I was inspired to write tonight, not by my students, but by my experiences as a language learner. This past Friday I finally buckled down and started learning some Portuguese for my upcoming Brazilian adventure. I figure that since I’m going by myself, I really do need to know some language basics for logistics and safety. So, I cracked open my Living Language book that’s been sitting on a shelf, spine uncracked, since I bought it back in March. It promises me I can “learn Brazilian Portuguese in 4 simple steps” with only 40 lessons and 300 pages of paperback. I have also joined www.lingq.com for reading, listening and vocabulary practice, as well as community, where I can “study online 24/7 and meet people from around the world.” I have already been “added” by a few Brazilians, so I guess it’s working! Now, to speak to them in their native tongue…that might take some time. Finally, I found a site that offers free weekly podcasts that teach Brazilian Portuguese with English instruction, and have listened to a different one every day this week. I’m actually doing it, people! I can say, Boa tarde, meu chamo Skylar, and I can even spell it in Portuguese. You’re impressed, I can tell.
Anyway, all of this work really puts into perspective what my students actually go through on a daily basis, living in a country that doesn’t speak their L1 (first language). You understand some things, recognize words here and there, and can even read with relative ease of interpretation. But then, some speed-talking native speaker opens their mouth, and it seems like your brain has shut off. Are they really saying the same words you just read on paper? If they are, what happened to that vowel, and what about that consonant – I thought it was a hard d, so why does it sound like a j? Portuguese and I are just getting to know each other though, so with time I have faith I’ll grow to love and even take for granted all its little quirks.
This is not my first attempt at learning a language; oh, no. You could say I’ve been around the block when it comes to languages. I can’t help it, I’m a linguaphile!
French was like a first marriage for me, the kind you enter into when you’re too young to know better, and after years of trying to make it work, you realize it was never mean to be. It all began quite romantically: the 1995 Quebec referendum was probably the first time I became politically aware, and I vowed that if I ever wanted to be a responsible Canadian citizen, I would become fluent in both official languages. Well, 12 years of core French and 2 years of university-level French later, and I am no closer to fluency than I was when I was about 14 (though I’ve learned the grammar rules in their entirety at least 4 separate times). French and I aren’t divorced, but the trial separation has been a great relief.
Then there was my love affair with Italian – the country, the food, the language, and not least of all, the person (yeah, there was one). It was just the antidote to my passionless study of French. I thought I did pretty well with Italian actually, probably because cultural immersion happened simultaneously with acquisition, but unfortunately I only discovered that passion in fourth year of undergrad and haven’t had time to cultivate it since. I don’t think that Italian and I have called it quits for good, but the distance relationship just doesn’t suit us.
And most recently, there was my brief flirtation with Spanish, in which a friend and I took a once-weekly college course to stave off boredom while working in our hometown. The course didn’t cover much, and we only really started to learn vocabulary when we started having study dates about halfway through the term. But neither of us was very motivated to continue, not having any opportunities for practice on the visible horizon. So, much like a hometown fling, the flame died as quickly and quietly as it started, and no one has spoken a word of it since.
And how about Portuguese? How will it fit into this lineup of mismatched Romantic tongues? Well, this is a quasi-arranged marriage, in that I’ll be thrown into the middle of the language and culture with little preparation in the near future. We may be cohabiting, but will the relationship last long enough to claim common law status with my brain? It may just turn out to be the “for now” relationship that turns into “forever” – but only time will tell. And this bilinguist-to-be will continue to dream of the day when her fluency will come.