Jump in and fake it!

IMG_3659As I write this I am in Salvador, Bahia, truly one of my favorite spots in Brazil.  Not only am I here with a group of students, but my wife and daughter are here with me too.  My daughter Tamara has, although she will deny it, a fairly good handle on Portuguese.  She isn’t totally comfortable, and there are many things that she gets stuck on, and of course there are lots of words that she doesn’t know.  Still, she can get by, have a conversation with people on general topics, and in the end she can talk to tons of people.  I totally consider her to be a Portuguese speaker, she isn’t sure if that is accurate.

After a few days in Salvador she hit the “my-Portuguese-is-terrible-and-why-should-I-even-try” phrase.  We all hit it sometimes.  It’s those days when we say to ourselves that all of our language study hasn’t really paid off, and we might as well admit that our foreign language ability is lousy.  There are days when I feel that way about my German, my Chinese, my Italian, and even about my Spanish and Portuguese.  We all have those L2-blues days.

Truth told, any language that we cannot speak with native-like fluency gives us a temporary reminder now and again of all the things that we cannot do and cannot say.  I have often said that speaking a foreign language is like having a continual comprehensive exam, because we have to draw on all of our knowledge about every aspect of the language, all of the time.  It can wear you down.

The day after Tamara’s momentary set-back day, she then had a day where she was talking to taxi drivers, talking to store clerks, meeting new people, getting around town, shopping for food, and leading the way in conversations.  It’s not that her language abilities improved so much overnight.  It is more that she simply jumped back in and pretended to be a Portuguese speaker again.  A large part of learning a foreign language is simply a matter of being willing to put up with the uncertainty that comes from not understanding 100% of what is being said around you.  Basically what happens is at first we understand about 25% of what is being said, and we guess at the other 75%.  The, over time, we understand 50% of what is being said, and we guess at the other 50%.  Eventually we are understanding more than what we are guessing.  But, if I had to be honest with myself, there is a part of the guessing percentage that continues even when we are more advanced speakers.

Jump in and fake it.  You will catch a good part of what you hear, and the rest we can just guess.  It will turn out OK.


Picture: Playing a little berimbau.




One Response to “Jump in and fake it!”

  1. jp 吉平 Says:

    Reblogged this on you don't have to read v2.0 and commented:
    I love this post for a few reasons. First of all, el profesor Kelm is playing birimbau. As a former samba percussionist, my experience with playing birimbau is limited to a 16-measure break in the agogó part where we chant a birimbau rhythm to the words birimbau.

    In case anybody’s wondering, my official stance on capoeira is that it may look like a lot of dancing and squatting, but one time when playing my caixa at a capoeira ceremony a massive angle swung near my face and I realized that it could kill a man.

    Back to the post: I love the title “Jump in and fake it.” That is how I feel every time every time EVERY TIME I speak a language that’s not English, that I’m just winging it. If there is a stage where I feel like I have achieved fluency, I have not reached it yet.

    It’s true what el profesor Kelm says about every day being a comprehensive final; you need everything that you’ve ever learned from the first day you started learning up till the most advanced, graduate-level seminar on pronominal cliticization; you need it all, and you need it all the time, and you need it every day.

    This may seem like a high-stress situation, having a comprehensive exam every day, but think about it: the consequences of getting it wrong are very low risk. All you’re doing is buying a drink. All you’re doing is prepaying your cellphone. All you’re doing is thanking someone for dinner. If you make a mistake, you just try again. Sure, sometimes people try to make you feel bad about it, but those people are dicks, and it doesn’t reflect on you. I know learners imagine themselves in very high stakes, life-or-death situations if they make a gender error or misconjugate something, but once they get out in the wild, it doesn’t take that long to realize that NOBODY CARES about your mistakes, and that if you focus on them, you’ll be the only one. Why not focus on getting it right the next time?

    Benny the Irish Polyglot says “Make 200 mistakes a day.” That’s the best thing he says. If it turns out you make less than 200, then you go out and talk some more . You’re not putting on an expensive piano concerto, you’re asking the waiter for napkin. You’re asking for directions on the street. You’re not going to die if there’s a misunderstanding.

    Just jump in, jump in and do it. If you don’t know what you’re doing, then fake it .

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