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Why Am I So Bad At Learning Languages?

Most Americans who learned a foreign language in school did so in a big class with one teacher. Even if the teacher enforced a strict No English policy, most of those students probably never became fluent. Why is that? Are English-speakers inherently bad at learning other languages? Not at all. The problem is that, in such a classroom context, the teacher does most of the speaking and each student has few opportunities to practice speaking. It’s possible to hide in the back of the class, do all the worksheets and pass every test without being able to have a real conversation.

If this method describes your language education, you may have come to believe that you just can’t learn another language. Don’t believe it! Your persistent monolingualism isn’t your fault; blame high school.

Is Immersion A Shortcut?

Many language experts recommend immersion as the fastest way to become fluent in Portuguese; move to Portuguese or Brazil, live with a host family and have every interaction in Portuguese. The idea is that, without English to fall back on, the desire to speak Portuguese will become a real necessity, a sink-or-swim survival pressure. You will have to learn how to speak Portuguese because there will be no other option.

But is it really that simple? Plenty of people have tried and failed to learn a language, even with immersion. Physically being somewhere is not, in itself, a learning tool. Immersion works because the best way to learn Portuguese is to hear it and practice speaking it every day in the context of your normal life. When people talk about immersion, what they really mean is learning by doing – to get away from an academic approach and live the language. If you know how immersion works, you can start learning Portuguese no matter where you are.

Turning Off The Blahblahblah Filter

Our brains are incredibly good at focusing on details, but this is only possible because our brains are even better at ignoring stuff. It’s the reason you can have a conversation in a noisy cafe; your brain can separate the signal from the noise. The problem, when learning a new language, is that your brain treats unfamiliar new sounds like background noise, telling you, “It’s just static. Ignore it.”

The solution to this problem is easy, the more Portuguese you hear the less filtered it becomes. Soak it up; whether you understand is not immediately important. Listen to Bossa Nova or Tropicalia in the car, watch Portuguese and Brazilian movies at home and utilize an integrated text/audio online program like Babbel for at least ten minutes per day. Pay attention when you hear Portuguese being spoken in public (and don’t be afraid to join in). You can even stream Portuguese-language television online. Daily exposure will keep your brain engaged.

Feel The Burn

The most important thing that immersion provides is a constant stream of your target language. You will hear it all the time, you will read it everywhere and most importantly you will see people speaking it all the time. No two languages are pronounced exactly the same, which means that the speakers of different languages literally have different strengths and weaknesses in their face muscles.

A Portuguese-speaker can pronounce words with the ão sound because certain muscles in her mouth have had a good workout, whereas an untrained native English speaker trying to pronounce coração is like a flabby couch potato trying to do gymnastics; only training and practice build the muscles needed to move with agility, grace and speed. This is why it is so helpful to watch a native-speaker talk. Her mouth provides a clue as to what to do with your mouth when trying to pronounce the same words. As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect”. Not only must your brain become familiar with the strange new sounds, your lips, tongue and throat must as well.

Why Learn Portuguese?

There are as many answers to this question as there are people who learn second languages. Do you want to read the works of Fernando Pessoa in the original? Do you want to explore the beaches of the Algarve without getting stuck in tourist traps? Are you about to meet your new Brazilian in-laws? Do you want to learn the lyrics to every Os Mutantes song ever recorded? Are you planning a trek into the Amazon rainforest? There is no one reason, but you need to know your reason.

This is essential because it will help you stay motivated and focused. You can memorize and pay more attention to things that are relevant to you. If you want to learn Portuguese in order experience Rio de Janeiro’s Carnivale, memorizing words for office equipment won’t inspire you to keep learning. In addition to picking up core vocabulary and phrases (1000 – 3000 words that are necessary for everyday speech) you can stay interested in Portuguese by learning to talk about what matters to you.

Use A Full Toolbox

CD-ROM programs, audio courses, grammar books, flash cards, online learning, traditional classroom courses and speaking to native Portuguese-speakers will speed up this process. If you only want to learn Portuguese in order to read José Saramago in the original, you might accomplish your goal with only books and written worksheets, but it will be a long, slow road without human contact. Even if there is no one in your town or city who speaks Portuguese, the internet allows you to find language partners, whether you communicate by instant message or a video call. The best use for a language, after all, is talking to people.

It’s All In Your Mind

If you want to actually speak Portuguese, you must be prepared to make mistakes and to feel okay about making mistakes. Learning by doing means trying, failing and trying again. Forget what Yoda said (besides, he could barely even speak one language). The key to knowing how to speak Portuguese is simply trying to speak Portuguese, no matter how silly you feel at first. Making mistakes is no reason to become discouraged. Recent psychological studies into how we learn give us the easiest and most important tip: relax. If you can feel comfortable with not immediately understanding things, it’s easier to stay relaxed, curious, and to enjoy the process. No matter how you choose to learn, constant exposure and daily practice will always bring results.

Learning Portuguese With Babbel

Try your first Portuguese lesson with Babbel for free. One of the advantages of the Babbel system is that you are immersed in Portuguese from the beginning. The process is easy and intuitive (with lots of helpful hints when you need them), and you can learn at your own pace and set your own lesson plans. Babbel’s Portuguese course is affordable, accessible online and via mobile devices, and proven to strengthen your reading, listening, speaking and comprehension skills. Whether you are too busy for a language class, a complete beginner, needing to brush up before a vacation or business trip, or wanting to re-learn everything you forgot in high school, Babbel can be customized to your needs. Best of all, you don’t have to tackle Portuguese by yourself. Use Babbel’s community features to connect with other learners, find tandem partners and share expertise. Feeling inspired yet?