"Oi! Desculpe mas eu não falo muito Portuguese."
"Hello! I’m sorry but I do not speak very much Portuguese."
The warning… the quintessential experience of learning the native language of the country you’re staying in. It’s the covert apology that you are about to have a lost (what the heck are they saying) look on your face for a majority of the conversation.
When I was in Brazil for three months, I experienced the lost look combined with the nod and smile to pretend that I understood. While I had the advantage of staying with family that spoke English and hearing Portuguese while growing up, I didn’t understand the struggles and triumphs of full immersion into a culture until I tried to become fluent in the language. Full immersion isn’t like learning high school spanish. You can’t talk to your amigos about what’s on the test. The whole experience is an ongoing test. For me, it was an elaborate look at my ability to be vulnerable.
Learning a new language is by far one of the most humbling adventures to undertake. How can you be yourself without words? I felt like I lost who I was in conversations because I didn’t have the words to explain and show my spirit- that I am actually pretty funny and weird (in the best way of course). In a way I felt like a child, speaking in simple phrases, having to be spoken to in very slow over annunciated sentences, making up for what I lacked in vocabulary and grammar with gestures and pointing. This is where the experience served to show how immensely uncomfortable vulnerability can be. With so much frustration, I had to come to terms with my own limitations. I had to try to accept help from others with the knowledge that I didn’t have all of the answers. I had to quiet my shouting and bruised ego and give myself the opportunity to completely butcher sentences with the hopes that my efforts showed that I cared, that I wanted to learn, that I craved to connect with others in the way I could in English.
When I did join in conversation, I saw that most people could understand the essence of what I meant and they would rather see me try than blindly assume that they would conform to speaking English with me. I rediscovered simplicity and creativity in the way I spoke, finding new and different ways to explain myself. I found a sense of calm when I became a listener rather than filling the air with my point of view. I learned that what I couldn’t say, I could make up for in body language. The lost look slowly disappeared and my effort alone allowed me to connect more deeply with people that will have a piece of my heart forever. And for that, learning a new language will always be worth the struggle.