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Learning a New Language
When You Have an Old Brain
We have all observed the way young children learn a language. Their little brains can absorb more than one language at a time … keeping each separate … and speaking each with a native accent. Most of us, in the States, waited until we were 14 or 15 to be exposed to a second language. I took Spanish in 8th and 9th grade. One hour a week, 25 weeks a year. After 50 hours and 50 years, my adult brain could only recall that “Juan was in the library.”
I find it interesting, and annoying, that Americans scream every time they hear “Press 1 for English, Press 2 for Spanish” but don’t make more of an effort to learn the language of the country they will be living in. I’m not suggesting that you try to pick up Czech in anticipation of your next 3-day visit to Prague. But if you intend to “live” in the country, I think it’s just rude not to try. We are not certain when we will return to the States…but we expect we will be here for at least 3-4 years. Thus our attempt to learn Portuguese.
Apps, Apps & More Apps
If you want to learn Portuguese you might check out the app store. I started with Duolingo, but quickly learned it was Brazilian Portuguese. Though most of the language is the same, there are some differences and I didn’t want to fill my brain with “mistakes”. Denise, who of course started earlier and more diligently than I, started with Memrise. She also found Quizlet and Drops available in the Apple store and quickly downloaded them. Though nearly all the language apps offer Premium (i.e. paid) versions, they also offer free content. If you want to see a demonstration of some of the most useful free apps, check out this video.
Speaking of YouTube…there you will find a plethora of instructional videos. Some of my favorite instructors are listed below:
Most of the YouTubers also offer private lessons, online classes, or premium apps. But there is more than enough free material online to get you started.
Denise started studying in earnest in August. I can recall her spending a minimum of two hours every day, earbuds installed with notepad in hand. She seemed to be mumbling something … perhaps it was the blue rays … I wasn’t sure. I, of course, was always the type to wait till the night before the exam to cram. So in December, after I hadn’t learned the entire language in a week, I decided to call for reinforcements. After reviewing a few offerings, and a thirty-minute call, I ended up signing up for Liz’s Talk the Street online class. As I explained to her, at the time, I didn’t want to learn a bunch of words I likely would never use (e.g. snorkel). I also was less concerned with perfect grammar. Juan, our California gardener, did not speak perfect English … but we communicated just fine. And, anyway, if I ever lost him I knew I could find him en la Biblioteca.
Grammar and Other Annoying Things
I will admit after 10 weeks, I really wish I had spent more time listening in my high school grammar course. Indefinite article, definite article, personal pronouns, prepositions, reflexive verbs, direct objects, preterite tense, imperfect, past perfect…Who knew it could be this complicated.
In addition, the words are not in the right order for my English speaking brain.
And then there are the expressions. “Não faz mal”…literally, “No goes to bad.” In English, “Don’t worry about it.”
Then there is the fact that they drop entire letters. “Estou” is pronounced like a digit on your foot (i.e. toe).
And to make matters worse, most of the Portuguese (at least in the Lisbon-Cascais area) speak English! And as they are a kind and generous people, as soon as they hear me bastardize, I mean struggle with, their language they start speaking to me in English.
Finally, I promise I will stop complaining after this, my mouth was not trained to move the way your mouth has to move to speak this language. Enjoy the video below.
NB: If you took the time to listen to the above video, when Leo is not practicing the tongue twisters he is speaking very, very slowly. When I hear the locals speak they seem to always be going at warp speed.
It Takes Courage
So 6 weeks into our in-country journey, what have we learned? Well, Denise knows many more words than I do. That is why I ask her to confirm what is on the label when we go grocery shopping. (Our first week here I bought “cereal tea”, which was putrid, thinking I was buying instant coffee.)
We are both fluent in commonly used phrases:
Good morning/good afternoon - Bom Dia/Boa Tarde
Thank you - Obrigada
How much does it cost? - Quanto custa?
Please - Por favor
Stop here please - Parar aqui, por favor
How are you? - Como está?
And if we think really hard, we can construct a full sentence in our head and then after 30 or 40 seconds say it. After two or three tries, the local will respond “oh you mean…” then say it properly. We nod our heads, smiling sheepishly.
We have determined we both need to find language partners. You see, you can learn the words, and learn the grammar…but until you speak the language what do you have? Nada. And that, my friends, takes courage.