Doing mistakes and having good rabbits (How learning a language makes you a better teacher)

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

Ah, Portuguese. Sometimes we get along like life-long pals. But most days we are like teenage siblings who are constantly at odds with each other.

Masculine versus feminine. Plural adjectives. The variation of articles.

And did I mention the verbs? Why oh why must they have two forms of the verb “to be.” It that really necessary?

Yet, learning the local language of my current home, Brazil, has certainly helped me better relate to my English language students. Most noticeably, it has helped me gain a better understanding of some of the mistakes my students make in English.

What is that sound?

“I have many good rabbits,” a student said one day.

Hmmmm. “Rabbits?” I asked. I was fairly certain my student was not telling me he had a bunch of well-behaved bunnies.

“Yes, rabbits. For example, I like to go to the gym regularly and eat healthy,” said my student.

*long pause*

“Ah, you mean habits?” I asked.

General laughter followed.

I could certainly understand the confusion my Brazilian students experienced because the ‘r’ and the ‘h’ sound in Portuguese are the reverse of English. This often results in words such as “habits” and “rabbits” being confused.

And just as I struggle with the Portuguese “ão” sound, a nasal conundrum that doesn’t exist in English, my students are often befuddled by the “th” sound (as in “thing”), which English speakers take for granted.

Try explaining to a bunch of teenagers that they need to stick their tongue out past their teeth to correctly make this sound, and you will be met by giggles and disbelief. No matter how often I tell them that no English speaker will notice, they are convinced they will be ridiculed from Los Angeles to New York for their wayward tongue.

What’s the big deal, you might wonder?

Try saying the word “that” or “thought” without moving your tongue past your teeth, and you might end up making the “f” sound. This makes all the difference when you are trying to say “that” versus “fat” or “thought” versus “fought.”

The “n” and “m” sounds are another problem for Brazilian speakers. These letters are another contributor to the Portuguese love affair with nasal sounds. The closest relation in English would be if you made the “ing” sound while you suffered from a cold. This means that I am constantly getting corrected for saying the word “sim” (which means “yes” in Portuguese) as if it were an English word that ends in “m,” rather than something closer to what sounds like “sing.”

Of course, there are the basic peccadilloes that even native English learners stumble over as children. You don’t remember? What about “there,” “their” and “they’re.”

While the differences between these are easy to explain and understand, beginners often struggle to understand which word is being used when practicing listening exercises.

Learning the local language can help ESL teachers relate to their English language students better
Fran, with her class of students in Brazil

I do lots of mistakes! No?

One common mistake for beginners is mixing up the verbs be, have and do/make, which are used differently in Portuguese. The potential for error with these three verbs is endless, not only for English learners, but for those of us fumbling through the dense forest of Portuguese verbs.

For example, Brazilians would say “Eu tenho dez anos” (I have ten years), rather than I am ten years old.

Another common error is this: “I would like to know New York” rather than visit or see, because know is the verb used in Portuguese for this sentence.

Or check out the verbs miss and lost. They have the same meaning in Portuguese, which leads many beginners to say “I lost my class” rather than “I missed my class.”

What is an auxiliary and why do we need it?!

Sentence structure is always a muddle with any new language. But one big difference is the English use of auxiliary verbs in a question.

In English, we say, “Did you go to school? –Yes, I went.”

We use the simple past in the affirmative (went), but in the question we use did + base form of the verb (go).

Brazilians say, “Você foi para a escola? –Sim, eu foi.”

Which literally translates as “You went to school? –Yes, I went.”

Portuguese doesn’t use auxiliary verbs such as did. And while I’ve been told that learning English is easier than learning Portuguese overall, this is one example that doesn’t support that! In Portuguese, the structure of an affirmative sentence and question are usually the same; you just change the intonation for a question.

Slow down! You speak so fast!

A funny comment I always get from students is that English is faster than Portuguese. While I patiently explain to them that everyone speaks their native language at a rapid pace, the best way to convince them is to have them speak to each other at normal speed, while I try to translate. It usually gets a good laugh and it always proves my point.

As an ESL teacher, it’s easy to get frustrated when students don’t understand a lesson. You can find yourself thinking, “Why aren’t they getting it? It’s not that confusing. Am I not explaining it correctly?”

One thing that helps is to try taking a class in your students’ native language.

I’ve learned, no matter how easy-going you are or how quick a learner you might be, you will gain a new level of empathy once you are the one stumbling around trying to piece a new language together in your brain. It’s sure to shed light on some of the funny words or expressions your students use incorrectly in class and, more importantly, it will help your teaching immensely because you’ll be able to better understand what your students struggle with.

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