How trying to learn another language almost destroyed me


I’ve lived in Brazil now for about a year and a half. I have loved living here and experiencing a new culture. Brazil is a very dynamic place and they have an incredible language. I love listening to Portuguese, because when you hear someone speak it almost seems like they are singing. Everything spoken in Portuguese sounds passionate and I am constantly thinking that someone is upset, angry, excited or bewildered. When this happens I usually ask my wife what they were talking about to which she replies, “they were asking where the bathroom is.”


What a Portuguese speaker looks like asking for a cup of water

Before moving here I was ready to learn Portuguese. I bought books, downloaded apps, and created countless flashcards. I tried to flush Spanish out of my brain so I wouldn’t mispronounce anything. I even demanded that my wife only talk to me in Portuguese from time to time (this generally lasted about two minutes). I was determined that I would conquer this difficult and strange language.

The reality was different though. For one, my wife was already fluent, and living in another country is stressful. I love being an expat, but sometimes it drains you when even small tasks take all of the effort your brain can handle to communicate. It became incredibly easy to fall back on my wife’s language skills. I learned enough to get by, but communicating more then a few simple phrases was agonizing.

I also tried to take Portuguese classes to better my ability to understand the language. I went to a course called Brasas and the lessons were brutal. The classes were immediately after working all day, and by the time I got to class my brain wanted to turn off. Add onto the fact that our class was only two people, me and one other co-worker, and it began to consume me.   I wanted to learn Portuguese so badly, but I was literally falling asleep in the middle of sentences during Portuguese class.

Last fall I fell into a depression. I was so busy with teaching and taking Portuguese classes that I couldn’t fit anything else into my life. I was embarrassed as well because I felt like I was making absolutely no progress in Portuguese. To add on top of that we were trying to get together with friends once a week to play Risk Legacy. I was broken, distraught, and felt like I couldn’t enjoy anything I was doing any longer.

I eventually gave up on the Portuguese classes. I hate that I still can only speak a few things in Portuguese after living in Brazil for so long, but it taught me a few important lessons:


First, your time is valuable and you shouldn’t waste it. During college I could spend countless hours playing video games, watching Netflix, or watching anime. I now wonder what skills I could have developed if I wouldn’t have wasted all that time. It almost feels wrong to me these days to continue doing any of those things, although I sometimes feel myself being consumed by them again.

Second, I realized that I wasn’t superman and I couldn’t do too much at once. I was trying to learn a language, learn how to teach fourth grade, spend time with friends, and stay connected to my wife in our first year of marriage. As much as I love and wanted to use Portuguese it wasn’t the time. Focus on learning and doing a few things well, rather then overloading your life.

And last, I learned that it’s okay to not be fluent in Portuguese. I use to be embarrassed by my inability to communicate well. I thought that other expats would look down on me for my lack of language skills. In reality, everyone learns at a different pace. It opened my eyes to how difficult it must have been for immigrants I saw back in the United States trying to learn English. I remember how a lot of my friends would make fun of how bad their accents were and how stupid they were for not speaking English. I imagine that sometimes I joined in with them. It gave me a better respect for anyone trying to learn a language and how difficult it can be.

I would still like to learn Portuguese someday, and maybe I will spend some time this semester trying to get better at it. Thankfully, my wife is a genius and can still help me out when we go out.   Until I am fluent, she is just going to have to deal with my broken Portenglish!


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