Found in Translation

Written by  November 26, 2012

ESL teacher Samantha is learning firsthand just what it means to study a new language.

Can you speak more than one language fluently? Can you speak more than two? If so, mad props to you because I’m finding this language barrier thing one of the most challenging—yet motivating—things I have ever faced while travelling.

Often when I travel, I am not in the country long enough to really need to learn the language. “Hello,” “goodbye,” “thank you,” “bathroom,” and “sorry,” are usually sufficient enough to get me through my time if the native language is not English. While I have said before that there is a certain ignorance surrounding these sorts of things, the counter argument can be that it is very difficult and perhaps unnecessary to take on a new language that you may only need for a few short weeks. I try to compromise and learn what I can while using various forms of sign language to convey the rest. One of the main reasons I wanted to come to Brazil though was to advance my knowledge of foreign languages and actually walk away from this experience with an intermediate understanding of Portuguese.

Well let me tell you: it’s been a doozy.

Thus far, I have indeed mispronounced a couple of words as anticipated. When trying to tell someone that it was nice to meet them I actually mentioned something about death; when trying to ask someone if they were finished eating, I may have possibly implied something sexual; and when I have absolutely no idea how to respond to someone I often resort to the phrase “isso,” which has a myriad of meanings and has also produced questionable glances from those who I am speaking to.

Teaching at an English school is certainly supporting me through these difficulties though as I am interacting with people on a day-to-day basis who are also learning a new language and facing their own challenges with it. The biggest thing that amazes me is that they are actively pursuing their own education of a new language; at every age! They want to know English in hopes of placing them in better standings for a career or to break down one of the main challenges they may face in travelling themselves.

I grew up in a school system that provided French classes as part of its curriculum from primary school straight up through to the end of high school. I took French classes for seven years but if you were to ask me a question in French now, I would have great difficulty in responding. I hate myself for not seeing the value in knowing more than one language back then, although I can also understand how my 12-year-old self wouldn’t quite make that connection. I teach students all the time who I know are only taking the class because their parents want them to learn English.

The main obstacle is more or less the confidence in speaking with other native speakers. I’m always cautious about when I do speak it, because I don’t want to mess it up to the point that it becomes a problem. I’ve walked into classes with students that are normally very chatty with the Portuguese teachers, but they become very shy and introverted the minute they are asked to converse with me. The method that has been most effective in creating some shock value is when I am left alone with a class of beginners and they are forced to use what working knowledge they know of English to communicate. I actually enjoy those classes the most because I can see them struggling with wanting to communicate, but not necessarily knowing how and using any word they can think of to convey their thoughts. It’s exactly what I face on a daily basis, and as much as I want them to learn as much as they can, their struggle is comforting.

It’s true that it’s better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all. Accepting this is what is going to make me leave here in a month with exactly what I intended to leave here with; a working knowledge of Portuguese and new cultural experience to look back on.

Most students have said that they use books, movies and music to help them learn English so I have taken their advice and will purchase my first Portuguese book this week in hopes that I can combine it with Google translate in order to advance my learning. I’ll be sure to let you know how it all works out. In the meantime, if you have any of your own tips on how you pick-up a new language feel free to fill me in on your tricks!

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Samantha Phelan

Samantha Phelan is a recent commerce graduate from Memorial University of Newfoundland. A restless adventurer, she has lived and travelled throughout Asia, Europe and North America. As an AIESEC intern she will be volunteering in Brazil to teach English through a local university. To read more about her nomadic lifestyle you can visit her personal blog, Modern Day Marco.

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