Language Learning: Portuguese Potholes

This language learning malarkey is a bumpy old ride. One minute, you’re shouting perfectly coutured phrases from the rooftops; the next minute, the roof gives in and you’re on the cold concrete floor, spreadeagled, coughing up blood and dust.

I was on a total roll with my Portuguese in early summer. After two years of slogging away at it, I felt that I’d had some kind of breakthrough: I was chattering away to a bunch Portuguese people over Skype several times a week. Sometimes I even understood what they were saying to me and vice versa. A trip to Portugal in the first week of July saw me handling all the touristy stuff in Portuguese without breaking into a sweat (except when I accidentally asked for cock in a supermarket, see here for that story).

All was well until I took a one-month break from Portuguese in August while visiting my family in Germany. But on my return home to Spain, I found to my horror that I was suddenly “back to the mistakes of the beginning”, as my Portuguese teacher put it when I resumed my lessons with her in September. My Skype chats also dried up that month after a couple of fruitless conversations.

I have no idea how a mere four weeks of taking your eyes off the ball can cause such a mother of a setback. All I know is that I’m mighty peeved.

Well, no point throwing in the towel. I’ve invested too much. And I really really like Portuguese. It sounds cool and it has hilarious expressions.

And then, this Monday morning, a tiny ray of light… finally! The previous week, my teacher had suggested I’d join one of her other students for a conversation class. We’d already had a couple of attempts at this a year and a half ago, but said student was quite advanced, while I could barely string a sentence together at that point, and so we gave up on the idea pretty quickly.

Anyway, this week’s little Monday threesome turned out to be a very gratifying experience all round. We hopped across a plethora of topics, from fish feed to Portuguese rugs to the pitfalls of teaching Spanish in China. We wilfully mutilated the grammar, but conversation flowed and we laughed like drains. My classmate, who kindly gave me a lift home afterwards, remarked how much more fluent I was compared to last time we did this.

I guess that’s the thing with language learning. It’s like building a mountain out of gravel. Sometimes, when you pour another bucketful on top, it just slides down the sides taking the tip with it and all you can see at that moment is that your pile has lost height. Only by stepping back you realise that you’ve actually broadened the base, allowing you to construct a more expansive, bigger mountain in the long term. All you have to do is to keep heaping onto it. Bit by bit. Steadily and relentlessly. And remind yourself that, to fully appreciate how far you’ve come, you need to take the long-term perspective.



42 thoughts on “Language Learning: Portuguese Potholes

  1. Yvonne

    Oh, how well you’ve described the painful process of learning a new language when you’re an adult. I liked the comparison with a mountain of gravel. I’ve got one aitch of a broad base, I think!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. expatlingo

    Love the gravel foundation image. Right now I’m dumping gravel on a big pile of Mandarin (or rather replacing gravel that was misplaced during the year in Netherlands) and sprinkling it on a growing mound of Cantonese. So far working on both piles at once feels satisfying.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. expatlingo

        I have quite a few Dutch friends here, so I get a reasonable of listening practice but I’m too slow to hold any sort of conversation! Never mind! My heart was won a long time ago by Chinese.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        That is the most important factor, I find. Your heart’s got to be in it! Look forward to reading more about your progress on the Chinese front. Especially the “battle” between Mandarin vs Cantonese.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Carissa Hickling

    Well put with your gravel foundation analogy! 🙂 You’ve inspired me to get back to my darn French refresher… I completely fell off the ‘duolingo’ daily wagon… abandon guilt, tally ho!!


      1. ladyofthecakes Post author

        There’s no advanced teaching materials out there in Hindi??? How baffling! Just been googling Bahasa… there’s some stuff for beginners, at least. Not sure of the quality, though. Obama speaks it 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Carissa Hickling

        I can do the usual Bahasa “Salamat pagi!” (Good morning!) “Apa kabar?” (How are you?) and what not to get around however… would be nice to graduate from that one of these years. 🙂

        Haven’t yet come across any good advanced Hindi materials…. I should probably dig out my old ‘school’ books from when I actually took classes back in 1995. Groan.. old school… groan… effort and discipline…


      3. ladyofthecakes Post author

        And if you just systematically increased your exposure and made a point of looking stuff up as you come across it? I also HATE doing grammar exercises, etc, and I keep those to the bare minimum. I much prefer engaging in material that actually interests and stimulates me, content-wise.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Carissa Hickling

        For the moment, my focus is back on India juggling lots of stuff so language has taken a back seat. However I have that niggle of guilt that I really SHOULD be! Hence why I felt rather virtuous being consistent with 2 daily lessons of DuoLingo for some time… til it fizzled…


  4. Kim in Fiji

    I am in awe of your tenacity …. as shocked as you by the backsliding that you say happened in just 4 weeks. Everyone is commenting on the gravel analogy – now add me to the chorus. I wish I had your drive to tackle the languages around me more seriously – unfortunately I seem to be aging to the point of losing easy access to even my English vocabulary. Soon I’ll just be communicating with 🙂 s


  5. bevchen

    Love the gravel mountain analogy. I’d never thought of it like that before.
    Although you’ve reminded me that I haven’t even looked at any Spanish since before we moved! *Hides face in shame*

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Multifarious meanderings

    Thanks for the well-needed giggle! The best way to get over the fear of making mistakes is to add a few bottles of wine to the conversation group. When I took my students to the pub to discover Irish culture and food (well that’s my official line on it, anyway…), once they had a pint of Guinness inside them they were much more confident, and their spoken English was at the most fluent level seen during the week 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. joannesisco

    I love your analogy of mountain building. It works for many things – including building fluency in a language.
    I suspect you’re pretty hard on yourself and have expectations for yourself set very high. To be so positive about your progress implies you must be doing VERY WELL indeed!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Jenna

    You will eventually be able to communicate with someone form every country in Europe! Or…maybe you already can, since cake is a language everyone understands 🙂


      1. Anna

        Are they sweet in Portugal too? I mean, I knew they’re supposed to be dessert-ish, but still, very sugary. And I had them at Patisserie Lisboa at the top end of Portabello Road, seemed authentic enough 🙂


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