I can’t quite recall why, but I started taking English classes back in Brazil when I was only 6 years old. The English school was a 2-minute walk from my apartment building and I loved, loved, loved going there. I still remember one day when the English teacher said that we would be reading and interpreting the lyrics to “The Time of My Life”. Yes, that song from Dirty Dancing! I was so thrilled! I loved that song so much and could not believe I would actually get to learn lyrics. If you grew up before the Internet was invented, you understand and appreciate how truly excited I was. See, back then, you couldn’t just Google something and have it magically appear on your computer/phone screen. Heck, we didn’t even have personal computers when I was little. Or cell phones. I actually kind of miss those days sometimes … life was, in many ways, simpler then.
So back to learning English. I took formal English classes from age 6 until about age 13. After 7 years of going to class twice a week, I got a certificate that said I had “graduated”. I still took English in high school, because it was mandatory, but by then, I already knew how to speak it fluently. Or so I thought.
This is no joke: at 13, I really thought that I was fluent in English, and I guess compared to most of my friends and family, I kind of was. So imagine my surprise when I arrived in “the south” 5 years later (see my previous post for reference to “the south”) and could only understand about 50% of what people were saying. No, actually I think it was closer to 35%. Yep, I could barely understand when people talked to me. After all those years of hard work and memorizing many song lyrics, what I thought was my second language was nothing more than just a foreign language.
Now, it is true that people talk a little differently in the south. Words roll into each other, you all is pronounced y’all, and “I am fixing to…” does not mean that you are going to repair something. But even though I knew I was surrounded by a hard-to-decipher southern accent, I was very shocked to discover that I still had a lot to learn. My vocabulary was very limited and what I thought was the proper way of structuring sentences sounded almost silly when spoken out loud. Not to mention the prepositions and my inability to use them correctly. On, off, in, out, into, onto, at, under, underneath… WHAT? I give up! Or is it give in? And then, of course, you have those words that, to us Brazilians, can be very tricky to pronounce sometimes: beach vs. b!tch. Sheet vs. sh!t. Liter vs. litter, among others.
Sometimes I laugh out loud when I think about the many times that I pronounced words incorrectly. One time I went to a Ben and Jerry’s and decided to order a pint of ice cream: “May I please have a pint of the chocolate peanut butter ice cream?” Sounds just fine, right? Well, not really. The problem is that I pronounced “pint” the same way you say “mint”, just with a p instead of an m. The guy behind the counter had a blank look on his face and it finally hit him. “Oh, you mean pint“. My face turned red instantly and my first instinct was to run out the door when he turned around to get the darn pint. But I didn’t. I just decided to never go back there again, which sucked because it was within walking distance from my house. Then later I found out (the hard way) that he also worked at the used CD store, which was, of course, within walking distance from my house as well. It was time to move…
So after many other similar situations, I eventually learned English (for real this time) and, more importantly, got used to the infamous southern accent. Just like with everything else, it takes practice – a lot of practice – to learn and be fluent in a second language. I am going through a somewhat similar situation now with my daughter. She was born in the U.S. and her dad is American, so we speak English in the house. I have, however, been talking to her in Portuguese since she was born, so she understands basically everything I say in my native language. The hard part for her is speaking it, because she is not exposed to it anywhere else, unless we travel to Rio. But our time in Brazil is always so limited that it is not enough for it to stick. So I am working on that now, teaching my daughter Portuguese – or “Por-cue-jeez”, as she says it. And let me tell you, it has been a process. I often wonder if she will ever speak it, and get frustrated by the idea that she may not. But then I remind myself that she is only 5. I was a year older than her when I started learning English, so there is no need to push her too hard. Otherwise she may not want to learn it and that is definitely not what I want. So for now, my plan is to try to make it fun, make it natural, incorporate it into every day play, and one day I am sure we will be telling each other jokes and secrets in Portuguese and driving my husband louco!