Throughout my young years, a part of me always desired to learn languages other than my native language, Portuguese. I was curious to experience meeting people from other “tribes” other than my own. Perhaps, knowing other language would expand a world of opportunities or simply challenge my abilities. Language is not only a method of communication; it is also a process of cultivating friendship and exchanging cultures values.
I knew that in order for me to learn a language fluently, I had to spend at least a year living in that country. Since English is the most spoken language in the world, I chose to live in the United States, and call it my new home. When I arrived in America, I was excited. There was fear and joy in the back of my mind. To start with, I did not speak fluent English. I knew only what I learned in Elementary School and High School back in Brazil.
Days after my arrival, I became apprehensive just by thinking that people would judge my knowledge based on my accent or word pronunciation. I wanted to explain to people that I knew how to speak and carry on a solid conversation in Portuguese but not in English just yet.
Sometimes, I felt that when people were communicating with me, I was losing the thread of the conversation. I felt awful and disappointed with myself. Even though the best method to learn English was and still is to practice with a native of English, I also acquired the habit of reading anything that was written in English. For instance Orange County Register, Orange Coast magazine and People Magazine (which was great to learn slang by the way), or any other article that my roommate Dennis had on his living room table. I then, started watching the news and a TV series called Grey’s Anatomy in subtitles. Despite the fact that the show had a little too much of drama; it helped me improve my English grammar, rhythm, and sounds. In fact, I still watch it every now and then, but this time without subtitles.
About twenty days after I arrived in America, I signed up at an ESL school in Laguna Hills, CA. At school, the encouragement and feedback I received from my professor and my classmates helped me to understand what areas I had improved and what areas I had to work on. There, I started to make friends of all nationalities, in particular Romanians. We shared our stories about being in America, and sometimes we even gathered on the weekends and exchanged conversation about our culture back home. I then discovered that Romanian is also similar to Portuguese and it is part of the Romantic languages of Europe, a Latin-derived language related closely to Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French. Even though my Romanian friends and I grew up in different countries with different cultures; we had something in common: our Latin language. We are still friends, and to this day when we get together we all speak English or try to learn each other’s language.
Six months passed, my English improved even more. Therefore, I was now speaking in complete sentences without much of pausing or thinking. The words started to come out easier, and I understood more of it. Of course I had friends that sometimes did not understand my pronunciation. However, I could not focus on that too much, nor on my mistakes. I had to literally let myself be vulnerable, and I had to start thinking less of what people thought about me because language fluency is absolutely possible while making a ton of mistakes.
Additionally, I learned Spanish along the way when I got to meet friends from Mexico, Chile, Peru and Venezuela. We all gathered on my first Christmas here in America. My family was not here, so they became my family. It was a melting pot of dialects as each one of them spoke in their own different Spanish accent. They were more directed to the Latin American Spanish, than to the Castilian Spanish spoken in northern Spain. The Castilian accent is rough as opposed to the Latin American accent which sound more softly, making it easier to understand.
After nine months of being in America I started working at an animal hospital of internal medicine and critical care. At that point something changed; I felt more pressure than ever before because at school I was allowed to make mistakes and fix them, but at a work environment I was expected to speak and write fluently in English to the best of my knowledge without much of errors. I remember when a Labrador Retriever came in with an offensive strong odor that I could not figure out what it was. I asked my coworker Dilan, “What’s this smell?” He responded, “It’s the smell of skunk.” He added, “They are notorious for their smell when they spray, and they use it as a defense mechanism”. A few minutes later, another coworker named Emily came in the treatment room area. She noticed the smell of skunk, then I pointed to the dog and said, “It’s this dog, he was sprayed by a skank!” With a smile on her face she asked, “What did you say?” I did not repeat. I had a feeling that I pronounced it wrong, so I answered with a question: “What did you think I said?” She whispered, “You said skank and that’s a derogatory expression referring to a woman”. She continued with a smile, “I loved it, that was hilarious.”
One day, I was at work helping veterinarian Dr. Kim with an echocardiogram on a dog. When we finished the procedure I asked, “Everything else?”. He looked at me, stopped for a moment, and with a smile he asked, “You mean, anything else?” I responded, “Yes, that one.” We both laughed! Sometimes, I pronounce or spell words in English incorrectly. For instance: the word soap, I get confused with the word soup, leak with lick, sheep with ship, or pen with pan. Dr. Kim was born and raised in South Korea so, maybe my broken English brought him back to the days when he was leaning English as a second language.
My experience learning a second language reminds me of “Among Strangers” by novelist Jude Dibia, a narrative about his own life as a young boy who encountered the inability to speak his parents’ native language because he was not allowed to. I felt a strong connection. His remarks hit home as I compare my experience with his. What we had in common is the frustration of not understand a language or being misunderstood and lost in translation. In summary our experience prevented us the formation of attachment with people that we care.
I believe that, every barrier that I face while learning English or any other language will have a positive outcome. After all, I will survive. Quite frankly, what’s the worst that can happen if I mispronounce a word? Nothing. Some people may draw their own conclusion about me, but so what? No one in their right mind will think less of me for trying or because my pronunciation isn’t perfect all the time. That’s all worth it, because the feeling of exploring a new language, and culture is something that few things in life can match.