Battling sloth and setting new weekly goals

29 May

Hello world, I’m back on task setting my weekly goals for my quest to become fluent in Brazilian Portuguese. The past 2 months (of my ~6 months in Rio) I’ve had a lot of trouble updating regularly. It’s hard to find the time to sit down and write when I’m working, running all over the city, and oh yeah, actually trying to learn Portuguese. But if I’m going to be serious about this (and I am), I have to look at it as being too lazy.

sloth sloth sloth

gghhzzzzzzz this is me

Why? Because goal setting is such a huge part of learning a language (or really most things). Yeah we’ve known that since the 90’s, but it doesn’t make it too much easier to implement on a daily basis. In this entry though, I’m back to being serious.

First, I wanted to document some progress towards two of my overall meta-goals and what’s been working well as well as my thoughts on what to try next.

Goal #1: Reduce accent

What seems to work: Practicing transitions by studying and repeating rap music and novela conversation. (Note: this works extremely well for both Falar and Entender components– the sounds are getting easier, and I’ve found that my audio “parsing” abilities skyrocket after a listening/speaking session.)

Goal #2: Respond quickly (naturally) in conversation with correct grammar

What seems to work: When I listen to my Pimsleur Portuguese files, if I’m actively engaged I get into a “zone” where I am responding in (usually) correct Portuguese, naturally, without thinking about it. The defining characteristic of this “zone” seems to be: I don’t think about it, I just speak with confidence, and somehow it just works. Speaking like this comes with a feeling I’ve described to people as similar to the feeling of learning how to ice-skate or ride a bike. It’s that same shaky sense of disorientation, it only works if you really go for it, and you’re probably going to fall a few times. The most important lesson here for me though, has been that confidence unlocks language.  More on this soon.

Ideas to revive: singing lessons here in Rio (err if I had the money…), regular chats on free sites like LiveMocha, continue bugging people on Language Exchange, self-prompting and recording program.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the two different ways I have of speaking Portuguese. One is more tedious. I can hear my thoughts in English, slowly crunching a word I want through various grammar rules, conjugation patterns, or vocabulary associations (“espero que vocês–hmm, que signals present subjunctive mood… okay… a-stem verb… wait… third person plural… —possam!“). This method, while often giving me the “right” answer, kills a conversation with a hundred akward little pauses where you can hear the gears straining in my brain. I don’t want to limit myself by speaking Portuguese like  this. As much as I have a tendency to dislike errors and want to be picky as usual, I want the rhythm and the “fluid” part of fluency. Então, there is no way around it. I cannot learn to dance by looking at my feet, I cannot learn a language by thinking about grammar rules. I have to just go for it.

So how to emphasize this frame of mind? Well– learn to dance!

disco disco dancing

wait, what?

More samba! I’m going to get used to turning off the over-analytical/steering part of my brain by keeping up with samba no pé via private lessons, something I’ve wanted to do since I arrived. Call me crazy, but for some reason I know that learning this dance will help me learn this language. I can’t exactly articulate all the reasons why, but there you go. A side effect will be that I continue to pick up some fundamental aspects of body-language, an important part of the social interaction component of language ability.

In terms of goal-setting, a common theme for this blog, here’s some more food for thought, academic style, on setting optimal goals which I recently discovered. I still haven’t read the article thoroughly enough to see if the methodology is adaptable to my current plans here, but I’ll update about it soon if I make it all the way though.

Also, for myself, I’m reposting some personal food for thought here to remind myself of an important insight from my original goal-setting entry:

“Here’s the most important thing, and the thing that I believe I’ll find hardest about this whole mission: to learn to speak, I have to SPEAK.”

I’m still working on finding my voice here. I am being persistent, but it’s challenging to keep getting up to bat when it’s so easy to feel like a child, language-wise. But I’ve stumbled upon something called the 3 second rule: when I have an urge to make a comment in Portuguese to a random stranger but then squash it, I seem to be able to force it back into being by counting “1…2…3.” and then suddenly saying it. Who knew, but it’s been working great, and always boosts my mood, which boosts my speaking ability.

just gotta go for it!

Now, my weekly goals:

  • Read my original goal list at least 2 times during the week to remind myself of what I’m working towards (concretely)– I only have 2 months left, yikes!
  • Record myself on film speaking Portuguese at least 3 times during the week (it doesn’t need to be correct, it just needs to be fluid)
  • Read some Portuguese each night before sleeping (I now have 4 texts on my kindle and 3 physical books!)
  • Key into at least 3 conversations at work each day (sneaky sneaky, this means I stare at my computer but focus creepily on my coworker’s phone-call)
  • Make a mind-map diagram of the differences I perceive between thinking in Portuguese and thinking in English (this task will be fun, I’ve been thinking about it for a while)
  • Schedule my first samba lesson (turn off the brain)
fuck yeah sloth

thanks for this, random internet person

So now I am socially and morally bound to be back here in one week, rsrs.

How does goal-setting usually work out for you, do you have any tips?

beijos from a gringa feliz🙂


Improving Portuguese with rap music, novelas, and the free software Audacity

1 May

Well well, here I am after falling off the planet for a four week hiatus! But I’m just going to go ahead and give my update as if this lapse didn’t take place. So here we go:

Things have been going well with my mission to learn Portuguese. The hardest part has continued to be the micro-goal setting and monitoring my progress. This combined with my never-ending concern that I might not be studying enough (perpetual college student complex?) leads to concerns I have to keep in check. For example, I might declare to myself “ughgh I did nothing today!” before realizing that, all small tasks combined, I was actually studying and/or practicing Portuguese for 2-3 hours.

yeah... boo hoo...

In this post, I’m going to focus mostly on using the free program Audacity to improve my comprehension and speaking.

This tactic was originally inspired by Idahosa Ness, of the Mimic Method. Idahosa uses Audacity to slow down songs, especially rap, in order to see which syllables in a language end up dropped from the “text equivalent” when speaking quickly. You can read a great guest post he wrote about this on Irish polyglot Benny Lewis’ blog Fluent in 3 Months. Since my last post, I’ve gotten in touch with Idahosa about his completed program The Flow of Spanish (which was really great to see) and have had an opportunity to help him beta-test his Flow of Portuguese program. If you’re in my position of wanting to improve Portuguese (especially accent and tone), you could always contact him and seeing if he can add you to the trials. It’s been a lot of fun and it’s great to have someone skilled in communicating about languages carefully review your audio submissions for sotaque advice. Just tell him a happy gringa sent you.🙂

So onto Audacity. I used Audacity in college for some creative projects, but never thought of using it to analyze a language until I saw the suggestion on the Mimic Method website. Since then, I’ve been having a great time “capturing” random bits of Portuguese and putting them under the microscope with this software.

Here’s how it works: Download the free software and drag an MP3/wav of your favorite song or soundclip in to the editing window (if you only have a youtube video, you can strip the soundfile with this site). Then, under the Effect menu at the top of the screen, choose Change Tempo (not Change Speed)– this algorithm will slow the speech down while preserving the native tone of the language. I usually go for somewhere from 15-30% slower than the original recording.

a screencap of the free audio editing/recording software Audacity

Finally, put on your headphones, turn up the sound (LOUD), and start mimicking! You don’t have to think about the meaning or how you might write it just yet, just focus on hearing and recreating the sounds. Apparently, often when singing, people generally show reduced accents (or so says Susanna Zaraysky of Language is Music).

When I do this exercise, after concentrating on listening (to the sounds, not the words) for a few minutes,  I restart the file trying to repeat exactly what the artist says. I’m usually a second or two behind and sometimes if phrases are too complex,  I trip up and just jump back in whenever I can. Once I get a little more familiar with the material, I take one of my earbuds out so I can hear my voice better and start a mix of “parroting” (1-2 seconds behind) and synchronized singing. I like to have one earbud out so I can hear my own voice better, especially when I’m trying to sing along. I find this really helps me emulate the sounds of the artist, similar to the way a singer in a choir might calibrate their voice to their neighbor’s.

For my first song, I picked the song Pilotando o Bonde da Excursão by Marcelo D2. It’s mostly about getting stoned, but that’s okay because it’s upbeat, funky, and, most important: fast. It’s been about a month that I’ve been listening to this song at least 3-4 times several days a week and I deliberately only just looked at the lyrics today. Some sources I’ve read suggest that text can trip you up since it doesn’t give any indication which syllables disappear when language is spoken fast (Idahosa Ness calls this “The Flow”). Accordingly, I’ve been trying to focus mostly on the sounds, getting ready to understand the meaning later.

Marcelo D2 ("deh-doish"), a carioca rap artist

There’s one interesting theory I read (forgive me, I lost the reference…) that says you can’t necessarily hear/perceive a sound in a language well until you can make it. For this reason, often, I make a lot of crazy sounds while practicing. D2 says something like “Fala–” and suddenly I pause the recording and try out 5-10 different a sounds, repeating the ones that sound the closest and making all sorts of faces and droning noises to alternate between the open/closed back/front vowel scales I mentioned in this entry. It’s the kind of thing one might want to do behind closed doors…

After using this method on songs, I was watching my novela Vidas em Jogo about a week ago when it occurred to me– could I capture the sound of their rapid fire conversations and slow that down too? The answer, as you may have guessed, is yes.

For my “novela studies,” I generally pick either “listening” or “speaking” when I watch an episode, and either focus intensely on understanding the content or mimic the dialogue, losing sense of the words but focusing on making Portuguese sounds rapidly. (Riffing off Ness, again, who says some interesting things about “babbling” in another language in that blog entry.) By slowing down the novela audio just enough to free up some brain processing space, I found I could do both (understanding, speaking) at once, more or less.

In order to do this, I watched a scene on a youtube clip, trying to understand what the characters were saying. I watched it again mimicking their sounds. After I was familiar with the content, I took the audio from that clip and slowed it down by 30%. I was amazed to find just how many “hidden” words appeared as my brain started figuring out the vocal slurs on a slower timescale. I listened to this slowed down clip several times trying to focus on where one word became another, and recognizing the meanings. Then I started mimicking.

drama, drama... son character gets caught in a lie (Vidas em Jogo)

It was great to have the sound so slow because it gave me time to really adjust my vowels to line up with the speaker’s (the Portuguese a gets me every time…). Soon, I could mimick about 50-70% of the content on the 30% slower speed. I ramped it up to 15% slower and did the same thing. Finally, I set it back to normal speed. By that point, I could only mimic a few sentences reliably– but hey, those are full speed native Portuguese sentences!

The most important part of this exercise has been figuring out which parts of words might be likely to disappear when talking fast. For example, I’ve found that when one word ends in a vowel and the next word begins with a vowel, the second vowel usually “eats” the first (Eg. when said quickly, “minha irmã” sounds like “minhirmã” to me). I don’t claim to know how this works in my brain, but I’ve definitely noticed that working on mimicking small clips of speech has helped me with word transitions in general. When I read now, I somehow know much better than I did before how words should start fitting together. As a result I can read aloud more quickly and with more confidence. I’m definitely improving. It’s a slow process, but–as my former Portuguese teacher here said–baby steps, né?

One closing note that I found helped me: tone! I love the sing-song nature of Portuguese. I love the website I listed in this entry. Especially, check out this section on tone complete with audio files of typical tone structures in Brazilian Portuguese. If you pretend each one is a sound or a song and mimic it (the words/meaning are not important here), you can build up an arsenal of tone structures for easier, more authentic conversation.

And as a final thought, If you listen to a Brazilian news report or radio advertisement as an English speaker, you should immediately notice (read: be overwhelmed by) the enthusiastic up and down predictable sing-song. I’ve found that since coming here I’ve internalized this voice, especially one example in particular, a man, always incredibly energetic (if you’re watching Globo you’ll hear him say “No PROX-imo SAB-ado…! sing-song sing-song SING-song!”). Often, when I practice reading, I try to speak with this hyped-out singing reporter or advertiser tone. For some reason it makes it easier, and it also puts me in a better mood due to the energy it requires and my perpetual amusement at whatever the hell reason I’m doing it for (I don’t honestly know why, but my productivity skyrockets when I do this).

this is what I picture that completely insane guy looking like... oh wait that's Tom Cruise

So, in closing, I’ve been making a lot of progress thanks to the help of Brazilian rap music, my favorite novela, and the free software Audacity. I hope, if you haven’t used these methods yet, you might consider trying them out.

That’s it for now! And thanks for reading.🙂

And those weekly micro-goals… right… someday…

First check-in: crossing off some mini-goals

3 Apr

About a week ago I set some Portuguese learning goals for the next few days. A fellow language learner, Tiberius, recently made a post where he went through his weekly Spanish goals, checking them off so I thought I’d try do the same for my first round of mini-quests.



Here’s the wrap-up on my goals from the past week:

Attend as many social events in Portuguese as possible: Check! In the past 7 days, besides chatting here and there I went on a hike where the main languages were Spanish and Portuguese, and went twice to a Portuguese-English exchange group. These events were all super important for my confidence, and each process of getting ready for, attending, and thinking on each event afterwards definitely felt like a victory. In the future I’ll keep in mind that this is an easy way to get my language language “mojo” back when I’m feeling down. I still want to be going to more specifically “Portuguese” events so I made a posting on CouchSurfing trying to rally some people for another bate-papo group. Assuming this group works out, the next step would be to find a couple language partners who are willing to meet weekly or so to practice with eachother for 1 half hour in English, then 1 half hour in Portuguese. I just made a profile on this worldwide language exchange site (and wow, there are so many other sites too!), so I hope to get going on this soon.

Attempt to apply ideas from Idahosa Ness’s Mimic Method to my Portuguese studying: I’ve been doing a good job with this one– in my next post I’ll write more about how I’m trying to use rap music to improve my accent as well as boost my comprehension. A lot of the ideas I’m using are also featured in Susanna Zaraysky’s Language is Music philosophy. Check out her site: the ebook is pretty basic, but has some great general advice and is only 3.00 USD.

Watch at least one episode of Moluscontos: Checked this one off, barely, haha. I want to watch more to improve my ability to understand the Carioca accent and slang! These things are super important to me…

On at least a couple nights read at least 5 pages from Comer, Rezar, Amar: Check! This was really helpful for passively improving my writing (big surprise). I was reading for fun, but while writing up a report in Portuguese for work the other day, found myself easily using some of the same constructions.

So in short, I have more or less accomplished my major goals for the week, but I’ve also found that setting good goals is hard! Despite trying to be concrete, my items were still somehow too vague. (eg. how do I check off whether I’ve gone to “as many events as possible?”) I’ve been able to keep my language learning energy up with new ideas and enthusiasm, but I’d like to see if I can’t improve the next set of goals. I’ll think on it and see where I get…

If you’re interested, check out this post suggesting SMART goals for language learning, or this brief article on using goals that focus on communication, or even the abstract to this journal publication saying that goal setting might have an influence on autonomy in a target language.


back to the drawing board...

What do you think, do you have any go-to language progress goals? Is it easier to outline blocks of time, numbers of words, ability to perform a certain action? Any ideas?

beijos from a gringa feliz🙂 xx

Tackling the vowels and nasal sounds

27 Mar

Today I’m taking some time to work on the Falar component of my language mission to learn Brazilian Portuguese, working on my pronunciation of vowel sounds especially.


time to learn to speak!

First: My thoughts on the importance of getting the sounds right.

People like to tell me this is too ambitious, but I don’t want a foreign accent. Ultimately, I want to sound exactly like a native Brazilian and I believe this is possible. I’ve always loved music and singing, and internalizing some of the ideas from Language is Music and The Mimic Method has really helped me start coming up with a concrete plan for pronunciation work.

More than being inherently time-dependent (eg. your accent slowly improves with exposure over a number of years), I think accent reduction depends almost entirely on the methodology you use while studying.

But why don’t I want an accent? (Especially when amused, attractive men keep saying things to me like “your accent is so cute”😉 ) Well, first and foremost, for me it’s almost a matter of respect. It’s respecting the language and culture enough to want to assimilate in a way, similar to how when I visit another culture, I try to abide by different cultural expectations there as much as I comfortably can. This “respect” as I call it is not required in order to communicate, but I feel it will enhance the level of my interactions here. My connections will be stronger and less guarded when I don’t scream “outsider” with every syllable I pronounce.

This desire for “authenticity” is similar to how a singer must feel, I’m sure, while concentrating on a piece. If you were in an opera performing Rossini, of course you’d want to focus on every aspect of the performance, you’d want perfect pronunciation as well as perfect pitch and tone, and in some way, by striving for this, you honor the composer and the audience.

From a more practical perspective, I’ve been feeling more and more that speaking and listening are connected in incredibly complicated ways. I used to believe it was a bit more linear: listen enough, and slowly you will start to speak. Now I feel it’s more like listen a bit, try to speak, and the process of trying to speak will help you to listen better, which will help you to try to speak more, which will help you to listen better, etc. If it’s true that these two processes influence each other so heavily, errors in one process would surely interfere with the other. Therefore, it’s extremely important to me to eliminate pronunciation errors early on, to help with my understanding as well as speaking.

Second: Training the muscle machine.

When I’m asking a native to help me with with pronunciation, I always say “where exactly do you put your tongue?” Human speech is based on vibrating different volumes of air in different parts of your mouth and nose. In this sense, reproducing the sounds of another language is a problem of physics that can be conquered through developing awareness of how we currently use our mouths and tongues. I have the same “machinery” that native speakers do, I just need to change the way I’m using it.

Reproducing the sounds of Brazilian Portuguese

I’ve been venturing into linguistics resources (dundundun…) to get a better understanding of where to position my tongue. I wanted to share a few ideas I learned that I found helpful. First, a couple language experts recommended developing “vowel awareness.” For me, this means understanding more how I make vowel sounds in English and learning a bit about the terminology for this so I can find resources online more easily. I started with a couple exercises on different types of vowels:

FRONT vowel to BACK vowel: practice switching between “eeee” and “oooo,” trying not to move any parts of your mouth which you don’t have to. Your tongue will move forward for “eeee” (FRONT vowel) and backward for “oooo” (BACK vowel).

OPEN vowel to CLOSED vowel: practice switching from “oooo” to “aaah.” Your tongue (and jaw) will move down for “aaah” (OPEN vowel) and up for “oooo” (CLOSED vowel).

Apparently, every other vowel sound can be mapped on a 2 dimensional spectrum between these extremes, more or less. Fascinating for me, given my typical engineer’s fetish for diagrams, figures, infographics etc., were the vowel charts I found online, which visually map vowel sounds in languages based on their Front/Back Open/Closed characteristics.

vowel chart

a vowel chart for English (notice the 3 extremes: eee, ooo, aaah)

The symbols on the chart are phonemes from IPA, which you can listen to and practice with this clickable chart with mp3 sounds. As you can see below, the vowel chart for Portguese has sounds mapped in slightly different parts of the mouth:

vowel chart

some crazy vowel sounds... phew! (ɐ and ë are unfamiliar)

I’m really excited to use these charts as a guide to improve my Portuguese pronunciation! For example, if there’s a Portuguese vowel and I notice it’s more or less between two familiar English vowel sounds on the chart, I can alternate between these sounds and try to get closer to something in the middle.

I also found this great pronunciation site for Brazilian Portuguese complete with vowel sounds, nasal sounds, diphthongs, and tone mp3s. I’ve been listening to the sounds, trying to mimic them and figure out what’s going on with my tongue.

Sometimes, I even touch my tongue with my finger before switching to another vowel to verify that yes, it has to move back to do that. It’s funny, but I guess I don’t always have a good idea of where the hell my tongue is in my mouth at any given moment.

Eventually, my plan is to record myself saying most of the things featured at the site above and ask a native speaker to point out my mistakes. Simultaneously, following this week’s Mimicking Mini-Goals (yukyukyuk) I’ll be working on learning the song Marinheiro só, focusing on the rhythm and pronunciation and ultimately recording myself singing that as well.

The free audio program Audacity lets you import songs, slow them down (to help with pronunciation!), and record your own tracks as well. If I have success, perhaps I’ll be able to post my result here.🙂

So now I’m off to make like a parrot at that pronunciation website. What about you, have you ever found an especially good resource or framework for improving pronunciation?

Happy studying, and beijos.

Setting goals in high spirits

27 Mar

Oi gente, e aí?

Tonight I’m in a good mood. Another gringa in Rio, Alvina, who I got to know through couchsurfing suggested going to a Portuguese-English exchange tonight. So around 7:30 I hopped a bus to Leme to check it out. I’m always amazed by how much my spirits are lifted just by talking to Brazilians in Portuguese. I can’t get over how friendly and encouraging they are. (I keep comparing it to my experience in Russia, which was… shall we say a bit different.😉 ) Brazilians love to smile and they love to talk, which is amazingly helpful while I try to improve my speaking and listening skills.

human connection

I really enjoyed the Portuguese-English meetup at Leme tonight

The honest truth is that this language learning experience is a real challenge for me. Becoming “fluent” (or what that means to me) is certainly one of the most ambitious goals I’ve ever had, and I like to consider myself a person who generally takes on a lot.

Sometimes it’s quite tricky to find clever ways to think around the obstacles I’ve put in my own mind, the doubts I’ve come up with (and harbored for years and years) about my ability to progress, or the beliefs I have about how difficult learning should be. Sometimes I feel discouraged. Sometimes I have unrealistic expectations and the smallest errors leave me disappointed. Often I find myself moody or frustrated, or even lonely.

But each time I make just a small bit of progress, each time I step back and realize what I’m actually working towards and what I actually believe I am–as all humans are–capable of, I feel a very genuine happiness; a very simple happiness. I feel as if I’m standing at the edge of a new world, looking in: inside lies another part of the human experience, another part of me that may be buried inside waiting to emerge, a new crowd of hearts and minds to connect with.

human connection

I guess it's really about human connection in general...

I feel so lucky that there are so many resources online these days. Some of the most influential things for me have been the “pep talks” from people who have learned languages quickly and in depth, who’ve shared their stories with an “if I can do it, you can” philosophy. Many of these people care deeply about sharing languages, offering their own interactive learning products which are instantaneously accessible with a credit card and an internet connection. It’s never been easier to learn a language. Granted, I’m not trying to skip out on the hard work, but I’m so grateful for such accessible guidance.

What do you think about it? What ideas keep you motivated while you study a target language?

Philosophy and state-of-mind aside, I’ll save the end of this post for some practical ideas for my self-studying in the next few days.

As per my plan in my last post, I’ve defined some mini-goals for this week. The theme is MIMIC:

  • Attend as many social events in Portuguese as possible, bonus points if there’s beer to loosen me up (as if Brazilians could have a social event without beer…);
  • Attempt to apply ideas from Idahosa Ness’s Mimic Method to my Portuguese studying;
  • Listen to the Marcelo D2 rap songs I downloaded to improve listening skills (try to memorize a good part of one song by the end of the week);
  • Practice with the sound guides I found at this excellent site;
  • Each day, try to watch either a Brazilian film (a couple are available on iTunes) or an hour of my chosen novela Vidas em Jogo to improve my listening. If I have the energy: try to mimic the characters’ words, facial expressions, tone, gestures while watching.
  • Watch at least one episode of Moluscontos, hahaha😀
  • On at least a couple nights: read at least 5 pages from Comer, Rezar, Amar (lower priority than speaking right now);
  • Keep in mind: speaking <–> listening and understanding (it goes both ways, not just one! I need to learn those damn phonemes by trial and error… )

So those are my goals for the next few days! Now let’s see how it goes with actually following them…

In my next post I hope to share a bit about some of the strategies I’m using to improve my pronunciation, tone, and flow for spoken Portuguese. Talk to you soon.🙂

Business meetings & technical language, conversational flow

22 Mar

It’s been a few days since I’ve been able to update this blog, but I’ve been making some progress with my Portuguese.

In my last post I tried to lay out my overall language goals. My next step, as a couple people advised me, will be to make smaller concrete weekly goals (focusing on communication) so I can chart my progress and make sure I’m staying up to speed.


In the meantime, I’ve had some victories. Right now, I’m doing an internship at a massive Brazilian media company. I’ve been visiting different departments and having regular meetings with directors to get a better understanding of the big picture. These meetings generally entail me showing up in someone’s office, introductions, 1 or 2 hours of discussing relevant work, often with either a brief powerpoint presentation or use of a notebook or whiteboard, a tour of the premesis, and goodbyes. At this point, there have been 10 of these (and I’m not done… GIGANTIC company!).

The first meeting was in English. After that I started asking for people to speak in Portuguese. The new game is: carry on in Portuguese for as long as possible until we have to switch to English. In my mind, I have a lifemeter above my head representing a certain amount of grammatical mistakes, “what’s ___ mean?” questions, or awkward confused pauses. I walk into the office (ready? START!). Then they speak and I listen as carefully as possible, nod often, and try to insert a relevant question or exclamation wherever I can to show that I’m understanding overall.

life meter

Portuguese health remaining...

I’ve been getting better at this, and yesterday I had my first meeting, about an hour and a half, entirely in Portuguese except for a few clarifying sentences in English! (I’ve had a couple other meetings in almost entirely Portuguese, but those involved tour components, which are much easier. I would really kind of phase out during the monologue and rejoin the conversation to react when my guide pointed something out.)

So yesterday was a victory, even though 1) I definitely don’t understand everything yet and 2) I still need to learn more in order to respond in conversation. I would guess that when the accent is familiar and a person doesn’t speak too fast, I might understand 50-70% of the words, which, combined with context, leads to maybe 60-80% understanding of the big picture of what they’re trying to communicate. I think this environment of business and technical language is a little easier to navigate just because the words are complex enough that they’re mostly semi-cognates in English and Portuguese (eg. sustainable/sustentável, foundation/fundação, ethics/ética etc). But it’s a good place to start and it’s a good place to pick up some nice vocabulary words that are pretty easy to remember.


One thing that’s really helped me over the past few days and that I’ve tried to use in these meetings is a “keep calm, carry on” attitude suggested in Benny Lewis’ Language Hacking Guide. I used to feel frustrated or dejected when people would always switch a conversation back to English, often, I felt, prematurely. But then I realized that each time that’s happened, I’ve been clearly uncomfortable: responding awkwardly to silence, saying “umm… umm…”, laughing, or looking at the other person as if to ask for help. Benny made a really interesting point: if you are obviously uncomfortable, a nice person is going to try to make you less uncomfortable. It’s human nature. Rather than rejecting your language level, most people are probably just trying to avoid awkwardness for everyone.

This simple change in mindset affected a lot for me. Besides the fact that I no longer feel insulted or put off when people try to guide me towards English, it led me to trying to project an attitude of “not awkward… perfectly comfortable… perfectly calm…” in tone and body language.

So instead of:What?? (uncomfortable awkward silence, terror terror deer in headlights look)”

I would try something like: “Oh sorry, I’m not quite sure if I understand. The question is what, again? (calm content buddha smile look)”

Amazingly, it worked! We were able to keep up a Portuguese environment for so much longer. This was so interesting to me, the idea of focusing on the actual “flow” of a conversation instead of saying the right things or knowing the right words. I think it was a big step forward. In a way, it’s kind of like a playing tennis or a similar game. No one wants to play with someone who keeps stalling the game, trying to perfect their stroke and obsessing over technique when their friend is waiting for the ball!

tennis conversation ;)

the back and forth of a conversation is like playing tennis: thok!

So in the future I think I’ll focus on just getting the ball back over there… and I can concentrate on conjugation details and adjective/noun agreement after we’re already having fun.🙂

Language goals for the next few months

15 Mar

A lot of the language learning resources I’ve found have advised stating your goals as concretely as possible. In this post, I’ll try to outline my longterm overarching goals for Brazilian Portuguese and break them up into several chunks so I can start planning my day to day assignments for myself. On Tuesday, when I first decided to get serious about monitoring my progress and created this blog, I scribbled down a language mission in a burst of energy:


hmmm, language mission!

Here are the goals I’ve outlined to give myself a means to evaluate my progress:

1) Falar

  • be able to express self freely in conversations (lasting 5-10 minutes)
  • reduce accent and unnatural pauses between words
  • build active vocabulary of words I like, be confident using it

Notes: I want pleasant/easy conversations with natives, I want to be able to navigate around an unknown city or perform unfamiliar tasks without using English– I want to feel comfortable enough to be supporting myself completely in Portuguese. Here’s the most important thing, and the thing that I believe I’ll find hardest about this whole mission: to learn to speak, I have to SPEAK.

Ideas: Singing lessons(!) here in Rio, regular chats on LiveMocha, learn Brazilian rap songs to study language rhythym, choose an accent

2) Ler

  • be able to comfortably read a Brazilian newspaper
  • finish my current book, the Portuguese translation of one of my favorite English memoirs (66/342 pages so far!)
  • start and finish a Brazilian novel which I completely adore, Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos, in the original Portuguese (I’ve only read the English translation).
  • start and finish at least one other serious Brazilian novel that I’ve never read a translation of. (An idea: Memórias Póstumas?)
  • re-read the gigantic orientation packet of my company, learning all the business language

Notes: This is going to be the easiest part of the mission for me. This part of my brain is already well ahead of the speaking part. The trick will be integrating my progress here into the other two aspects of my mission. For example, I have to make sure I take the new words I pick up from context while reading and actually figure out how to pronounce them well and recognize them in speech.

Ideas: Find subtitles for a film, and read the script– then watch the film without subtitles. Or vice versa! Read poetry, read song lyrics, read blogs, newspapers, or personal journals, study comments on my Brazilian facebook friends’ walls, or join a couple more groups like Polinize and study member posts. Change language settings to Portuguese on as many electronics/services as possible.

3) Entender

  • UNDERSTAND when natives speak quickly
  • Watch a novela or film and understand most of words said
  • Be able to recite lyrics after I hear a song
  • Be able to correctly reproduce sentences anchors say on the news

Notes: Again, for me, this is easier than speaking, although different accents or confusing environments (ie. on the bus with a lot of background noise) make it more challenging.

Ideas: Watch novelas, watch the news, watch films on my computer, go to films in the theater, go to plays(!). Watching “the news” isn’t fun enough for me, so I’ll have to find a program I like and can commit to (maybe Fantastico?). Same for novelas. It will be more social if I watch with other people, I wonder if anyone I know has a regular novela they like to watch… Animated films (ie. Pixar flicks) in Portuguese are also good, and I can also watch them with children and practice commenting.


So in summary, this is how I’m going to demonstrate my fluency at the end of my six months here. I’m still a bit nervous overall, but I feel really excited about it. I know it will be hard work, but it will also be completely empowering, and the process will change my entire life. It’s going to be an amazing few months.

I wonder if I should pick different parts of the mission (eg. Falar/Ler/Entender) and focus on them for different days. Or different weeks, even.

What do you think? Does it make sense to target certain skills intensively or is it better to work on everything all at once?

um beijo,

uma gringa feliz