Tag Archives: Portuguese

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.

 

 

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Is Learning Three Romance Languages At The Same Time A Route To Insanity?

I ask myself that question every day. And whether an overdose of irregular verbs can make one go blind. I think the only reason why my grey matter hasn’t liquified yet and made a gushing exit through my left nostril is that I’m at different stages with my languages, so the learning activities I engage in are quite varied. Every time terms like “partitive carbuncles” or whatever give me the urge to go and drown myself in the toilet, I remember that, in the end, it’s all about wrangling a bunch of words into the right order, and that if a four-year-old can do it, so can I.

Spanish – Airily Advanced

The frustration-fun balance has decidedly shifted in favour of the latter. But it sure took a lot of blood sweat and tears to get there. Those of you you’ve been with me from the beginning will probably remember my whiny rants and tantrums. I’ve been living in Spain for nearly four years now, although I don’t have what you’d call “full immersion”. I work from home in English all day. Hence, my progress was a lot slower than I had initially expected.

It’s been a very different experience from the one I had with English when I moved to the UK 25 years ago. I had a job in a local company and was sharing a house with British people, and so I was forced to communicate in English all day long. It was tough in the beginning, but I made progress at lightning speed. My situation here in Spain is very different, and so I’ve had to learn to moderate my expectations without feeling like a total failure. I’ve come to accept – gnashing my teeth an’ all – that it will take a good while longer until I get to squirt the icing on the cake and achieve the level of competence I strive for.

Nevertheless, I can read proper books and watch films without struggling. I can have in-depth conversations about complex topics. I can hold my own in groups.

I still very much consider myself a learner: I look up words every day, I google expressions, I bug my long-suffering friends with questions, I ask them to correct my grammar. Besides the odd clarification, though, I no longer need “special consideration” from the people around me.

Of course, my Spanish nothing like my German or my English. I’d say I’m about 70% there. I’m even starting to “sound like myself” on occasions. Being able to communicate, even if you’re fairly proficient, is a completely different kettle of fish from sounding like your true self. I have tackled the subject in this post, for those of you who are interested:

Language Matters: Do You Sound Like Yourself?

Blue Flowers

Portuguese – Interminably Intermediate

This has been tricky. It’s virtually impossible to find any good quality intermediate-level teaching materials in European Portuguese. It’s all smooth, melodious Brazilian, when what I want is the bushy, impenetrable Peninsular version replete with shshtshshtshshhh sounds, dog-chewed vowels and pronoun arrangements that make ikebana seem like kindergarten foolery, because, when I travel abroad, it tends to be to nearby Portugal – I love it there.

So, I had to take special measures. I have a Portuguese teacher (from Lisbon) whom I see once a week for 1-2-1 lessons. I watch children’s cartoons, which is something that I’d never even considered before, but if you’re stuck for resources, you have to take what you can get. I’m also chatting to a bunch of nice Portuguese people over Skype two or three times a week (I found them on conversationexchange.com).

And yet, It’s my Portuguese, which I’m struggling with most right now. The intermediate stage can be disheartening, and it drags on forever. It’s also extremely dangerous territory: If you stop, even just for a few months,  you risk losing everything, while, at the same time, you gaze with trepidation at the vast expanse of treacherous linguistic swamp you’ve got to wade through before you get any good.

It’s not like being a beginner, when you’re swept up in the initial thrill of new discovery, or when you’re an advanced learner having fun filling in the gaps. I’ve written about this vexatious stretch of language-learning hell here:

The Messy Morass of the Intermediate Language Learner.

French – Bare Bones Beginner

I’m now in my third month of French (see here how and why that started) and still very much in the honeymoon phase where everything is new and exciting. I’m determined to stretch it out to the max. Please do not tell me about how crazy the sentence structures are going to get later on, I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW! Thanks.

Unlike hapless learners European Portuguese, budding Francophones are spoilt with a wealth of free online resources, which means that I can cover the same topics by watching six or seven different YouTube videos without getting bored.

There is also an unexpected benefit to being a beginner in French: Portuguese is no longer my worst language! I feel stupidly happy about this 🙂

So, to sum up, I don’t think that learning several languages at once is necessarily a recipe for disaster. Having said that, I did bang my head against the wall more than a few times when I first started learning Portuguese two years ago, because my Spanish was still quite wobbly back then, see here:

Project Multilingual: Two timing troubles.

Next up: The Italian challenge!

…OK, I am not that crazy…

 

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

 

How To Start Reading In A Foreign Language

Two of my Spanish teachers have come to the same conclusion: there’s one determining factor which divides the mediocre student from the outstanding one, and it’s whether they read books or not.

This may not strike anyone as an earth-shattering insight. I’m sure we can all agree that reading is the best way to expand one’s vocabulary.

However, as I’ve discovered through years of trial and error, it’s not a matter of “just read whatever comes to hand” – a pernicious piece of advice that just refuses to die.

I believe that the choice of reading material can make or break someone’s motivation. Picking up a foreign language book with the best of intentions, only to throw in the towel after ten, thirty, fifty laborious pages is a pretty common experience. Not only is it disheartening, but it can dissuade some people from ever having another go.

So, I thought I’d share a handful of my homespun “rules” meant to minimise frustration and maximise endurance, so to speak. A wedge of cake,  a slab of chocolate or similar armaments have also known to aid in the endeavour.

1. Stay away from The Classics

If you’re passionate about reading, you’ll probably have ploughed through a quantity of highbrow literature in your native language. And you may even have enjoyed it. There are many good reasons why some works come to be regarded as “classics”: The language is beautiful, the insights are profound, the plot is enthralling, the characters are vivid and the author probably transgressed the social taboos of their time.

It’s hardly a surprise that those of us who love to read are itching to access the unadulterated literary riches of any other languages we are trying to learn.

Unfortunately, choosing a classic as your reading initiation is just about the worst possible strategy. I mean… poetic turns of phrase that fell out of use when automobiles had to be jump-started by rolling up your sleeves and cranking a big screw? Long-winded descriptions of items of clothing that you’ll only ever encounter in a period drama? Words so ancient that Google Translate starts to spit out runes?

C’mon. Get real. If your level of comprehension is below that of the average five-year-old native speaker, wrestling with a worthy tome is much like hobbling along an eight-lane highway on a pair of rickety crutches. You are going to run aground on the hard shoulder way before you even see the first signpost that reads “pretentious git”.

Sure, your ultimate goal may well be to enjoy the same kinds of books in your new language as you do in your native language, and maybe even to delve deeply into classic literature, but you’ll have to get on your tricycle first. With an extra pair stabilisers, if need be.

2. Build your reading muscle

Reading a book in a new language, even a fairly short one, is like embarking on a marathon. And it needs to be tackled in the same way. Before you even think about taking a “proper” book to bed with you, you should be capable of reading things like news items, magazine articles, blog posts, etc.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t always understand everything. The point is to try, to get through it and to glean as much as you can on the way. In any case, you should be at the higher end of the intermediate level before you have a serious go at a novel or a biography.

If you’re not quite there yet, start with books aimed at young children. Also, there are bilingual books, which give the text in two languages on facing pages – these can be an excellent way of easing yourself in.

3. Start with short stories

I’m just over two thirds through my first book in Portuguese. (And I’ve been at it for three months – how embarrassing is that?!) It’s a book of short stories, some of them just a couple of pages long. At this stage, I don’t get the point of each and every one of them. But that’s OK. I do understand most of the sentences, and I helps me consolidate grammar structures and vocab. By the time frustration makes me want to eat my socks, I’ve already reached the last paragraph of the tale.

The trick is to counterbalance the growing aggravation caused by wobbly comprehension with the satisfaction of having got to the end of the story. And if you get to the end of enough stories, you’ll eventually get to the end of the book.

Spanish Short Stories

My first book of Spanish short stories. It may look like highlighter pen, but it’s all blood, sweat and tears, believe me!

4. Read what’s useful to you right now.

When I first started to read books in Spanish, I picked a well-researched historical novel by a reputable author, because historical fiction is one of the genres I absolutely love to lose myself in. After all, whatever you read, it’s got to hold your interest, right?

Big mistake.

I had only recently moved to Spain, and what I actually needed at that stage was the appropriate words to dissect assorted family problems with a friend over coffee and complain about water leaks to my landlady, etc, not vocab denoting the constituent parts of ox carts used in 14th century southern Spain. What the hell was I thinking?!

Well, I very quickly got off my ox cart and turned to the very stuff that I’d never touch with a barge pole in English (or German): Romance novels and inane chick lit, where people talk about relationships and domestic disasters in everyday language. Oh, but how useful that trash proved to be in real life conversations! In fact, I’ve discovered that I don’t much mind if the plot is stultifying, because it’s very much like being on a treasure hunt. As I comb through the dross, I keep stumbling across pearls of handy vocab and nifty expressions.

And just a couple more things – in the beginning, choose books that are no longer than 250 pages, and before you commit yourself to any book, sample at least a couple of pages of it. If it’s impenetrable, put it back on the shelf. It’ll keep.

*    *    *    *    *

Let me be clear: Starting to read books in a new language is not going to be a twirl across the village green on a dewy spring morning. The first few books, even if well-chosen, may well make you want to re-grout your bathroom tiling (or engage in any other activity that doesn’t involve looking up yet another unknown word) or turn you into a compulsive gobbler of cheese toasties. There is no way round that. Stretching yourself is always going to hurt a little.

As a rule of thumb (though this varies strongly from language to language), once you’ve heroically dragged your weary eyes (and your even wearier brain cells) through five books, the magical “joy of reading” factor should kick in. You’ve made it out of the swamp and into the open water. Now you just need to keep on reading to patch together your sails and you’ll be off to discover a whole new world.

[If you liked this, you might also enjoy Language Matters: Do You Sound Like Yourself?]

The Cat Does Not Care For Portuguese

Both Teresa (my Portuguese teacher) and I had been away on alternating holiday schedules over the summer, and today was my first lesson in what felt like ages. I was all set for getting back into the swing of things – I’d even done my homework! – but little did I know that my enthusiasm would be met with considerable feline opposition.

Teresa had only just got back yesterday from a two-week stint in Portugal, and despite having arranged for a relative to tend to her cat, Otto, the poor darling had clearly suffered severe psychological damage from the prolonged lack of attention. And he was determined to make up for it.

Otto is usually quite reticent and prefers to watch proceedings from his chair in the window, which made today’s antics all the more amusing.

Otto on book

“That book’s out of action. And if you want the computer, I shall sit on that!”

Otto close up

“We are so NOT doing verbs now.”

Otto tail

“If you insist on talking to each other instead of to me, I’ll just have to feed you a tailful of cat hair.”

I expect that, by next Monday, he’ll be back to his aloof old self. Shame 😉

 

Language Learning: You’ve Got To LIVE IT!

Every language I’ve ever tried to absorb just from books, classes, and, in recent years, the internet, I’ve forgotten. Sure, there may still be some linguistic remnants floating about in the murky Everglades of my brain – rotting limbs of Russian, Japanese and Chinese trapped in the undergrowth – never to be re-assembled again in a futile attempt of making conversation.

It comes down to this: If you want to speak a language, and I mean REALLY speak it, it’s not enough to allot it a fenced-off little corner of your consciousness and shine a torch on it every once in a while. Language is the most sophisticated communication tool ever devised by the human mind; it is designed to allow people to share complex thoughts, infectious ideas and a laugh, to convey their feelings, to empathise with each other. Language needs to be taken out to play, it needs a human connection to really thrive.

As enjoyable as it is to be totally hooked on a book or engrossed in an epic film, language acquires a whole other dimension through person-to-person interaction. When you’re using your verbal and your listening skills to build a relationship with another human being – whatever the nature of that relationship may be – that’s when language really comes alive.

With one’s native language, this happens naturally, but, as most of us will have experienced, when we try to learn a foreign language in an environment where real-life exposure is limited, our enthusiasm usually peters out way before anything resembling fluency is achieved.

Going to class once a week, reading the occasional newspaper article, spending a holiday once every while in a country where the target language is spoken, although useful parts of the learning process, these sporadic activities are not going to push anyone beyond tourist-level competency.

If you want to get more out of it, you need to put more into it, and I’m not just talking more of your precious time. You need to let the language mesh with the fabric of your life, to entice its little tendrils to find their way from your head into your heart.

In practice, this means creating firm links with the country where the language is spoken and/or building and maintaining mutually enriching friendships with native speakers. In this way, you create an emotional dimension rather than limiting yourself solely to the intellectual domain. The former is much more permanent than the latter, it stays with you for life, it doesn’t just slip from your memory banks like a dried-up verb table.

A new language - a door to a whole new life

A new language – a door to a whole new life

As I’ve already lamented, a number of languages I had spent some time learning in the past never made it beyond the launch pad, because I failed to integrate them into my life in a meaningful way. My three main languages, German, English and Spanish, on the other hand, are firmly rooted in my psyche. They are not just something I “do” twenty minutes or so each day. They are part of who I am. If one of them were taken from me, it would be like losing an arm.

German is my native language, and although I left Germany back in 1991, I still have family and friends there. As for English, I lived in the UK for over two decades, virtually all of my adult life, and so I maintain a rash of personal and professional connections with this country, which, incidentally, I still consider to be my home. Also, my day-to-day work life takes place in English. English is, if you will, my main operating language.

And Spanish… well, Spain is where I live right now, so my attachment to this country is growing deeper by the day, as I’m slowly crawling towards greater proficiency in the language. I guess I should point out that my primary reason for moving to Spain was, in fact, to get to grips with Spanish, a desire I’ve been harbouring ever since I was a teenager.

Besides tinkering with my Spanish, I’ve embarked on another linguistic challenge, which is Portuguese. I started learning just a bit over a year ago, and I guess it’s time to start thinking about how I’m going to weave those loose strands of Portuguese into my world. Moving to Portugal is not an option right now, that would be too much of an upheaval too soon, and my level of Spanish still leaves much to be desired.

The good thing about being in Spain is that Portugal is right next door, and that flights are pretty affordable. Before I packed my bags to come to Spain almost three years ago, I signed up for a couple of week-long stints with a language school here. They arranged accommodation for me with a local couple who I’m still friends with, and I made my first few contacts from that base. Seeing as that strategy had already served me so well, I was thinking of taking the same approach with Project Portuguese.

When I started thinking about this a bit more in detail, however, I had a realisation: I don’t actually want the language school bit. The truth is that I don’t enjoy spending hours and hours in a classroom. I’m often left so worn out, that all I want to do afterwards is lie flat on a bed with a wet flannel over my eyes. Plus, I do have a great Portuguese teacher who I see every week, so I’ve got the teaching part covered. The whole point of being in Portugal is to get some practice, to interact with Portuguese people, not have a forced conversation with a Dutch classmate.

Well, I thought, why not try and find someone in Portugal prepared to rent out a spare room to me for a week or so? That would give me the chance to talk about everyday domestic stuff, exchange a few opinions over breakfast, and maybe do some grocery shopping together. After all, I don’t need a 24/7 babysitter nor a full-time tour guide, I can entertain myself and, as a roving freelancer, I shall bring my laptop and my work with me.  I can also offer a language exchange, if they wanted to practice their English or their German.

So, this is going to be my new project 🙂

A friend of mine has already passed me a potential contact, which I still need to follow up. If anyone out there has any useful suggestions or knows someone in Portugal who may be interested, please get in touch.

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[What does it take until you finally “sound like yourself” in another language? Here is a post I wrote on this topic.]

 

Language Learning: Darn Interference!

Teresa, my Portuguese teacher, harbours a dark fantasy. She would love to get hold of one of MemoryEraserthose Men-In-Black memory eraser sticks and expunge every trace of Spanish from her students’ brains. Then she could finally teach us proper Portuguese from scratch.

Sadly, since this fantastic gadget doesn’t exist in the real world, her little fantasy is doomed. She’ll just have to keep on rolling her eyes every time we say “pequeño” instead of “pequeno”, and sigh in quiet desperation over us pronouncing what should be a mellifluous sing-song language in the machine-gun-like staccato characteristic of Peninsular Spanish.

But it’s not just poor Teresa who suffers.

My brain is no blank canvass. Besides being littered with useless factoids, it comes with two languages fully installed that don’t always play very well together, a third one is running at 72% (and still loading), and now I’m attempting to pour another one into this turbid pond.

In general, I guess it does hold true that the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn another one, but the downside is that they interfere with each other in menacing ways. For instance, the similarities between Romance languages are both a blessing and a curse. Because of their considerable lexical overlap, if you’re a laid back kind of a person and just want to “communicate”, you’ll do great by kidnapping Italian words to plug the gaps in your Spanish, but if you’re a stickler like me and you care about getting it right, it’s the road to insanity. Verbs are among my biggest headaches, as I’m still battling with the fifty or so versions that exist of each Spanish verb. With Portuguese thrown into the cauldron, the putrid, gurgling broth isn’t going to turn into a bowl of translucent consommé any time soon.

More of a messy stew...

More of a messy stew…

...than a clear broth

…than a clear broth

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some people I know have given up. One of my Spanish friends, while living in Barcelona years ago, attempted to learn (the local language) Catalan. She abandoned the attempt, because every time she tried to speak it, Italian (acquired during a year studying abroad in Rome), shot out of her mouth instead. An old college friend of mine keeps insisting that all those years studying Italian as a youngster have prevented her from communicating in coherent Portuguese to her Portuguese husband’s family.

I follow this blog http://myfiveromances.wordpress.com, owned by “Bernardo”, a very witty Australian guy, whose personal challenge lies in tackling Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian simultaneously. I believe he spent last summer in Romania to get to grips with the latter. His grammar posts from back then made my head spin. I’ve no idea how he maintains his sanity, I really don’t.

It’s not just closely-related languages that cause an interference problem. During the early-to-intermediate stages of language learning, it’s a very common phenomenon that our brains, while labouring hard to retrieve the required vocabulary, dredge up the corroded remnants of languages we haven’t used in years. When I first started learning Spanish, what kept popping into my head was my long-forgotten Russian from half a life-time ago.

Green thicket

Interference can manifest in many ways. For instance, I seriously struggle with gender agreement in Spanish and Portuguese. It’s not too difficult to match nouns with adjectives that directly follow them, but if the adjective or a pronoun refers to a noun, which occurred in a previous sentence or even further back, I tend to get it wrong. And it’s not my fault. It’s my German that’s doing it.

Grammatical genders are, for the most part, entirely arbitrary, and so German and Spanish genders don’t usually coincide. Since German is my native language, its genders are indelibly etched into my brain stem. I never realised this would lead to so much trouble.

Naively, I thought I had an advantage, because I was, at least, familiar with the concept of genders. Unlike native speakers of English, Japanese, Chinese, etc, I didn’t have to go through the futile questioning stage: “How can a table be male/female – it makes no sense!”

In the early phase, the gender issue creates some minor problems for Germans learning English. We may refer to inanimate objects as “he” or “she”, but this usually doesn’t persist for very long. Everything is “it”, and even for animals sporting discernible genitals, you still get to resort to the convenient choice of “it” – now if that ain’t an easy rule, I don’t know what is!

I never thought I would keep jumbling my Spanish genders about in such a dilettantic fashion after all this time, but, as it turns out, overriding one’s primal programming is harder than herding cats with firecrackers up their butts through a dog pound.

As always, I’m curious to hear from my readers – how does language interference play out for you? Which “cross-contamination issues” are you struggling with? Were some of these unexpected?

Hey, Why Don’t You Follow Your Own Advice For A Change?

I’ve not written a language post for a while. The reason being that I’m in a rut the size of the Ethiopian Great Rift Valley.

As an old friend of mine is fond of saying, at times like these, it pays to “have a word with oneself”. Nothing to lose by giving it a go, I suppose…

*    *    *    *    *

I: I’m frustrated as hell. I’ve been trying to learn Portuguese for an entire year now. I’m getting nowhere with it. I started way too early, I should have waited for my Spanish to solidify enough before tackling this. I feel like shelving the whole project for a couple of years.

Me: If you abandon this now, you’ll have to start from zero again a couple of years down the line. Is that what you really want? Your teacher tells you that you speak quite well.

I: I pay her. It’s in her interest to stroke my ego. But I see her rolling her eyes all the time, because I can’t work the present tense of even the most basic regular verbs.  

Me: And why can’t you?

I: Because I’m not putting in enough time.

Me: Aha. What is it that you tell all those people who come to you every week to practise their English and their German?

I: I tell them that for every hour of formal class, they need to put in three more at home. I tell them that they should spend at least half an hour every day practising/studying their target language, rather than cramming it all into one two-hour session once a week.

Me: And what did you do with your Portuguese last week?

I: I… rushed through all of my homework on Monday, a couple of hours before class.

Me: I see.

I: But I do my Duolingo lessons every day. And I have been for ages. I’m on a 146-day unbroken streak!

Me: And how long does it take you to do one of those?

I: ten, fifteen minutes…?

Me: Aha. I can’t help but wonder… if you’d also been practising those pesky verbs for 15 minutes a day for 146 days, don’t you think you’d be running rings around them by now, and your teacher wouldn’t need to be rolling her eyes quite so much. Just sayin’…

I: I hate verbs.

Me: I know you do. What else do you suck at?

I: Listening comprehension. My teacher plays me a dialogue, I hardly catch anything. She implores me to listen more at home.

Me: And you’re doing that?

I: Nope.

Me: There’s this one girl you see fairly regularly. Her spoken English is quite good, but she has real trouble understanding what’s being said to her. What’s your advice to her?

I: That she needs to listen at home. I’ve given her links to some good podcasts. She nods her head every time I broach the subject, but she doesn’t follow through.

Me:  Do you roll your eyes at her?

I: I do.

Me: I know you’re fond of dead people’s quotes. Here’s one by some medieval German scholar called Thomas von Kempen, it goes like this:

“Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.”

I: Ahrwgh… sod off, will you!

Me: Just sit down and get on with those bloody verbs, will you!?!

Blue Flower

Have you ever had to have a word with yourself…?