As 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.