My adventure of becoming fluent in English

During one of his classes at Berkeley, the Argentinian writer Cortázar was asked if he wrote in another language besides Spanish. Since he had lived in France, the question was pertinent. Not surprisingly, Cortázar answered by stating that the Spanish language was too precious to be put aside. And now comes the interesting part: he not only emphasized the importance of his native language, but also criticized the immigrants (not all immigrants) who decided to adopt the languages spoken in the countries where they had moved to, instead of preserving their linguistic and literary heritage. His standpoint was simple: with some exceptions, a native speaker of Spanish would never become perfect at speaking or writing in any other language. Despite giving the example of the poor immigrants who would arrive in France to learn a somewhat hybrid language, which consisted in a mix between Spanish and French, Cortázar wasn’t criticizing the masses, the unfortunate creatures who had to leave everything behind in order to survive. He was pointing the finger to (aspiring) writers who dreamt about becoming the new Nabokov, i.e. the foreigner who adopted English as his first language.

When I moved to a non-Portuguese speaking country, language was one of my main concerns. Not that I was afraid of using the English language. What I feared was losing my Portuguese identity. I wasted days and weeks wandering if I would ever be good enough to write fiction in English, if the effort to reinvent myself was an imperative in my life or just an escape from this meaningless existence. Problems like these only existed because I always wanted to live ahead of time. My dream is the future, the time to come. But learning a language is a slow process that requires patience and dedication. During my first weeks in the United States, I was more than happy to be able to communicate in my daily life without making (many) mistakes. Still, even to order food at restaurants I would be ashamed. And because I was ashamed, I would make mistakes. Every time I opened my mouth, I felt like an exotic animal brought from the jungle to be reeducated. Two or three months after arriving in the United States, I realized I wasn’t good enough — and the feeling of never being good enough is what you have when you are a creature driven by a mix of high expectations and impatience. I was speaking without the necessary confidence. I was making mistakes due to an obsession to be perfect, a tendency to overthink was killing my speaking skills. If someone corrected me, I would block and feel inferior. The reasons for all my embarrassment can be easily summed up: in my mind, I had to be nothing less than a Shakespeare.

After numerous moments of anguish and failure, in which never becoming a native English speaking person seemed to be a certainty, I finally accepted that there are no magical solutions when it comes to learning a new language. This process of acceptance was particularly difficult due to my circumstances. I had moved to a different country and needed to find jobs, needed to go to job interviews. I needed to become American. Now that I meditate upon this subject, I could argue that mastering the new language goes beyond the intellectual sphere. In my case, being fluent in English was a way out of poverty, an escape from the past. Aside from the financial aspects of immigration, it has to be noted that without the English language, my ambitions would have been smaller. My favorite films are American. Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson and Carver figure among my heroes. I spent my childhood dreaming about visiting and living in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and California — places where someone like me, a depressed kid from the countryside, could find happiness and peace. That is to say that learning English and coming to the United States was part of my destiny. Going through this journey of reinventing myself was something that some divine or cosmical god planned for me decades ago. Thus, instead of ending this text with a sad note, or a depressive ramble on immigration, I would like to conclude by saying that living our dreams his harder than we have ever thought. Learning English isn’t the most difficult part of the story. Meeting new people is easy. The problem is becoming another person.

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