Learning to Speak a Foreign Language

One day, I was with a friend of mine in Brazil and he asked, “How does it feel to be fluent in Portuguese?” I was a little surprised because I know that I will never will be fluent. I purchased my apartment in Rio de Janeiro in May 2003, and I decided that if I were to enjoy this beautiful city, I would need to learn the language. I was 44 years old at the time, and I think it is fair to say that it is close to impossible for someone of 44 years of age to become fluent. At this point, I would say that I am conversational. I can carry on detailed conversations on almost any subject. But when I talk to Brazilians and probably a lot of Americans too, they know that I am not fluent.

When I began to study, I did two things. First, I purchased the paper every day, and I read the paper. In the beginning it was slow going. Every word that I did not know, I would write down and look it up in the dictionary. Second, I began to watch television. The most popular shows in Brazil are called novelas and I would record them, and watch them once I woke up in the morning. That was extremely difficult but if you persevere, slowly but truly was drilled into my head.

I did this for a little over two years until I met Solange. I was blessed because my wife had an excellent command of the Portuguese. After I met her, my Portuguese improved by leaps and bounds.

Here are some of the lessons of learning a new language.

1. It is hard. There are no short cuts and in the beginning you feel like you will never get there.

2. Don’t be embarrassed. I believe part of the key is to not be embarrassed when you talk incorrectly or do or say something silly because of misunderstanding. It is from these mistakes that improve your skill. I believe that the reason that all children can learn a language and are fluent is because they do not have this fear. Part of learning is overcoming this fear.

3. Lower your expectations. You have to believe that you will never speak as well as all those people around you. But that’s OK, because they will appreciate the trouble you took to learn their language. OK. That is not entirely true. Some people are kind of snobby.

A lot of people look back and wish they had learned a new language. It is a nice accomplishment and I do believe it opens your mind to be able to communicate in a different way with a different set of people.