfect instead.

Say for instance you want to say something like "I would have an ice-cream right now". In Portuguese you would just say "Eu COMIA um gelado agora!" (in European Portuguese) or "Eu COMIA um sorvete agora" (in Brazilian Portuguese).

So, How cool is that?

By learning this easy Imperfect Tense you'll get THIS HUGE BONUS, which allows you to learn the Conditional mode at the same time!

Hey, this is even better than the Shampoo-and-Conditioner-in-one, let's face it!

And that's it for today. I hope this email will help you improve your speaking and/or reading skills in Portuguese.

And yes, please don't forget, if you want to drastically master and enhance your Portuguese vocabulary, check out the language programme I have been creating for you here.

I'll call it a day for now.

Do some practice with this email and enjoy your learning, always bearing in mind how you can best use this information to help you achieve your goals.

I hope you have enjoyed this message as much as I have enjoyed writing it and I'll be back with more news soon.

Till then, bom estudo! (good luck with your studies).

Your friend,

Rafa x

PS 1: Questions about any topics? Success stories? Please let me know.

PS 2: Also, no matter how you do it, please spread the word... Tell your friends and family, colleagues at work, about!. This site grows purely by word-of-mouth, allowing many people like you to "improve their Portuguese", and to attract people just like you, to deliver value towards success!


Tchau tchau!

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