My Last Portuguese Class – A Debrief

Today I had my last Portuguese class. There were only two of us left, which meant that my first excursion into the territory of one the most melodious of Latin-based languages folded due to lack of numbers.

I already fessed up in a previous post that language classes are not exactly my forte. And this time, I had the (for me) novel experience of being taught almost exclusively in the target language from the very beginning, rather than via another language I’ve got at least a reasonable command of.

I can’t say I liked it. Not being able to understand the teacher’s explanations is surely the most frustrating experience on Earth, right after trying to suck water from a bowl of wet sand. I would have gotten way more out of this experience, had the teacher switched more readily to Spanish to drive home the salient points. Instead, she was bent on reiterating the same unintelligible monologues over and over again. She may as well have been harping on at me in Tagalog. Not what I call a satisfying classroom experience.

I realise that a lot of people learn English that way, because TEFL teachers, by and large, rarely speak the languages of the countries where they do their teaching. I’ve often wondered how this works exactly, especially with students who are starting from base camp. Do they all just point at each other and make animal noises? And why isn’t the TEFL teacher murder rate on a par with that of nurses in psychiatric hospitals…? So many questions…

I’ve had Spanish classes in 98% Spanish before, but I was already at intermediate level, so it wasn’t such a struggle. I don’t think that monolingual language classes are an ill-fated concept full-stop, but for total rookie, it’s pants. How do other language learners feel about this? Or, for that matter, TEFL teachers? If any of you with experience at either end of the beast would care put forward an opinion, I’d sure love to hear it.

Despite wanting to bang my head repeatedly against the razor-wired end of the Wailing Wall, it was still worth it. I knew no Portuguese at all when I turned up for my first class at the beginning of March, and now I know *something*. That’s the nice thing about starting from zero, I suppose, you can only stand to gain.

This is by no means the end of Project Portuguese. I’m going to continue studying on my own accord, there’s plenty of material on the interwebs. Any suggestions about good learning materials are very welcome, please drop me a comment.

We've all survived the experience... that calls for a round of cakes!

We’ve all survived the experience… that calls for a round of cakes!

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26 thoughts on “My Last Portuguese Class – A Debrief

  1. gkm2011

    I’ve taught and been taught languages this way and once you’re past the tones and initial vocabulary I think it is a wonderful way to spur learning because you don’t have another “safe language.” Typically people can communicate a lot more than they think. The textbook however should be in your mother tongue to explain grammar, vocabulary, etc.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I do agree that having a ‘safe language’ does hold you back in the long term. It’s just too tempting to switch instead of torturing yourself, lol. Staying in the target language will become increasingly important once I reach intermediate level.
      The trouble is, once I get to Brazil, it will still be tempting to switch to Spanish, because they understand it much better than we understand Portuguese.
      Are you still taking Mandarin classes, btw?

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      1. gkm2011

        At this point, no I am not – though my work continues to challenge my language ability. I recently did a 45 minute speech in Mandarin which required quite a bit of prep time – so in my head I am rationalizing that I no longer need classes!

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        There comes a point when pretty much everything’s been covered and you just need to keep practicing ‘in the wild’. I was only wondering because the Chinese writing system takes so long to learn, whether perfecting that aspect of the language needed long-term classroom attention, rather than the speaking and daily communication part.

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      3. gkm2011

        The writing system unfortunately is not something I have or will be focusing on short term. I am going for speaking and reading proficiency in that order because you are right, it will take an inordinate amount of time to learn the proper stroke order! Perhaps if I win the lottery…

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  2. languagewanderer

    I think that classes which are exclusively conducted in a foreign language, be it Portuguese or English, have their right but on an intermediate level. I’ve heard opinions that on the beginniner level as well but I don’t really see a point in it. Maybe it’s good for children since learning in this way is similar to natural acqusition of a language. It reminds me of my experience with Russian. I had classes with a tutor and he was speaking Russian almost all the time, with few exceptions,however I was able to follow him. The thing is that Russian is quite similar to Polish so maybe it helped. Moreover, he constructed very easy sentences at the beginning and the whole class was understandable. Coming back to the intermediate level, now I’m attending conversatons in Norwegian from time to time and I benefit from fact that the teacher speaks only Norwegian.That was also my demand that the teacher doesn’t say a word in Polish during a class:)

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I completely agree with you that staying in the target language is useful from intermediate level onwards.
      The argument that ‘children learn that way’ (i.e. in a monolingual environment) has always been a bit of a red herring to my mind. It takes a kid five years of total immersion until it can string together an intelligible conversation, and twelve years to talk about interesting stuff, like climate change 😉

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  3. traveller

    Learning a language by using it exclusively in class can be unnerving. I think it works when you have an idea of how the new language works (if you speak a Latin language already for example, learning Spanish of Italian in that way can work very nicely or when you have been passively exposed to English for a while) but I couldn’t imagine my Arabic class in Arabic. It would certainly kill my last remaining brain cell.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hi there! Speaking Spanish definitely helps with the Portuguese, it’d be impossible for me to follow anything otherwise, and I do understand quite a lot. What makes me feel frustrated is that my classmates, who are native Spanish speakers with more previous exposure to Portuguese than I’ve had, understand significantly more than I do. I haven’t mentioned that in my post, but I guess it contributes to my aggravation.

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  4. northern_star

    But at least the teacher had lovely hair.

    I’ve often wondered about how TEFL lessons all in English work when students do not have a single word of English.

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  5. Cristina

    I’ve had the experience of teaching Spanish to Japanesse students at a very basic level. They didn’t know any English and my knowledge of Japanesse stops at saying hello. It was really hard and frustrating at times for everybody. But I think the key for this sort of teaching is keeping down to very basic structures and vocab and avoiding teaching the logics behind the grammar you are trying to asimilate. The learning process becomes very slow that way but, at the end of the day, the important thing at this first stages is using the language and being able to comunicate.

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  6. Expat Eye

    I’ve had the experience of teaching beginner and elementary level English – and as my Latvian isn’t exactly fantastic, I have to conduct the classes entirely through English. The books are very well structured though – you start off with the absolute basics and there are pictures etc to help the students understand what they’re saying. I’ve also become quite the artist and have perfected the art of mime! I think the students pick up more of the language this way – they probably don’t even realise that they are doing it half the time. Having said that, I can’t imagine somebody trying to explain the finer points of Latvian grammar to me in Latvian. I have a Dutch friend here who had to give up Latvian classes as the teacher was explaining everything in Russian!! He was just more confused than anything else! We’ve now got books entitled ‘Latvian in 3 months’ and ‘Latvian in 25 lessons’ – I’ll keep you posted on how that works out!

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I’m sure your classes score 10/10 just for entertainment value 😉
      Good luck with the Latvian… I have to say, I’m extremely wary of anything that promises any kind of serviceable language ability within three months… still, material like this is bound to teach the basics, at least.
      I want to hear all about your progress!

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      1. Expat Eye

        There probably won’t be much!! My problem at the moment is that I have a lot of words but can’t put them together in any sort of grammatically correct sentence! And yes, my classes are usually good fun! Sometimes people even laugh!! 😉

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  7. pollyheath

    As someone who teaches English to total beginners speaking only English, and someone who learned Russian this way, I’d have to say this is the best method. Yes, frustrating, but entirely worth it. A good teacher who doesn’t just say the same thing over and over is crucial! Sometimes looking stupid and miming is all you can do.

    But I totally feel your pain!

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  8. roamingtheworld

    I’m impressed! You’re trying to get Spanish down and you’re already on your 4th language!
    I wished I could have taken Spanish classes this year (that was a whole fiasco) but I just keep reminding myself that learning a language is a process and hopefully one day, I won’t have any verguenza… Despite a year and half, I still have my moments, of “gah, I can’t speak, I don’t want people to know I’m not from here” which is ironic bc my face gives me away.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I’m at the same stage with my Spanish as you, by the sounds of it, and, I, too have plenty of days and moments when I ‘just can’t speak’. ¡No me sale!! Communication per se is no longer a problem, but I’m painfully aware that a lot of the stuff I’m saying doesn’t sound exactly ‘natural’ – you will know (and only too well!) what I mean by that…

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  9. Miriam

    Fascinating topic. I actually did my MA thesis on this, after discovering that language teachers are repeatedly told that the best method for teaching a second language is by using only the language being taught, while there is virtually no research to support this approach. My own little study with beginning Spanish students at the university level backed this up, in that in comparing the classes of two teachers, one who used twice as much of the target language as the other, there was no difference in the progress of the students over the course of the semester. There is a wonderful book that all language teachers should read: Code Choice in the Language Classroom by Glenn S. Levine. He suggests involving students in deciding when a change in code is warranted in the classroom, after leading them through some exercises about code switching, etc. There are also some studies that indicate that when the native language is used in ESL classrooms that retention rates for students goes up. The trick, I think, is the “principled” use of the native language, and not just resorting to it when the instructor gets frustrated or whatever.

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