Etiene learns stuff: I — English

Etiene Dalcol
Feb 2, 2018 · 6 min read

I’m a language lover and very often friends ask me what is my procedure for learning them. I’m also just passionate about this subject in general, so I decided to write a series of posts on my language adventures.

Act I: Portuguese

Portuguese is my native language. I always hated studying it at school. I disliked learning about “oração subordinada substantiva objetiva direta” (direct subordinate clause?). It’s maybe unfortunate that I didn’t like it much as a kid, but I don’t feel that posed any issues to me as an adult. I liked reading very much, and I’ve always read a lot, specially as a teen. I also happen to quite like my language. I think it sounds very pretty. We say the south of Brazil speaks singing, as in they’re the opposite of monotone. Portuguese sounds so lovely in music. I miss speaking it and I try to speak Portuguese whenever I have the opportunity. I feel really connected to my mother tongue, we have the best memes of all the internet.

Act II: English

I had contact with English since I was born also through music that came mainly from the United States. I did not understand any of it, but I guess that was the first time I heard English. You may think just hearing a language doesn’t mean anything, but it can have quite an impact. I don’t even know what Tupi-Guarani (one of the languages spoken by Brazilian natives) sound like and I wouldn’t be able to recognise it if I overheard it on the street, which I think is very unfortunate. Later I got access to English on a period where we had cable TV, which offered subtitled movies. Then video game. I didn’t understand it either. But some games were in English while having very little text, like Mario Bros or Duck Hunt. I also had an older brother who had done English classes, so he had some textbooks and cassette tapes at home. The first time I fiddled with that was because I was bored at home. I must’ve been 8–10 or something? I mean, I didn’t have any friends, my mom was watching some telenovela, I’m not a sportsy person, never was, I did not have cool toys, I mean, I had the old NES (nintendinho) inherited from a cousin when PS was already a thing.

At 12 we started having English classes at school and at the same time my parents put me in a supplementary English class after school. Official school English is really not good back at home, and if you rely on that you’re not gonna be speaking. There is recognition that English is very good for your career though, which is something that my parents knew. By 13 I started to watch some series in English with and without subtitles (Friends). At 15 I met a French boy online, through a game called Ragnarok Online. He was also practicing his English. We became online friends, than more than friends, then broke up shortly after. Turns out he was a dick, but I learned a lot with him. By the time I was 18 I was already speaking very good English and was looking for which language to learn next.

Knowing English was fundamental for my career. I ended up going to Software Engineering and all the best documentation, tutorials etc. were in English. I built my first website using marquee and colourful scroll bars for IE5 thanks to that. Once in university, even though lectures were in Portuguese, lots of books were in English and I was glad I was comfortable with it.

I’ll talk about other languages in future posts, so there’s a big time gap here until I got my first job in an English speaking team. I got an internship in Berlin as a Data Engineer in a very international company and although I was the only non-German in my team, English was used 100% of the time. Because nobody was a native though, the conversations were always very straight to the point with idiomatic expressions almost never being used, and everyone being very understanding when you don’t know how to say a specific thing. My English skills improved so much on the 6 months I was there but I was still quite shocked with my next step after that.

When I graduated, I interviewed with a company in the UK. When I finished my first phone call, I was certain I would be rejected because I think I understood roughly 50% of what the interviewer said. I had to ask her to repeat herself so often and I left feeling incredibly ashamed. Turns out the interview went well, and as I moved on, I was really happy that my next interviewer was Polish and not British. Living in the UK now, I realised nobody understands anyone anyway, specially if they’re Scottish, and it’s all fine. The variety of accents is so big that people are already used to that and they’re really polite and understanding if you ask them to repeat. So my first advice to anyone learning English and being demoralised by how hard it is to understand certain accents is: know that this is fine and even natives struggle with that.

Tools and and tips:

When I was learning English, technology wasn’t what it is today, but many of the things I used at the time still apply. So here goes a series of advices:

  • Hear the language. Be used to the way it sounds, even if you don’t understand things yet. This will greatly improve your pronunciation on the future, and is particularly important for languages like English where the pronunciation is extremely inconsistent.
  • Study the formalities of the grammar. I understand this can be a boring aspect, but even though I hated studying Portuguese grammar, I found that studying another language’s grammar was a different thing and actually very enjoyable. When you put it in the context of the differences between the language you are learning and your native one, it can be very fascinating to see how different parts of the world can structure things so differently.
  • Find a training buddy. Particularly someone who is learning too. Normally people would try to speak with natives, but I don’t encourage that unless you’re at an advanced level already. Understanding natives is way harder, they speak very fast, and in the end it is not very useful if you don’t feel comfortable with chatting for a long time or feel frustrated.
  • Watch TV shows with and without subtitles. Find a series you want to watch anyway, then find it in your target language. It’s okay to need subtitles in the beginning, but try to turn them off as quick as possible. I prefer series than movies, because series are longer and you get used to the main theme and characters voices, so things get easier to understand, which is more valuable for learning.

Part II of this series is about French and can be found here:


Software Engineering, Feminism, Politics and Language