5 Lessons Learned While Learning a New Language: A Month in Lisbon

Santa Catarina Miradouro/Vista Point, Lisbon, Portugal

In April of 2016, I was given a full ride scholarship to take an Intensive Portuguese course in Lisbon for a month in summer through the Study in Portugal Network.

Filled with joy and confidence, I was so excited for the opportunity to start off my year abroad with an intensive language program, something that my study abroad program in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil wasn’t able to offer this year due to the Olympics.

With an entire semester (I know, so much time right?) of Advanced Portuguese for Spanish Speakers under my belt, I headed off to Portugal, ready to immerse myself in the language and feeling confident in my abilities.

Goodness, was in for a reality check.

After having flown over thirteen hours and having slept for almost none of it, I arrived to my new dormitory half dead, half asleep but 100% ready to practice the Portuguese I had so diligently studied.

I greeted the receptionist in Portuguese and we started the check-in process. The first question she asked me was my name. Simple enough, I thought. A total piece of cake. Feeling confident after receiving an “A” in my spoken skills, I proclaimed my name, “Gee-ana”, ready to engage in this conversation entirely in Portuguese.

The look on the lady’s face should have given me the clue that in Portugal, that was not my name.

“I’m sorry?” she responded in English.

“Gee-ana” I replied, insisting on the Portuguese pronunciation of my name.

She continued to contour her face in the “what the heck are you saying” kind of way that quickly made me say my name in English.

“Die-ana” I said this time.

“Oh, Dee-ana” she preceeded to say, finally understanding that no, I wasn’t crazy, I existed in their system. We continued the rest of the conversation in English with my confidence in the toilet.

It hadn’t quiet occured to me that the way my Portuguese-speaking friends would say my name was actually the Brazilian way of pronouncing my name. What else had I learned that was strictly Brazilian and would put me in more situations like this one?

This encounter was just the beginning of the struggle I faced learning Portuguese in Lisbon. Instead of hitting the ground running like I had planned, I hit the ground flat on my face. But I learned a lot while doing it. 🙂

These are some of the lessons I have learned while learning languages.

1. If you are visiting a country with a different accent than the one you are accustomed to, listen to that accent before visiting.

From the first day of Portuguese class in Berkeley, I had a good sense of what my Brazilian professor was saying to me because of my background in Spanish. That, unfornately, did not help me when I first arrived in Lisbon.

For the first two weeks, I didn’t understand hardly anything anyone was saying, except for the easily recognizable “OlĂĄ” and “Obrigado”. What became infinitely more apparent to me over the first few days in Lisbon was that Brazilians speak with their mouths more open than the Portuguese do. This made it so that I had to listen even more intently to people while they spoke to be able to even capture a few words of what they were saying.

Tip: Listen to accents from different parts of the world through songs or movies. I wish I would have listened to more European Portuguese music before going. It would have made the accent adjustment so much more smoother.

2. If you want to be immersed in a language, you may have to try harder than just moving to a country that speaks that language.

One thing that is great about Lisbon is that a high proportion of the population speaks English, which makes tourism easier.

One thing not so great about Lisbon is that a high proportion of the population speaks English, which makes it harder for Portuguese learners.

When I would speak, say, at a restaurant or at a grocery store, people automatically knew that I wasn’t a native speaker and would proceed to speak to me in English.This was done out of pure convenience for both parties, but that was not going to help me learn.

When this would occur (and it would occur all the time), I would continue speaking in Portuguese. Sometimes they would catch my drift and speak in Portuguese. Other times I would painfully stumble upon my words like I was stepping on a room full of Legos while they would respond to me with much ease in English.

I even had people talking to me in Spanish. At that point, I would just speak to them in Spanish because at least I was practicing one language.

Tip: If language learning is truly your goal, study in a less touristy city. In cities with a large tourist industry (and therefore English knowledgeable population), you’ll need to put in more effort to practice the language with locals. It’s easy to live in Lisbon not knowing a lick of Portuguese. It’s harder to live there if language acquisition is your goal.

3. Pay attention to people’s intentions when they correct you.

This one I learned in Spain actually. I arrived in Spain with a Spanish that is more accurately described as Chicano due to the heavy English influence on my way of speaking. I, of course, did not notice this until I threw myself into a region of Spain (Andalusia) where the concept of mixing two languages is not widely practiced.

That being said, there were things that I would say in Spanish that were more “Chicanismos” (English-influenced words and phrases Spanish speakers in the US use that aren’t Standard Spanish), like “loquear” for “lock”, that people would correct me for. I really appreciated this because my goal was to learn formal Spanish. However, there were times that I would say things in Mexican Spanish that people completely understood and were grammatically correct, but they would still insist on correcting me for Castilian Spanish.

This was fine, as of course, I wanted to expand my vocabulary and learn how different Spanish-speaking countries speak, however, sometimes the intent was not to teach me a new way of saying something but was instead, the intent was to patronize.

For instance, one of the ways to say “to drive a car” in Mexican Spanish is “manejar un carro”. I specifically recall an incident where I said this and the other person proceeded to laugh at my face for my way of speaking. They insisted on correcting my “Mexican way of speaking”. The “proper phrase”, they proceeded to explain, was “conducir un coche”.

That was not cool.

The problem here is that this person felt that their way of speaking was superior and that somehow, speaking “Mexican” was a lesser way to speak. This, of course, pissed me off, but I didn’t let incidences like this one get to me. Instead, I decided this person was not worth my energy.

Tip: Learn to differentiate between when someone is trying to correct you because you are grammatically wrong and when someone is insulting another country’s accent or way of speaking. People like that are not worth your time because no, there is no superior language or accent.

4. If you already know another foreign language and you’re learning your third one, and it has the same language roots as your first foreign language, you may (read: will) mix them up.

This one may be more apparent between Spanish and Portuguese because of how similar they are, not only for their Latin roots but for their structures and words.

Once I got used to Lisboeta accents, I started noticing that, at least to me, the Lisboeta accent sounded like they were speaking Spanish under their breath. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if they were speaking to me in Portuguese or in Spanish.

This made it easier for me to understand them but at the same time, it made it a billion times easier for me to mix up the two languages. I started to speak “Portunhol” and sometimes I couldn’t keep the languages straight.

Tip: Trust in your language abilities and know that down the road, you will be able to separate the languages more. This problem arises because you are relying too much on the first foreign language to help you with the new language. As you progress in your vocabulary and grammar, you’ll be able to differentiate the languages.

5. If you learn multiple accents, you will mix up the accents, which may cause some confusion. (This is a good thing in the long run.)

This lesson is most accurately captured by the first anecdote I mentioned, with the lady not understanding my name.

Having been to exposed to both Lisboeta and Brazilian accents, I inevitably started pronuncing things in both ways, sometimes in the same sentence. My Portuguese professor was quick to tell me that I needed to pick one accent or the other.

While his advice made complete sense (especially after my encounter with the check-in lady), because of my Spanglish-speaking childhood, I can’t help but to love mixing languages and accents. It’s in my blood.

Much how my Spanish is now a mix of the Mexican Spanish my family taught me and the Andalusian Spanish I picked up on while studying abroad in CĂłrdoba, my Portugese is now a mix between European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese.

I think there is a lot of beauty in learning the different twists, nuances and accents people from different regions speak a language. For me, it’s like I’m feeding my soul when I enrich my linguistic abilities. It’s even more fun learning how to navigate when to use certain phrases, with whom and in what regions.

Do I need to “coger el autobus” or “tomar el autobus”? Well, it depends on where you are. In Spain, the first phrase is normal. In Latin America, that phrase will inevitable spark some weird imagery in the other person’s mind and might even be offensive if you’re talking to, let’s say, an abuela (grandma).

Lisbon has certainly shaped my Portuguese, and I’m looking forward to see how Rio affects my way of speaking this language. 🙂

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