Millo's Musings

Portuguese in 10 Weeks - Conclusion

18 April 2017

Back in January, I declared that I was going to spend 10 weeks learning Brazilian Portuguese. I wasn’t a total beginner; I’d already picked up a bit of Portuguese from my girlfriend (and an ex-girlfriend who is also Brazilian), but I’d never had a formal lesson or made any real active attempt to learn the language. (I did already speak French and Spanish though, which is a big headstart.)

My goal was to get my verbal Portuguese skills up to B2 level, at the upper end of “conversational”. The 10 week deadline was actually over a month ago, but I’m only now getting around to writing up this post-script.

Shortly after my 10 weeks were up, I recorded this brief video with my girlfriend while we were out in a café. (I apologise for all the background noise.) I think it’s a pretty fair representation of my level.

By way of comparison, here’s the original video I recorded back in January to mark my starting point. Comparing the two should show you far I’ve come (and also how pathetically slow my beard grows.)

All in all, I’d say that I have a functional level of Portuguese. I can get by in day-to-day life in Brazil, which wasn’t true at all when I arrived.

However, I’m definitely not fluent, and it’s questionable whether I’m even really ‘conversational’. (My accent sucks too.) I’m not a B2, and I’ve failed in my goal.

What went wrong?

Truth be told, I realised pretty early on during the 10 weeks that I wasn’t going to succeed. I could make excuses and say it was because I didn’t have enough spare time for studying. But really, I could have found the time if I’d really wanted to. I just didn’t care enough.

In fact, since arriving in Brazil I can’t say I’ve put much active effort into Portuguese study at all. I mean “study” in the sense of “sitting down and actively working on learning the language”, i.e. studying grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc. directly. I have had a lot of practice, i.e. using the language in real-world conversations, but I could have done a lot more if I’d really cared about improving my level fast.

The real problem is that, as nice as it would have been to learn Portuguese lightning-fast and impress everybody with how smart I am, I just didn’t care enough. Dedicating a large amount of time to Portuguese means not dedicating a large amount of time to something else, and there are too many other things I’d rather be doing right now than learning yet another sodding language.

I would have hated to spend a long time in Brazil without learning any Portuguese. Take it from me: it sucks to live in an area where you don’t speak the local language. I know that most English-speaking expats live in anglophone exclaves and convince themselves that they’re getting along fine, but as someone who has experienced life on both sides of the fence many times, I can assure you that these monoglots are fooling themselves. That’s especially true in a country like Brazil where the level of English among the general populace is very low.

But then, given that I already knew some Portuguese and a lot of Spanish (I’d rate my Spanish as a comfortable B2, maybe a C1), it didn’t take long at all to reach the point where I could get by in Brazil and avoid the most frustrating aspects of the language barrier. Once I’d reached that point, my motivation dropped substantially.

I have no regrets. I’ve still really enjoyed my time in Brazil, and I’m sure that my level will continue to improve. Just because I didn’t spend much time studying Portuguese doesn’t mean that I didn’t put the time to good use.

There are some lessons to be learned here. First of all: goals are useless if they don’t motivate you. “Learn Portuguese in 10 Weeks” sounded nice on paper, but it wasn’t enough to change my behaviour. In the words of one of my favourite writers, Steve Pavlina:

The purpose of goal-setting isn’t to control the future. That would be senseless because the future only exists in your imagination. The only value in goal-setting is that it improves the quality of your present moment reality. Setting goals can give you greater clarity and focus right now. Whenever you set a goal, always ask yourself, “How does setting this goal improve my present reality?” If a goal does not improve your present reality, then the goal is pointless, and you may as well dump it. But if the goal brings greater clarity, focus, and motivation to your life whenever you think about it, it’s a keeper.

I also just read Scott Adams’s excellent book How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big, in which he argues (among many other things - read the book, it’s great) that goal-setting is a crappy strategy, and it’s much more effective to focus on building systems (consistent and regular activities that you do now) rather than pursuing goals (nebulous far-away targets that you might achieve some day.) I think he’s right, and I’ll be applying this advice heavily in my future language-learning (and other) endeavours.

Secondly, there’s nothing wrong with learning things slowly. I know that the Internet is full of chest-thumping self-proclaimed gurus who describe every single action they take as a “hack” and insist that nothing is an achievement unless it’s done in 30 days or your money back, but at the end of the day, no-one cares how fast you learned a particular skill. The only thing anyone cares about is what your skill does for them.

When people find out how “fast” I learned something like Spanish or German, they might make a brief comment about how impressed they are, but it never has any bearing whatsoever on their overall opinion of me. After all, of the people I know who speak English as a second language, what difference does it make to me whether they “hacked” the process and learned it fast? What matters is what they have to say, not how long it took them to learn how to say it.

I’m in it for the long haul with Portuguese. I plan on returning to Brazil many times and speaking this language for the rest of my life. Is it really such a disaster if fluency takes me 2 years of slow build-up, rather than sprinting to the finish line within 3 months (and neglecting more important areas of my life in the meantime)? It’s not like language-learning is an all-or-nothing thing. I’ll worry later about the finer points of the use of the future passive subjunctive in 19th-Century Brazilian literature. For now I care about making friends in Brazil, not getting ripped off with gringo prices when I go shopping, and trying not to make a completely terrible impression on my girlfriend’s parents.

That doesn’t mean the “hacks” are useless. Far from it, and I could talk all day about all the tricks and shortcuts I’ve picked up in my last 4-5 years of language nerdery. Whether you’re studying a language for four hours a week or forty, that stuff can still knock huge amounts of time off your total. (See my previous post for some brief pointers.)

Our entire educational system is an outdated relic, a horse-drawn carriage in an age of space exploration and faster-than-sound aviation. Nowhere is this more true than in language learning, a field of human endeavour in which we truly still live in the Stone Age. Most Brits study a foreign language (usually French) for five to ten years in school, and come out of it at the end barely able to string a French sentence together. And believe it or not, we’re one of the better countries when it comes to language education in schools. Ask a Brazilian how much they learned in the 10+ years of English lessons they had as a child. They’ll look at you blankly and say “qué?”, because their English probably isn’t even good enough to understand the question.

Imagine if every major country had compulsory military service, and was spending a fortune putting young people through five to ten years of marksmanship training and firearms drills - and on the eve of battle, it’s discovered that 80% of the soldiers don’t even know which end of the gun they’re supposed to point at the enemy. This is the current state of language education.

Anyway, I actually left Brazil a few days ago, but I’ll be back at some point in June. I’m sure that my Portuguese will continue to improve throughout this year. It might happen very slowly, but I’m fine with that.

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