Learning a new language

Recently I've been having some conversations on Twitter with some friends about languages, what it's like to speak English as a non-native, accents and a few other things. A few of them have recently posted about their experiences on learning different languages so I thought I'd share my thoughts and experiences too.

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert in learning languages and I'm not a language teacher. I have struggled and still struggle to learn. But I have learned English decently enough. So maybe I did something right. This is just some of my thoughts and opinions and should not be taken as a "best practices guide".

1 — It is hard.

Learning a new language will always be hard. Don't trust someone who says it isn't. I admit, I used to say to my friends that English is easy. But that was after I had already become good at it. I had forgotten how hard it was to learn it. People quickly forget past struggles to learn something, because once you learn it well enough, it becomes easy for you. It's called the Curse of Knowlege.

Of course, some languages are easier to learn than others. I speak Portuguese natively, so learning Spanish wouldn't be so hard for me, as Chinese would. And I believe that for those who learn English, it can be easier as English is just everywhere. It is very easy to be in daily contact with the language, be it in TV, movies, music, and the internet. Unlike other languages which aren't so widely used, like German or Italian.

2 — Vocabulary is more important than grammar

Grammar IS important. You need to know verb tenses, sentence structure, pronouns, articles, etc.. But that shouldn't be your biggest concern. Once you get the basics, your focus should be on expanding your list of known words. Be in as much contact with the language as possible, and always look up the meaning of new words and memorize it. There's no other way around it.

In the beginning, you will be using a translator a lot, to know what a word in a different language means in your own. And that's ok. But your goal should be to move away from that and instead, use a dictionary. In your own native language, if you find a word you don't know, that is what you do right? Go to the dictionary and look it up and see what it means. And that's what you should be able to do in a different language.

3 — Prepositions are hard

Prepositions are really hard. They are hard in Portuguese, in English and I've discovered now that I'm learning German, that they are hard there too. Specially if they are combined with verbs or nouns, completely changing the its meaning, as it happens in English and in German.

Some will be completely straightforward. Like "go in" or "go out". Others are not so obvious. Example: to make up for something means something completely different from make something up and neither have nothing to do with makeup.

It's definitely something that takes some memorisation. But at least in my experience, once you start really understanding how the language works and you sort of internalize it, it begins to make sense and it can happen that you will see one of those you haven't seen before and you will be able to guess or infer its meaning.

4— Stop mentally translating everything ASAP

One of the best tips my English teacher taught me was that I should learn to think in English, and not think in Portuguese and then mentally translate it. If you do that, you will add a huge bottleneck to your speaking fluency. Train your brain to stop translating and start building sentences automatically in the language you're learning. It will be hard at first. You will try to come up with words you don't know yet, but that is part of the exercise. Remember, you should be always building your vocabulary. With time and dedication, it will get easier and more natural.

This is also important because if you're thinking in a new language, you're being active with it, and not only passive. Being active with a new language is much harder than being passive .Yes, you should be reading and listening to it just as much, but being active, by speaking, writing, and thinking with the new language is what is going to give you fluency. After all, you will eventually need to communicate with others with the new language. And that is hard to do when you're not fluent yet.

5 — Don't curse

Yes, curse words are among the first people learn, but that doesn't mean you should use them, specially when talking to natives.

Curse words don't mean as much to you if they are not in your native language. Think of a really offensive word in your own language and you will see that it completely changes how you react to it. For example: If I say or hear "Fuck you", it doesn't have the same impact on me if I said or heard "Vai se foder", which means the exact same thing, but in Portuguese. So when you say those things to someone, to you it might not have the same impact as it would have on the listener.

Another reason is: you probably don't know how to use it right. For example: in Rio de Janeiro, people do use curse words a lot. It is common to use offensive words to your friends (I have no idea why, it is just that way for some reason ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) and people don't usually care. But, it's not like that at all in other regions of Brazil and in Portugal. I remember when I was working in Rio de Janeiro with some people who had joined the team from São Paulo. The paulistas (people who are from São Paulo) were initially quite shocked when the locals started using a lot of really offensive words to each other, and they discovered that there was no fight going on, but just a normal conversation between two cariocas (people who are from Rio de Janeiro).

You can see that using curse words correctly can be difficult. As a foreigner you probably don't know which contexts it is appropriate to use them. So, as as general rule of thumb, it's better to avoid using them.

6 — It will change how you think

One of the great things about learning a new language is that it will change how your express yourself, and sometimes, how you think. Because language expresses thought, sometimes there are some words or expressions in a language that don't have a good direct translation to another one. So it may happen that you will find yourself adding foreign terms in your own language because they may express an idea much better. This happens a lot in English, specially in the business world. But you might have seen foreign words or expressions that express ideas better, like the German word Schadenfreude, or Latin status quo, or the French L’esprit de l’escalier.

7 — You will appreciate more your own language

As you learn to find meaning in foreign expressions, you will reconnect with your own mother language, and learn to appreciate more the things you can only express with it, or how much more easily you can communicate.

If I travel to a foreign country, I find myself going for days or weeks without speaking Portuguese with anyone. And when I find someone who speaks my language, it's is deeply gratifying experience.

I also get to use words or expressions that are very particular to Portuguese. For example: a lot of Brazilians say the word "saudade" doesn't have a translation in other languages. While I don't think that's exactly true, we can say in Portuguese something that is actually very hard to translate: "matar as saudades", that is, when you miss someone or something, and you reconnect with them in the present, you "kill" that feeling of longing you had. It's an expression widely used by Portuguese speakers, and I have never seen a similar use in English for example.

8 — Don't lose motivation

In the beginning, speaking even the simple things will be quite a struggle. Don't let that demotivate you.

I remember a while ago I was in Berlin and I was taking some German lessons. I went to an ice cream shop and tried to order some in German.

Ich hätte gern zwei Kugeln Schokolade, bitte.

Then she said something I could not understand. I asked if she spoke English and the worst happened. She rolled her eyes and asked if I wanted on a plastic cup or on the biscuit cup.

After that, I was thinking to myself: Damn it, I can't even order some ice cream in German. How stupid am I?

But then I remembered another great lesson from my English teacher: when you try to speak to someone in their language, you're already accomplishing something remarkable. You're doing something they probably can't. That lady in the ice cream shop probably doesn't understand any Portuguese, yet I understand and speak some German. I can't let her bad attitude demotivate me.