When I was a child my dad would tell me a story about a Swiss man who went to the Azores back in the 70’s without knowing any Portuguese. With him he brought a tape recorder, notebook and dictionary. My dad explained how difficult it was in the beginning for him to communicate basic needs and wants. Day after day he would record his interactions, look up words and phrases he didn’t understand and write them down in his notebook. It took some time and a lot of patience but after the first month he was making small conversation. After three months he felt comfortable in familiar social situations. By six months he was fluent in the Portuguese language all because he immersed himself and was determined to learn.
I’ve always kept that story with me because not only did I find it inspiring and encouraging but when I went to the Azores for the first time four years ago I could relate to it. Since then my Portuguese is relatively good however I’m still not what I consider to be fluent. Right now I’m on the cusp. Certain situations I do fine in, others not so much. I still trouble over verb conjugation and telling well described stories. I can get anywhere I need to be so that’s comforting, but when it comes to group talk, talking among friends, joking around, teasing, flirting, metaphorical language I’m not quite where I want to be, yet.
Let me bring you back to how I first started learning Portuguese and how it’s progressed to where I am now.
Freshman year of high school my Portuguese teacher Senhor Agosto made learning a second language fun for the first time. He was unorthodox, exciting, and expressive. I did well in his class but I could never actually speak Portuguese. It was more conceptual learning than contextual. Unfortunately when I moved to Florida they didn’t teach Portuguese in the public school system so it ended there until after I graduated high school.
I arrived in the Azores with the goal to become fluent in Portuguese. With me, I brought my notebook, my Portuguese binder from Freshman year, and my phone. I used google translate, Duolingo, and changed the settings on my phone to Portuguese. I watched cartoons, the news, and telenovelas with my avo. I walked to the local cafes and ordered coffee. I wrote down words and phrases I kept hearing and made charts of the different verb tenses which were among my many frustrations.
My biggest frustration was not being able to express simple ideas. I kept repeating the same basic statements and questions all day everyday. I would stick to greetings, introducing myself and where I’m from, how old I was and the reason I came to the Azores. After about a month of absorbing the language, and pure repetition I had my first (broken) conversation with a group of kids a little younger than me. Two of them spoke better English than my Portuguese so naturally we would switch to English when I had trouble. I wrote down in my journal that day how excited and satisfied I felt after taking part in small conversation.
There were days where I felt completely out of the loop. I couldn’t recall words, conjugate verbs or understand anything being said to me. At the same time however, there were days where I didn’t even have to translate my thoughts from English to Portuguese, words just flowed out of me without needing to think about how to say it properly. Those were the days that kept me going, that kept me motivated to learn as much Portuguese as possible.
In total I spent six months in the Azores, from November to May. By the time I got back to Florida I could have conversations with my dad in Portuguese. I still had trouble but I actually felt like my Portuguese was even better than what it was when I was abroad. The saying goes if you don’t use it you lose it. At home it wasn’t practical to speak Portuguese. I spoke it every now and then but not consistently enough to feel confident and further my learning.
The next summer my entire family went to the Azores. I remember being extremely rusty. I couldn’t follow conversations and had trouble forming sentences of my own. By the end of the vacation I was in a good place with my Portuguese but yet again, if you don’t use it, you loose it. From time to time I would listen to my favourite songs, use the language learning app Tandem to write to pen pals, and brush up on vocabulary using Duolingo.
Now that I’m in the Azores for the third time in four years I’m both committed and determined to become fluent in Portuguese. I arrived June 11th and today is July 3rd. As I approach the one month mark I can say I’m happy with my progress, but I’m still not where I want to be. One of the new things I’ve been doing is watching Portuguese vloggers, and content creators on Youtube. I’ve also been listening to standup comedy, and various podcasts.
You know, theres one part of me who’s calm, patient, and looking at the bigger picture. I know I’ll eventually reach my goal, but there’s that other part of me who’s clenching his jaw and nodding his head to how frustrating it is to learn and master the Portuguese language. I suppose that’s all part of the process though.
Thank you guys for reading all the way through. Any tips, recommended resources, or feedback would be greatly appreciated! Don’t be shy and leave a comment down below so we can chat.