My love for languages and conversing in foreign tongues slowly becomes a part of my identity. Coming from a generally monolingual environment, I can’t help but attract a variety of comments and other forms of verbalized thought about my hobby. They appear in many shapes and colors. Some find it curious or inspiring, others – weird or even idiotic.
I often encounter a common underlying cause in such commentary – the absence of understanding. Understanding of how would one approach the daunting task of learning a language?
Any time I find myself drawn into a discussion about language apprehension, I get overly excited and cause my conversation partner to have an information overload. Even a simple, truthful answer, “it’s easy, just spend as much of your time in the language as you can”, is met with a blank expression of suspicious disagreement. After all, learning a language is a serious, time-consuming enterprise. It can’t be that easy, right?
A couple of weeks ago, I had an opportunity to relive that intimidating feeling of uncertainty and being lost in the sea of possibilities, as I made a decision to take on another language for study. This time, it would be Brazilian Portuguese.
My fondness for the culture of Latin America grows with each day, as I make new, startling discoveries about the land and its customs. Living in countries such as Argentina and Brazil, exploring the continent of South America is a huge dream of mine, the one I intend to make happen.
Learning languages and dialects is the most addictive and treasured part of this mission.
Once faced with the necessity to make a first step in the long journey towards fluency in Portuguese, I had the most curious idea.
In the beginning, language is a complete mystery, an abstract picture filled with strange and distorted figures. My fondness and enthusiasm paints it with bright and warm colors. But to many the shades appear bleak, gloomy and hopeless.
This led me to believe that our duty is to provide the aid in clearing away the mystery to those who seek it. Break the wall of misunderstanding and let them see through into the vast and boundless fields of possibilities that stretch all the way up to the horizon and beyond.
There are simple ways to embrace the fun and adventurousness of learning a language. A person have no need to imagine all the hardships of a 1000-mile journey at once. Instead, let us help him make the first step.
Introduce him to the language. Show him what he already knows, yet simply remains unaware of. Walk him through the basics. Offer easy and attractive opportunities, activities he would definitely enjoy performing even in the target language. Create a spark that would light the fire of enthusiasm in his heart and his mind.
When no actionable idea could be found, I would lead by example and explain how I demystified Portuguese.
I always start with listening. For me, the main puzzle of the language hides within the inability to distinguish sounds, making a stream of words perceived as incoherent rambling to the untrained ear.
Priority #1? Crack the puzzle. Once I am aware of all the key sounds and the nuances they possess, the possibilities instantly become numerous. I can listen to any piece of audible content. I can read comfortably, without the fear of creating false patterns of pronunciation in the brain.
To accomplish the task, I picked up only the materials that seemed enjoyable. I’ve read Benny’s article on learning Portuguese for Spanish speakers. Next was the Wikipedia’s article on differences between Spanish and Portuguese. Knowledge of Spanish grammar made it a fun and educational read.
I turned to Aaron’s wonderful language learning resources at the Everyday Language Learner and discovered a bunch of Web pages with the explanations of the sound system. Seemingly simple at first glance, they remained incomprehensible due to absence of context to compare with.
The time had arrived to begin auditory training. A brief search on Google had uncovered a fantastic podcast named Tá Falado. Each of 20+ recordings features Brazilian native speakers who, in the form of a little dialogue, explain a particular sound and provide listeners with a bit of cultural contrast between the people of United States and Brazil. A native speaker of Spanish takes part in the action, presenting a Spanish version of the conversation and highlighting the differences in pronunciation between the two languages.
Guys at the University of Texas did an incredible job. The series are short, funny, educational, easy to absorb and comprehend. I listen to each episode several times, soaking up the phrases and internalizing the sounds.
To diversify a little bit, I have added Brazilian music to the menu: Adriana Calcanhoto, Monica da Silva, Maria Gadú, Vanessa da Mata…
Together, it makes for a healthy listening diet, packed with nutritious sound calories. Combined with relentless practice, it is bound to bring results. It took only a couple of hours to discover all the ingredients.
What about you? How do you demystify a new language? What kind of advice would you give to an aspiring language learner who is unable to discover a place to start?
Photo credit: nofrills