The Joys and Frustrations of Learning a Language

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

Learning a language isn’t easy. Yet many of us still waltz into a foreign country figuring we’ll pick it up as we go. While I confess to subscribing to this theory when traveling abroad for vacations or short trips, I am now living in Brazil on a more permanent basis and I can’t just leave my Portuguese acquisition up to the fates.

Armed with books on conversation and verb conjugation, I touched down in Uberaba with the idea that a combination of self-teaching by books and daily immersion would have me fluent in no time.

As you can imagine, it wasn’t quite that easy.

Learning language also takes place outside the classroom, like in your neighbourhood or local supermarkets

The first time I went to the supermarket by myself was equal parts frustrating and hysterical. I love going to markets in other countries; the mixture of a foreign language and different foods is always a treat, and I relish the challenge of trying to figure things out. I was surprised, however, to discover that items here are not organized the same way you would expect in an American supermarket.

For example, the sugar is with the rice in one aisle, while salt and pepper are on opposite sides of the store. Still, I was ready to start using what little vocabulary I had.

When I asked a market employee where the “sopa” was, he took me to the soup aisle. So I mimed washing myself, because I was looking for soap, not soup. Except the Portuguese word for soap is sabão, not sopa. We shared a laugh before he sent me off with the soap I needed.

But I didn’t let that mishap discourage me. As I tell my students, making mistakes is part of learning.

One night, not long after my arrival, I went out for drinks with two teachers from my school. As they were dropping me off at my apartment afterwards, I was proud to use one of my new vocabulary phrases, “Até lago!“ My farewell was met with complete silence before they both responded, “What?!”

I replied, “Até lago!””Doesn´t that mean, “See you later?” They burst out laughing. “No. Lago means ‘lake.’ You mean to say “Até LO-go, with an ‘O’, not an ‘A’.”

To me, they sounded almost the same. But we laughed for five straight minutes and, to this day, when we part ways we always say “Até LA-go!” (“See you later – at the lake!”)

As my vocabulary grows, some words continue to frustrate me with their similarities in pronunciation, such as caju (cashew), queijo (cheese) and queixo (chin). Or the words for eye (olho) and oil (oleo), which despite numerous instructions from my students, still sound like the exact same word to me!

My students are always shocked to learn I go out alone in the city, since I can’t speak much Portuguese. But I tell them that you can communicate without being fluent and people usually appreciate your efforts. I know my grammar and sentence structure is still a disaster, but shopkeepers and waiters understand me, and that’s what matters most at this point in my learning.

When you are learning a new language, real life situations can complement your classroom lessons

As I have discovered with most things since changing up my life to live in Brazil, the hardest part is getting started. The actual reality is never as bad as you expect it to be. The more I venture out alone, the better my Portuguese becomes. Yes, sometimes I settle for a Coke, rather than a juice, because I can’t remember the word for the fruit I want. But I already understand so much more than I did just six months ago. And my own learning experiences have helped me appreciate my students so much more. I understand those lazy days of not wanting to study, of being frustrated at not being able to express myself in an educated manner. And of wishing for a faster way to learn this language instead of the ponderous, word-void I am currently swimming through.

However, Brazil is my home now, so giving up is not an option.

In the meantime, I have ratcheted things up by taking lessons with a teacher here and supplementing that with online interactive practice. So, hopefully, if you visit Uberaba in 2015, you’ll meet an American girl speaking (semi) fluent Portuguese and no longer confusing soup and soap!

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