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On Learning a Language Abroad

Moving abroad for the first time and don’t know the language in your new country? Picking up and doing it anyways? Yeah, that’s what I did. And let me tell you, it’s  uncomfortable as heck and will push you in so many ways at first but, feels so rewarding at the end of it all.

Language is something I think many of us take for granted each day. Unknowingly going about being able to express our true and whole selves without thinking twice about the physical words you need to say, or the order in which you say them. You aren’t bogged down by grammatical rules or pronunciations your mouth is not accustomed to making. You are able to utilize the years of training you’ve had and not have to start from square one. Its strange if you really think about it, how you can be so at ease making one set of sounds and noises, but altogether without identity making another. Without language, you feel powerless, inadequate, and unqualified to do anything, even if that means just ordering a cup of coffee. Repeat this feeling on different levels, in different circumstances and you have the major challenge of learning a new language abroad. There are constant hurtles you have to be willing to jump over, as with any other subject. But, unlike any other class, your exam is every waking moment. When I picked up and moved to Rio de Janeiro, I lived and breathed my subject everyday.

My first few days, I’m not going to lie, were hard. Yes, I had a program and people to greet me when I came into the country, but after the first few days of orientation we were mostly left to ourselves the whole time to learn as we went. All of a sudden, every word I said or needed to say was a task and any English word I said felt like I was cheating, but in the end I needed to get around and sometimes ask more complicated questions. Thankfully, Rio is not full of English speakers so my immersion was actually real. There were moments I had to have the lady across the counter repeat something three or four times, with me feeling like an idiot, but we struggled through it and now I’m a better person for it. Learning in the trenches is intense but you learn fast! At the beginning, I loved winning the little victories of day to day life like recognizing a key word or completing a short sentence. It felt so rewarding to me to finally differentiate words in a sentence or apply a lesson I learned in class two minutes after I learned it.

Once I hit the two-month mark I started to get frustrated, feeling that I should be still learning at an exponential rate but wasn’t. I also realized that my physical appearance was going to be a safety net for me. Being a redhead in Brazil automatically means I stuck out and had no chance of fully fitting in, ever. Because of this, people automatically assumed things about me way before I ever opened my mouth so any Portuguese I managed to get out was a win, whereas some of the other international students had much higher expectations placed on them because they looked the part. I get that this was society projecting on me, but still it inhabited how much I was truly able to learn.

One really big lesson I learned about myself through language was what my learning style was. What worked and didn’t work for me came pretty quickly and I knew that sitting and memorizing vocab off of a word sheet was not going to do it for me. This was a struggle because I thought going into this experience that learning the language would somehow be easier because I would be surrounded by it. What I found out however, was that always being around it didn’t make it any easier, it just made the process faster by creating more pressure. There were still many hours I spent working on homework and practicing grammatical exercises, this was just something in the background that  you didn’t see. By making the grammatical exercises necessary for everyday life, all of a sudden I was way more motivated to sit and study than I ever was at my home university.

Another huge lesson I learned was giving myself grace. What I mean by this was accepting that I was going to get stuff wrong, all the damn time, but still loving myself enough to be brave and try again. I knew my self worth did not lie in my ability to speak Portuguese perfectly, so I let the pressure of perfection go a bit and let myself make the mistakes. Something I can now attest to is that, some words in the wrong order are way more helpful and no words at all, so if you’re learning a new language don’t forget this lesson.

As I hit my half-year mark it became more and more evident to me that I needed some space away from Portuguese. I was so incredibly unmotivated and hit the biggest wall of my student life and just shut down. I avoided speaking at all costs and discontinued all my good habits of practice, including meeting up with my Brazilian friends. (Note; don’t ever do this, its just a sad thing that’s in you’re head, you’re friends are more valuable than your pride) When I returned home for six weeks I did indeed feel that change with English speakers all around me, but I welcomed it with wide open arms! I loved being able to fully express myself to everyone and not have to try so hard at everything! Something I wasn’t anticipating however was that I would actually grow to miss Portuguese a little bit. I loved the vivid descriptors and the slang phrases, I loved mixing my languages in my sentences that my international friends understood, I loved the secret hidden Portuguese words that didn’t have a direct translation in English, and I think a part of me even missed the challenge of it all. I was starting to understand how rewarding it was to speak in paragraphs of a foreign language, and get all giddy inside because something finally clicked. I saw progress in myself and was able to reach goals in language I had only recently began to make.

My second semester back was very similar to my first in the sense that I learned a ton right away and progressed a lot, and then hit a distinct plateau after two months where I coasted along.  By the end of the semester, I admit, I was over it. But, looking back from where I started (which was with literally nothing) to reflect on where I ended, I’m super proud of myself. It was hard but I improved, and even though there really is no finish line with language, I know that I can now balance my bi-lingual abilities for the rest of my life.

Learning a language, especially your first new language, requires your brain to literally rewire itself. You are teaching your neurons that words you have known your whole life now have a new meaning and it takes time. For all other language learners out there reading this, please take but this one thing away; be patient with yourself. I don’t care how much of a fast learner you are, you probably won’t pick up a language as fast as you wont so let the pressure go a bit and just try to enjoy the process. Point number two now, a bit contradictory; nobody else will learn the language for you This journey is yours and yours alone, no body is going to monitor every single thing you do and if you make a shortcut you literally are only cheating yourself (flashback to grade school math tests)Understand this will take time and energy on your part and if you want to check out and stop learning, you totally can even in a foreign country. Survival language skills can get you by for a long time if you want them to, so set goals for yourself and have people who can keep you accountable. Finally, have sympathy for those others who are learning your language! First hand I can now tell you how hard it is, and my situation was relatively easy. Using language in written or professional setting is something way beyond my skill level and I know so many people who judge so harshly on language ability. I’m telling you, please stop it, right now. Its hard as shit and is something you don’t understand. Once you force your way through another language, then we cant talk but until then just be nice.

I guarantee you that if you are working on a new language you are going to learn something about yourself you didn’t know before you started, so please, when you find what it is, let me know! I want to share language stories with you all day long! Also, if you have any big tips or pointers I missed please tell me, Always looking for a conversation 🙂

Alright, love y’all! Have great days!



3 thoughts on “On Learning a Language Abroad”

  1. Great post again.

    I am Finn who blogs in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. English, I learnt in school. Spanish when I worked 4½ months in Spain on the Canary Island at Las Palmas. French, I learnt translating 10 books by using my dictionary. Portuguese, I learnt on two winter courses. My teacher was a Lady from Brazil. This means that my pronunciation is Brazilian style. Languages are inspiring and easy.

    You could also make Your posts in English and Portuguese.

    Have a wonderful day!


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