Living with limited foreign language skills

DSCN5474Imagine yourself in Salvador, Bahia (where I took this picture recently).  You are watching a beautiful sunset.  You are feeling super inspired by how gorgeous the scene is.  What you want to say is “This sunset makes me feel like singing bolsa nova while hugging my beautiful wife and sipping on tropical fruit juices.”  The problem is that if your Portuguese is limited, you end up saying, “Sunset good.”

My experience is that it just kills some people to not be able to say something in a foreign language without the same intensity, passion, and flowering language as in their native language.  If they can’t say it like they would in their own language, they end up not saying anything at all.  Other people are OK with their more limited, simple, and brief non-native version.  Basically, if you are not willing to go with the simplified version, you’ll have more difficulties in speaking the foreign language.  With time and practice your simple version will develop, but not if you aren’t willing to start with whatever you can pull out of your brain in the initial phases.

So my advice:  Next time you are part of that beautiful sunset, turn to the person next to you and tell him/her what is in your heart, even if the actual words are just “sunset good.”

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7 Responses to “Living with limited foreign language skills”

  1. Learning Your Way to Yourself | Sinosplice: Life Says:

    […] Orlando Kelm, teacher of Spanish and Portuguese, observes: […]

  2. Clint Says:

    Orlando,
    I am writing to ask if I might be able to schedule 30 mins to chat with you about Livemocha. Perhaps you might have time some available time over the next few days? If so, please email me at clint [at] livemocha DOT com.
    Thanks,
    Clint Schmidt
    VP of Marketing and Product
    Livemocha

  3. Tommy Says:

    Dr. Kelm, I’m always humbled and inspired by how you handle the big language issues with such a positive attitude.

    As native speakers, we know that both Ideas and Language are essential for communication (“it is not what you say, but how you say it”), but for foreign language learners, this tends to be reduced to “it is not what you say, but the fact that you say it”. I think this is because at first language learners need as much active experience as they can get.

    In my experience, there is indeed some kind of basic “common human experience” that people in the world share, and this allows us to communicate and understand each other’s Ideas despite the Language used to convey those ideas (in some cases, without words at all). This reduction/simplification of Ideas is an inevitable stage of Language learning, but the problem (?) is when people (native speakers and non-native speakers) stop developing their language expression.

    For example, I have met many non-native learners of English whose primary motivation is so-called “Business English” and my impression is that for them English is merely a transactional language and anything goes (grammar mistakes, potential ambiguities, etc) as long as it gets the basic job done. Between non-native speakers, I suppose this works, but it just doesn’t feel right. In Japan, people ask me “通じる? tsuujiru?”, which is like “does it get the meaning across?”, and I want to say “yeah, but is that enough?”

    For some reason I think that if your attitude is to learn how to express new ideas in new ways, you will learn, with time and experience, how to describe that sunset; but if your attitude is to just to transmit established ideas, there will always be some struggle and frustration.

  4. Daniel Says:

    Estou de arcordo meu brother. The First thing that I always tell people is that they must loose there fear to talk and acccept the fact that they are going to sound silly for a long time. Also, I find that using visual communication works wonders. Smiles, hugs, and shouting simple words such as “minha prima!” went a long way in Brazil.

  5. orkelm Says:

    Hey Daniel,
    Taking that approach (and I agree), I’d also add wearing a soccer jersey in public (bound to get comments on that) and eating everything put in front of you (bound to win friends as well).
    é isso aí meu.

  6. jack Says:

    Orlando, you wrote “singing bolsa nova”, it should be “bossa nova unless you’re making a pun.

  7. Orlando Says:

    Hey, Jack,
    That kracks mee up, wher in the world waz my brane when I rote that. Of kourse, I meant “bossa nova”
    Thanks!

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