Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Thoughts on Learning a Language

Oi do Brasil! Things are still going great. I was hoping to blog a picture post today but I am afraid that isn´t going to be as simple as I hoped, so for now I will talk about a subject that has consumed my life the past week-- language acquisition! I think I am fairly safe in talking on such a nerdy subject because I know my blog readership has experience with these types of things.

Coming to Brazil this time I felt more confident than times before because I have actually been studying Portuguese for the past few months. Thanks to the Spanish classes I´ve taken, Portuguese has never been completely foreign to me (unlike a certain Nihon-go). And since I´ve been reading a lot of Portuguese over the past few months I was feeling a little better about coming and being able to have a slight head start.

But as I´ve discovered (re-discovered) since I´ve been here, learning language via immersion isn´t that easy. My current frustration is that it almost seems like people don´t want me to learn Portuguese. Of course I know that´s not true. I´m pretty sure everyone would be tickled pink if I knew Portuguese. But not many people seem to be wanting to help me much. Maybe some of you can understand some of the situations I´m about to describe.

I am a visual learner, which means I learn best by reading and studying rather than hearing. So, because of this and because I have been far removed from being able to hear and speak a lot of Portuguese for a few years, most of my practice has been reading and writing. Reading, writing, speaking, and listening are the four components of language learning, and they´re kind of like muscles. You going to be a lot stronger in the areas you exercise than the ones you don´t. And my speaking and listening muscles have atrophied. :) So that´s obviously a problem. I think my poor friends who I have been writing to in Portuguese are so confused because they obviously have gotten the impression I can speak Portuguese as well as I can write, but that´s just not true right now.

Also, maybe I´m just a little sensitive because I´m an English teacher and have had a lot of experience talking with people who speak English as a second language, but it seems like a lot of people are not wanting to help me learn. Some people speak so fast that I can´t possibly understand. Some people don´t speak clearly or mumble. Some people use strange words. And it´s not that those are insurmountable problems, but the moment I ask them to slow down, repeat themselves, or tell them I don´t know a certain word they either give up on me or switch to English.

Ha, of all ironies, you know what I need? I need Let´s Start Talking in Portuguese! Someone to practice with me and speak on my level. I´m going to talk to the minister here to see if there is someone in the church who maybe would study the Bible with me in Portuguese like that.

I really do understand most of what I hear, but I´m just so darn shy in Portuguese. In case you are a person who has never been out of your element, let me tell you how it feel at first. It´s humiliating (not like in the dream where you´re naked at school, but in that you are severely humbled)! You´re reduced to the level of a child because you really need help with almost everything. It really helps me see my own problems with pride, because I just want to hand my resumé or my college transcript to everyone and say, "Look! I really am an intelligent human being!" But right now I feel like a lot of people can´t see that because I am.

Another issue is that in language acquisition there is almost always a time called the "silent period." It even happens when children learn their first languge-- there is a time when the child is physiologically able to speak, but they have a time when they just need to absorb for a while. I am absorbing now. I am a sponge. :) Ha, but to try to explain that to the people here is not simple.

So here are my tips for you, the readership, if you are in a situation in which you come in contact with a person who is trying to learn your language--
  1. Speak slowly and clearly, please. That doesn´t mean you have to speak to them as though they were stupid, but be clear. Don´t go 100 miles an hour.
  2. Use basic vocabulary. This may take some training of the mind. It also may require that you yourself actually study a foreign language so that you can better understand which words are commonly learned by beginners.
  3. Synonyms! I am the self proclaimed queen of synonyms. Whenever I´m teaching or talking with a person trying to practice English, if I use a word that may be new or difficult I follow it up with 2 or 3 synonyms. This helps because maybe if you keeping using similar words, maybe you´ll hit on a congnate or a word that they have learned. Get a thesaurus. ;)
  4. Animation! Use your body language and facial gestures to help convey what you mean.
  5. If you think they´re not understanding you, be patient and whatever you do, don´t start talking about them in front of them. They may not be as dense as you think.

That´s all from Professora Ann Sensei. Have a great day!


Pana Jonathan said...

Ann! You´re doing great! Keep up the good work! Someday you will talk as fast as Jorge´s mom! Boa sorte, querida! Tchau!

amanda said...

Wow!! I totally identified with that article! Have you seen the one I wrote on xanga? It is the second to last ("I'm ready to be an adult again"), you should check it out.

When Jeremy and I were first trying to learn Italian, we were in Florence where lots of people knew English. It was very difficult to practice for all the reasons you described. People just wanted to communicate, not help us learn!

You definitely aquire comprehension before speaking skills and that is frustrating as well, because it seems like you don't understand when you really do!

I would encourage you to speak as much as you can. People gave us that advice when we were first here and we didn't follow it. Now I see the wisdom in it. Like you said, you need to excersize your speaking muscle. So, even though it will be humiliating at times, use what you know and talk, talk, talk!

One more trick that we learned. Even when someone starts talking to you in English, keep speaking to them in Portuguese. They will get the picture.

Dio ti benedica!

misty! said...

LST in Portugese sounds like a fantastic idea, as does your tenacious resolve to keep working at learing this language.

You've such an aptitude for language, you'll get there!