Learning Brazilian Portuguese
I’ve now been in Brazil for ten months, and I barely speak the language. I don’t have any concrete evidence or benchmarks to say how much I’ve learned along the way, but I’m willing to bet the vast majority of what I’ve learned has been in the last two months.
The first seven months here I studied nearly everyday. Not all day, just a couple hours. I had private classes twice a week, and I did homework for these classes, just before class started, because that’s how I’ve done homework since junior high.
I’m a good test taker. I can memorise a chapter in just about any subject, from just about any book, and then go answer multiple choice questions. I’m great at multiple choice. And then essay question were a toss up, so long as I could just repeat the text, I’d do fine, but if I needed to have a clear understanding of the subject, those teachers were better at finding out I didn’t actually know anything about the class. I did this all through college, studying the night before an exam, and very rarely getting anything below a B.
But the knowledge didn’t stick. And the problem with language learning is that I’m tested every time I talk with someone on the street, try to buy an apple at the grocery store, or have to fill out another form for getting my visa in order.
These tests don’t require me to memorise a page of vocabulary once and then move on to the next subject. To know a language you have to know the words like you know your own name. They have to be ingrained, not memorised.
I ended up taking a forty day work trip to another country that didn’t speak Brazilian Portuguese. And while there I didn’t study at all. I just took a full on vacation from language learning. Instead I read books that I love and I journaled my adventures in another foreign country, all in English, a language I love and enjoy thinking and reading and writing in.
And that’s when I realised what I was missing in learning Portuguese. I didn’t really have passion for it. I wanted to speak it because my soon-to-be wife speaks it, because I was in Brazil and I should learn the language, and I thought it would be cool to finally know another language.
But I love language. Well, English. I’m often astounded that I can have a thought in my brain, and write it down, using words to express and describe abstract ideas, or very concrete subjects, and then pass that paper on to another human being, and now they can have the same thought or see and feel what I was feeling. And more than that, there are libraries just filled with thousands upon thousands of pages of adventures, discoveries, captured moments and descriptions of the universe. And then I realised that by really learning another language, I’d have even more of these amazing opportunities to experience. Not just from access to a whole knew language of books, but from new people from a culture I’m just starting to understand.
And so my passion for Portuguese blossomed. Instead of being something I sort of felt obligated to learn, my mindset shifted so that I had a desire to know the words. A hunger. And in the two months since, I feel like I’ve learned twice as much as the seven months before.
I still needed help though. I needed to learn how to learn another language. So I did two things, I read a book called “Fluent in 3 Months”, and I enrolled in a Coursera course called “Learning How to Learn”, which also has a book called “A Mind for Numbers”.
The first chapter of Fluent in 3 Months talks about having a passion for learning a language. It felt amazing to read this so shortly after my mindset had shifted. It was like a teammate’s pat on the shoulder after making a good play. I read that and thought, “Check. I’m totally there. What next?”
One of the primary subjects in Learning How to Learn is “chunking.” This is the idea that the more you’re exposed to a subject, the deeper ingrained it becomes in your brain.
For instance, while in Brazil I’m also learning how to surf. To catch a wave a lot of things have to come together at once. You have to see a wave coming and make a decision of whether or not it’s going to be your wave. Then you get your board into the right position, and yourself in position on the board. As the wave starts to overtake you, you have to paddle and kick and gain enough momentum to catch the wave, and then the split second moment of being taken over by the wave, you have to push yourself up while your board surges down and forward and you plant your feet beneath you. Then you’re on the wave and riding… and I’m still trying to figure out what to do at that point.
But the first time you do this, your brain is full of ideas and images and other people’s suggestions and advice. And you’re thinking about your position on the board, keeping your shoulders back, how fast the wave is approaching, when and where it is going to break, where to put your feet, what direction you’re pointed, and with all this going on in your brain, there’s little room for other thoughts such as where other surfers are in the water, or whether or not you’re getting too cold and should head in for the day.
But as you practice, your brain starts to chunk these thoughts together. You don’t have to have each thought independently, your brain has decided that when your hands are paddling, your shoulders are back and your feet need to be kicking. When you feel the wave start to grab you, it’s all chunked in your mind that you need to push yourself up and get your feet under you, keeping your knees bent and your feet planted firmly. It all becomes one smooth motion without each part of the move being an individual thought. And that’s a chunk.
The same thing happens with everything we learn, solving math equations, mowing the lawn, and forming sentences in Portuguese.
This is basically information I already had, just a new way to describe it. I mean, we all know that practicing something makes us more used to that motion or way of thinking, but I needed to figure out how to make these chunks with speaking and understanding Portuguese.
Fluent in 3 Months preaches that from the first day you decide to learn a new language, you should try speaking and hearing it. Have a conversation with a native speaker in person or on Skype, and do everything you can to start forming thoughts in that language. Throw grammar books and rote memorisation out the window, and start talking!
I was more than happy to throw the grammar books away, but talking with people is extremely difficult in a new language. The friends I have are willing to practice Portuguese with me, but if we want to say anything meaningful, we have to switch to English because I can’t express anything beyond, “Eu estou com fome,” (I am hungry).
But I forced myself, and my friends, to bare with me and stick to Portuguese more. It’s awkward. I struggle, I make long pauses. I shake my head a lot as I can’t find the right word or I know I’ve gone full Tarzan mode to get something simple across, but it’s helped! This practice is vital because it is like taking a test every time. This, as it turns out, is a major part of Learning How to Learn’s approach to creating chunks; Testing!
If you test yourself you’re proving what you know and what you still need work on. You’re forcing your brain to search all over itself to find it.
I picture not being able to find a word like losing my keys. I start patting all over my pockets and backpack and check all over my clothes to find them. That’s what my brain feels like it’s doing when I search for a word. It sends electricity all over to find the right pathways and memory banks to find the word, and each time I do that, the pathway gets a little stronger. The link between that word bank and the rest of my thought process gets stronger. Though I may need to search for that key again, the link to it is much faster and stronger.
And so I’ve begun testing myself in these ways as often as I can. I’m still rather introverted and don’t like talking to strangers in my native tongue, so I have to force some situations, but it’s working.
Another form of testing I’ve gotten into is one recommended by each of the two books I’ve read for this. Anki. A computer flashcard system that shuffles the deck in such a way that you revisit cards you get wrong more often than the cards you get right. In this form of spaced recognition, you form stronger chunks, as according to Learning How to Learn, it’s beneficial to review something right before you forget it.
For instance, if you look at the same flashcard one-hundred times in one night, odds are good that even after all that, if you wait two or three days, you might get it wrong.
But if you look at the flashcard three or four times, until you see it and recognise it, and then set it aside for tomorrow, and tomorrow you need to look at it twice before you get it. Then two days after that you look at it again, and you get it right away, then five days later you look at it, and get it. And then twelve days. If after twenty days you’re still recognising the flashcard and getting it right, odds are good you know it. It’s okay if it’s hard to remember, because the searching is what’s healthy for your brain.
Part of sharing my knowledge with others is that I’ve uploaded my Anki card deck to be shared with whoever wants to download it. I’ve created over 800 cards so far, with verb conjugations and definitions. I was aiming for a thousand, but sometimes you just can’t squeeze enough pomodoro’s in. (Read on if you don’t know what a pomodoro is.)
One of the most helpful things I’ve started practicing as a result of the Coursera course is the pomodoro. It has solved many of my procrastination issues.
It’s hokey, and seems so stupid and basic, and it’s advice I’ve read and heard a thousand times in many different forms, but I guess sometimes advice isn’t about who says it or what it is, just as long as you’re ready to receive it, I was finally ready to do a pomodoro.
All a pomodoro is, is a timer. Setting a timer for a reasonable amount of time, twenty-five minutes is recommended, and doing your work for that time. I’ve done some fifteens and a few thirties, but the idea is you focus on your task for exactly that time. You don’t answer your phone (ideally it’s turned off) or engage with any other activity than what you’re focusing on.
This advice has been given to me so many times I wonder why I didn’t do it sooner. "Give your subject the full attention it deserves." "Practice mindfulness.” “Do a power-hour.” “Just sit down and write one page/do one problem… etc.” Well, I finally just set a timer and did my homework and studied without a tv on in the background or facebook open so I gave what I was doing every piece of my brain available.
And I feel more productive in twenty-five minutes of that than in two hours of half hearted writing and re-writing verb conjugations.
And an added benefit, everyone says to reward yourself after the timer is up. So every half an hour I get some sweet sugary snack or, I’m not gonna lie, a stiff tropical drink lined up, and when that timer goes off I have a big gulp of Caipirinha (highly recommend if you ever make it to Brazil).
I save the drink for when I’m doing conversations with friends. It’s become my way of getting someone to sit with me for half an hour and listen to me “err" and “mna” through a conversation. Use at your own risk.
But here I am, after two months, making great strides. Today I had a class with my instructor, and we spoke Portuguese almost the entire time. And then I rode my bike to a bank where a security guard shouted at me through a door that I couldn’t come through with a backpack, and then I went to a surf shop to buy some board wax, followed by a trip to a fish market to buy dinner for the night. I spoke (and was yelled at) with four different people, having four very different conversations about different things, and was more or less successful (the bank wasn’t really successful, I have a rule not to scream through doors at people with guns). I was able to get my errands done and communicate solely in Portuguese.
This to me is proof that the practices I’ve adopted are working, and I highly recommend to anyone learning a language to first and foremost kindle a passion for the language, and then start practicing and testing yourself by speaking it right away. Then set a pomodoro, and do your homework in intense bursts, testing yourself all along the way. This will help you form the chunks in your brain you need to become fluent. Good luck!
A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) by Barbara Oakley.
Fluent in 3 Months by Benny Lewis