This week I got an email from a listener of our Portuguese podcast series. Here is Maria’s question:
Sometimes when you talk about all the different tenses and things related to grammar, I find myself getting totally lost because I don’t even understand a lot of basic English grammar (and I’m a native English speaker). What advice do you have for someone like me? I’ve very motivated to learn Portuguese but learning a language has been such a struggle. I sometimes wonder if I’m just one of these people that just doesn’t have the brain for it. Also, how do I stop myself from analyzing everything I want to say in Portuguese before I say it? I find that when I speak in Portuguese, I end up speaking so slowly because I’m trying to translate what I want to say in my head from English to Portuguese. I’ve been told that this isn’t good to do. That you have to just have confidence and speak without thinking too much about making mistakes. But I fear if I do that no one will understand anything that I say!
I thought it would be good to answer her question here as a blog post.
First: Grammar Talk. I once had a student who asked me something like, “Prof. Kelm, does that mean that with the third person plural of the present perfect tense that we need to add an “s” to the past participle?” I looked back at this student in awe! Really, I couldn’t process that many grammar words without a gigantic pause to analyze what he was asking. So, I understand how learners can feel lost in grammar talk. My answer, no, you don’t need to be a grammar expert and you don’t need to be fluent in grammar talk. However, romance languages, like Portuguese, have a million verb forms. Think about it, verbs tells about time (past, present, future), verbs tell us about person (I, you, he, she, we, they), verbs tell as about a thing called “aspect” (when something began and finished), and verbs tell us about a thing called “mood” (factual vs. hypothetical). Verbs are pretty powerful in Portuguese. Whatever time you spend to understand all that verbs can do, that time will really help you to memorize and learn all of the verb forms. So, no, you don’t need to be fluent in grammar talk, but yes, if you spend time to learn all the functions that a verb has, you are going to make the learning of Portuguese that much smoother. My recommendation is that you bite the bullet and take some time to learn the ideas behind verb forms. Buy one of those “500 verbs” books and crunch on all of verb forms in all the tenses.
Second: Do people have the brain for language learning or not. Easy answer, no, I do not believe that some have a brain for language learning and others do not. However, I do believe that sometimes a person’s personality does affect language learning. A person who by nature is shy, reserved, perfectionist, will probably have a harder time mustering the courage to speak out loud in another language. We all have to go through the phase of being slow, limited, and halted in our foreign language. Little by little things get better. And that is actually the key element. My experience is that learners underestimate how much time, effort, and hard work goes into learning a foreign language. You may be making spectacular progress in your learning of Portuguese, but if you have unrealistic expectations of how soon a person obtains advanced proficiency, you may doubt your progress. My recommendation is to keep plugging away. The pleasure of speaking to others in their language, and the fun of experiencing a new culture in another language is worth it.
Third: Translating and analyzing in your head, will it every stop? Here the answer is that every language learner will resort to his or her native language. Initially there is no way around it, simply because every time you come to a word you do not know or a conjugation you cannot say, your brain jumps back to your native language. You are, in essence, a bilingual person and if your brain has no way of saying something in one language, it will jump to another language. My recommendation, relax about it and realize that as your vocabulary grows, and your experience in using common phrases grows, you will find yourself translating less and less. Then, all of a sudden one day you are going to consciously realize that you just had a conversation without having to revert back to English. It will be cool, and it will happen.
Fourth: Fear Factor. You got it Maria, there is often a fear factor when we speak another language. There is something almost miraculous when these new sounds come out of our mouth, and people actually respond to them. Some day you will have the experience of being in Brazil, ordering some food or drink, and then the waiter will ask if you want that with ice, or spicy, or with banana, who know, but the waiter will cause you to modify your memorized line. And you will then clarify your order, “yes, I would like banana with my açaí.” At that moment you will realize that all of those strange new sounds that came out of your mouth were actual words, and native speaker reacted to them by bringing you your order. It will be cool, and it will happen.
Hope that helps Maria, boa sorte!
Photo: A poster at the movie theater with a fantastic play on words in Portuguese: O que será de nozes? “What will happen to us/nuts?”